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Remembering Tiffany Berry

Vigil mourns transgender victims of hate crimes.

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Casey Lanham, a female-to-male transsexual in a black vest and button-down dress shirt, stands at a podium in front of about 50 people at the First Unitarian Church of the River. Slowly, he reads from a list of over 300 names.

"Fitzroy 'Jamaica' Green ... Jessy Santiago ... Monique Rodgers ... Venus Xtravaganza ...." The list goes on, and the crowd sits in quiet reverence. Some bow their heads, staring at the unlit white candle in their hands. A few minutes later, another female-to-male transsexual walks down the aisle and begins lighting the candles.

If it weren't for the occasional name like "Precious" or "Cinnamon," Lanham could easily be reading from a list of Iraq's war dead. But these people -- transgender men and women killed in hate crimes between 1970 and 2006 -- died in a war at home.

November 20th was the National Transgender Day of Remembrance, and this was Memphis' first candlelight vigil honoring people who have died as a result of transgender prejudice.

"This event's most important function is to publicly mourn and acknowledge these people," says the 19-year-old Lanham, who began identifying himself as a male at age 11. "It also serves to make people aware that it is a problem."

The names Lanham reads have been recorded through transgender activist Gwen Smith's Web site Gender.org. Smith started the Day of Remembrance in 1999 in San Francisco. Out of the 300 victims, over 150 of them have been killed in the past decade. Since 1989, at least one transgender death has been reported through the media every month. Many more go unreported.

There are 10 transgender deaths on record in Tennessee; four of those occurred in Memphis. One of the names on Lanham's list -- Tiffany Berry (aka Ray Berry) -- was murdered earlier this year.

In February, Berry, a 21-year-old male-to-female transsexual, was gunned down after stepping out of her front door at the Camelot Manor Apartments in South Memphis. The Memphis Police Department (MPD) originally thought the death was a robbery, but nothing was missing from Berry's purse or apartment.

Lieutenant Toney Armstrong with MPD's homicide division says an arrest has been made in the case, but the police don't have enough evidence to declare the murder a hate crime.

"Transgender people or people who look transgender are the ones out there on the front lines," says Heidi Levitt, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis. At the ceremony, Levitt discusses the sacrifice transgender people make daily for the greater acceptance of all gay people. Since they're visibly gay, they tend to take the brunt of anti-gay violence.

Perpetual Transition, the support group that hosted the event, hopes to make the vigil an annual Memphis event. "We must make ourselves known in homes, schools, churches, and businesses," says the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center's Cole Bradley from the podium. "We must do this until the next GLBT gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender] leaders speak of hate crimes in the past tense."

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