Reflections on Remembrance

By Hicks on December 12, 2011 in AmeriCorps

Lance Hicksby Lance Hicks

On Friday, November 18, I joined members of AmeriCorps AIDS United Team Detroit in service at the Metro Detroit Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil. The ceremony was held at Central United Methodist church, in the heart of the city. The annual event was conceived as a means of honoring the many transgender people who have been murdered due to transphobia—fear or hatred of trans people and those perceived to be trans.

In so many ways, the event was familiar for me—as a transgender person who’s been locally active since my teens, I’ve been attending TDOR memorials for years. On the night of the vigil, I experienced a lot of things I expected—familiar faces shone from all corners of the cavernous church sanctuary where Martin Luther King, Jr. himself once spoke. Throughout the night, I embraced countless friends and mentors—people who had once supported and guided me not only though the many tumults of adolescence, but also through the process of my own transition to gender authenticity. I paid my respects, as one by one, the names of transgender people were read, music performed, and speeches given.

Despite its familiar feel, this year’s Day of Remembrance wasn’t the same as always. Only weeks before the vigil took place, a local transgender young woman, Shelley Hilliard, was declared missing. Her dismembered and mutilated body was discovered shortly after, along the side of a major freeway. Since Shelley was young, transgender, African American, and involved in the commercial sex industry, her death was bitterly unremarkable. Transgender people—especially women, people of color, and sex workers—encounter extreme risk in daily life. Take a minute to scroll through the names on the Remembering Our Dead website ( ), where transgender people who have been murdered due to hate are honored and acknowledged, and you’ll notice the patterns. What made Shelley’s death significant in our community, at this time, was the fact that so many of us knew and loved her. For us, Shelley wasn’t a statistic—she was our friend, and our neighbor.

In the few short days following revelations regarding what happened to Shelley, and the TDOR event, committee members reached out to Shelley’s mother, Lyniece Nelson. I’ll admit, when I first heard of plans to honor Shelley in the Day of Remembrance ceremony, I was concerned. I knew that Shelley’s loss was a devastation to the community, and that her memory deserved our respect; but I was worried that the time was too soon, and feelings too raw.

All my concerns subsided, at the Vigil. With incredible strength, Mz. Nelson rose to the head of our gathering,  just days after identifying the body of her daughter, and she spoke with love and determination about the injustice our whole community had suffered—and more importantly—about the struggle we each inherit, to create a safer world for everyone. At the end of her speech, Mz. Nelson shared in embrace with Sylvia Gurrera—the mother of slain transgender teen Gwen Arujo. Mz. Gurrera had arranged to keynote the event well in advance, and the timely meeting of the two mothers was more than just poignant: it was rousing. The strength of these mothers, in the face of such great loss, was inspiring—a memory I won’t forget any time soon.

Memorable as these moments were, what truly caught me off guard was the feeling of solidarity, respect, and true dedication I could feel, as I stood alongside members of my team. In my first few years as a trans activist, I’ve become accustomed to the shared commitment of other transgender people to create a more socially just world for people of all genders. But attending the Day of Remembrance vigil as part of Team Detroit was the first time in my memory that I felt truly allied with people outside the trans community, in continuing that struggle.

For me, this feeling confirmed what I’ve heard so many times before—by AIDS United representatives at pre-service, our city supervisor and team coordinator during the hiring process, and alumni who excitedly urged me to apply for the program, when I first mentioned my interest. A true dedication, passion, and commitment to the work we do is what defines an AmeriCorps member. For people involved in this journey of learning and of service, the commitment we make to stand beside community members across the country, in struggle for a better world, is genuine, and is something we carry throughout our lives. Hearing these words from others inspired me; but feeling their truth for myself was nothing short of humbling.

With the Day of Remembrance behind us, now, I’m excited for times ahead. I know that the challenge of working for HIV/AIDS prevention in Detroit won’t be easy. I’m not daunted, though. I’m energized and emboldened by the dedication of my teammates, and determined to make this year count.

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