11/20/2012 10:08 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Transgender Day of Remembrance: Becoming a Worthy Ally

It was early morning in Washington, D.C. I got to my desk shortly after 6 a.m. in order to plow through an avalanche of emails. At the time I worked at the Human Rights Campaign as National Field Director. As I scrolled through my inbox prioritizing, I was surprised to see a note from an attorney in Oregon. She was someone I had known for a number of years, a successful trans woman. I had not heard from her in some time. Her emails were rare. For this writing I will call her Elizabeth.

I opened up the message and almost immediately understood that I was reading a suicide note. She spoke of her loneliness and her despair. She spoke of the extraordinary difficulties of living as a prominent attorney who also presented as an outspoken trans activist. She finished with language that indicated a clear intent to end her life.

For a moment I just absorbed the pain, the anguish of her words. It was the mid-90s. "LGBT" was supposed to mean "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender," but most conversations, most anti-discrimination guidelines in the workplace and most proposed legislation simply did not include the "T." It was often a politically correct afterthought. Elizabeth was a smart woman; she knew how transgender individuals were often underrepresented. She lived that and could live it no longer. I realized that she was saying goodbye to me and to the others who were also sent the note.

It was 6 in the morning on the East Coast. Her note was sent a little before 3 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. She was still alive. She had sent this to a handful of friends and colleagues. That would give her time to do what she intended to do, plenty of time before people got to their morning emails. Except me. I read this as dawn broke on the nation's capitol. I could stop her.

I immediately called a mutual friend. It was 3 a.m. her time. I woke her with a hysterical greeting: "Elizabeth is going to kill herself. She hasn't done it yet. We need to stop her." My friend kept me on her home phone as she called the police on her cell. Their response was swift. The Portland Police Bureau got to Elizabeth's home very quickly. They rang her bell. No answer. They tried to call her. No answer. And so they broke in, hoping to stop a suicide attempt. No one was home.

I sat in my office in D.C., still on the phone with our friend, who was still on the call with the police. Where could Elizabeth be in the middle of the night? Where would she go to end her life? Where else but where she spent most of her time, where she was successful and accomplished and where she practiced law! We stayed with the police by phone as they drove toward her office building. We kept consoling ourselves with the knowledge that she might still be alive, that she had no idea that her missive had been read and responded to. We could get to her in time.

The police finally reached her law office. No one answered officers' calls. They got to the front door of the building. As the door opened a single gunshot rang out through the corridors. Then silence. We had missed her by seconds.

Elizabeth died of a gunshot wound to the head. Self-inflicted. Suicide.

On this Transgender Day of Remembrance, I am filled with anger, guilt and sorrow. Trans women and men have been hunted down and hurt, murdered and forced into hopelessness. I need to remember those we have lost with dignity and respect. I need to do what I can to make sure that they are never an afterthought in my circles, my work or my world. I need to be an ally.

I also need to remember to celebrate the trans individuals who have, against all odds, become who they need to be, women and men who have found their place in the world and have thrived. I think of my friend Dakota, whom I have known and loved for years before his transition. He recently married his beautiful wife and completed his doctorate. I think of Lori, who spends time with her grandchildren and is currently retiring to keep company with a man who loves her. I remember so many others, the ordinary and extraordinary women and men who had the courage to find their way.

As LGBT activists, let's stop marginalizing our own. I suggest that we stop for a moment and ask our trans friends how we can best be allies. This is just some of what I have heard:

  • "Gender identity and expression" should be included with other protected categories in our nondiscrimination legislation.
  • "Gender identity and expression" should be included in hate crimes laws.
  • "Gender identity and expression" should be included in safe-schools acts.
  • The process for updating birth certificates to reflect gender change should be streamlined.
  • Discriminatory voter ID laws should be opposed.
  • Military service by openly transgender individuals should be allowed, and transgender veterans should be granted their earned service benefits.

And what I hear again and again is this: When we start deciding how to work on trans issues, let's make sure that there are trans people in the room. That's pretty simple, isn't it?

I couldn't get to Elizabeth in time. I am haunted by that failure. However, I can do whatever possible to be a meaningful and worthy ally.

Here at One Iowa we're working every day to ensure that the Elizabeths and the Dakotas and the Loris of the world don't go unnoticed. We are reaching out to our trans sisters and brothers in the Midwest and making sure that they know that they are welcome. We invite our trans friends into our office to have conversations with them, and to hear their stories. In Iowa we want our trans neighbors to know that they are welcome and that we are here for them no matter what.

Blessings on this day to our trans sisters and brothers.