Angie Zapata had the eyes of an angel. To look at pictures of her are to see beautiful, deep, soulful eyes that speak in ways that transcend words. They speak of a difficult life, but also of a sense of deep inner peace that belie her young 18 years of life. They reach off of the page as if to invite you to be her friend. And it's hard not to want to take her up on her offer.
Angie was brutally murdered last month - her battered body was discovered in her apartment on July 17. As subsequent investigation would reveal she was murdered by 31 year-old Allen Andrade, someone she met online, after he discovered her unique situation. After his arrest he explained to police that he beat her in the head and face with his fists, and then with a fire extinguisher. Most chilling, perhaps, is when he explained that he thought he had killed "it", but she tried to sit up and started making gurgling sounds. So, he hit her again. She stopped for good.
Hate crimes against the transgender community are certainly nothing new. Many of us remain easy targets for predators whose discomfort and hate becomes so overwhelming that it leads to violence. Almost always these attacks are exceedingly violent and brutal, demonstrating the extraordinary level of rage and fury involved. Hate crimes are not simply crimes against one person - they are done in such a way as to intimidate and send a message an entire group of people. As transgender people become more and more visible in society, these horrific attacks are on the increase.
I have always found it sad that the only event that is anything near universally observed by the transgender community is the Day of Remembrance - a day in November each year when we come together to remember those of us who have been murdered. Each year there is no lack of victims, and some become numb to the list of names that gets read as simply faceless victims. Still, coming together to honor our dead strengthens us as a community, and energizes our resolve to make the world safer for future generations.
Sometimes, though, we have an opportunity to experience these losses in a very profound, personal way. We have opportunities to share in the grief of a family who has recently lost a loved one - a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister. We have opportunities to come together to both grieve, to support each other, and to remind one another that we are part of a broader extended family. Those who participate in these things will often find themselves permanently changed. That's how deeply they affect me.
On Saturday evening, August 9, a group of over 200 of us came together in Greeley, CO for an evening of celebrating Angie Zapata's life. And, less than a week after she would have turned nineteen, we grieved her death. We were a collection of young and old, trans and ally, local and visitor. We represented a number of organizations who have been involved in the investigation and in supporting the family, and we came as simply ourselves - representing nothing more than our own heartfelt sadness and needing to do something.
And, of course, there was the Zapata family. They were easy to spot in white T-shirts with Angie's photograph on it - her angel eyes buring brightly as though she was still with them. She had several young nieces and nephews who played, oblivious to the reason that we were all there together. She had immediate and extended family, and a group of friends. And her sister and mother were there. All were amazing.
The family gathered on the stage and Angie's sister read a statement and a poem. Many of us cried right along with them as they finished. Speaker after speaker spoke of the need to overcome hate, of the need to speak out against the dehumanizing efforts that lead to these kinds of tragedies. One speaker reminded the group, "Angie wasn't murdered because she was transgender. She was murdered because of someone else's transgender biases and discomforts."
I was the last speaker, and although I had prepared a statement I folded it and did what makes me most comfortable - I said what I felt and I spoke from the heart. I reminded the crowd that Angie never asked to be a martyr, or a symbol, or a statistic. It is up to all of us to keep her memory alive and to ensure that she remains more than all those things. I thanked the Zapata family for sharing their daughter with us, and assured them that her spirit lives in us all. Her memory and ler legacy will burn as brightly as her beautiful eyes - and we will embody her young, innocent spirit as we go forth in our own lives.
We lit candles and held them high in her memory - I get goose-bumps thinking about it as I write this - as her favorite song played. We shared tears. We shared some laughs. And, as a group, we were part of something special.
It would be easy to write about the need to punish the animal who did this to Angie, or for Federal Hate Crime protections, or to find deeper blame for what has happened. There will be a time and a place for those conversations. Last night, however, was an opportunity to celebrate a life that was snuffed out way before her time. It was to celebrate a family that embodied acceptance and unconditional love. And it was the spirit of community that brought us together.
Words cannot begin to adequately explain or express what many of us felt. Perhaps these photographs will help.
Angie Zapata Vigil - Greeley, CO - Aug. 9, 2008
This is the second time I've been involved in something like this. I hope it will be my last. However I'm not naive enough to believe that the world has somehow gotten safer for people who are different, or who challenge sex/gender/sexuality stereotypes. But those of us there last night have renewed dedication to make sure we do our part to get there.