Colorado Springs late on Nov. 19 was shook with a tragedy at an LGBTQ night club called Club Q, where 26 patrons were injured, five were killed — two of whom were transgender — and countless others were left traumatized.
The shock of the violence reverberated across the LGBTQ community. In Lewis County, residents were already planning a vigil the following day in honor of the Trandgender Day of Remembrance, a memorialization of those who have been victims of transphobic attacks and hate crimes. Just over a year ago now, local LGBTQ activist and transgender woman Rikkey Outumuro was murdered in Centralia.
In 2020, the Humans Rights Campaign and other advocacy groups reported over 200 cases of fatal, anti-transgender violence since 2013. In recent years, case numbers continued to grow, according to the campaign, and disproportionately affected transgender women of color, such as Outumoro.
Sunday’s event was held by the Lewis County Dignity Guild and Rural Youth Alliance, local advocacy groups that focus especially on the LGBTQ population. The Transgender Day of Rememberance is an annual vigil meant to honor and mourn those whose lives have been lost to violence and suicide, according to a joint statement from those organizations. Residents, elected officials and community leaders joined the event, including Lewis County Commissioner Lindsey Pollock, Centralia Mayor Kelly Smith Johnston, Centralia City Councilor Elizabeth Cameron, Chehalis City Councilor Kate McDougall and others.
Mary McHale, a Centralian who identifies as transgender, spoke with The Chronicle alongside their spouse and daughter earlier this week on the experience of attending the event, which was held at the Chehalis Friendship Fence on Pennsylvania Avenue.
McHale described glancing at their daughter as every car drove past the gathering and the crowd in general being on high alert after the tragedy the night before. The event also mourned an LGBTQ youth who died of suicide at the age of 14, near the age of McHale’s daughter, which made the vigil especially potent for their family. McHale works for the state on access to health care coverage and serves in a variety of volunteer positions locally, including on the Lewis County Public Health & Social Services advisory board and as the organizer of the Centralia Pride event.
“You feel pretty sick inside, you know?” McHale said, adding they were at a community event the night before as the attack in Colorado was taking place. “We had chosen family and friends there, having a great time, supporting a great cause. And just the surrealness of knowing that while we were there, feeling safe in our community, there were other people losing their lives simply for existing. And I don’t know that I fully have processed what that really feels like yet.”
Both Smith Johnston and Pollock, in messages to The Chronicle, said Lewis County and Centralia communities are built on the foundation of love and faith, not hate.
“Our Lewis County community is rooted in the principles of faith, hope and love,” wrote Pollock. “Faith that our community cares for all its residents, hope that we can improve everyone’s lot in life, and love that unites us in supporting all our community members in their right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”
Smith Johnston echoed that message, writing: “It was important to me to attend the vigil in support of our transgender community members and in remembrance of Centralia resident, Rikkey Outumuro, who was killed last year. Trans people often experience violence and rejection for just being themselves. There is no place for hate in a thriving community. There is no place for hate in Centralia.”
McHale’s daughter reported seeing bullying and homophobia in the halls of her middle school, prompting her parents to stress that Lewis County has an opportunity to step up and work toward accepting all people. Discouraging name calling and normalizing standing up for people is one step toward discouraging hate that can spur violence, they said.
“The biggest message I can give to people is love your kids. Period. However they identify, even if you don’t fully understand it,” McHale said. “Love your kids because it’s not a guarantee that they’ll be here for you to love always. I’ve heard a lot of stories of kids who grew up in Lewis County moved away because they just did not feel safe or supported here. We need our kids to know that they are loved and wanted in our community. There’s a place for them.”
In the organizations’ joint statement, Rural Youth Alliance and Lewis County Dignity Guild wrote that “Lewis County is not yet the safest or most welcoming environment for the diverse spectrum of beautiful people who make up the LGBTQ+ community.”
The mission of Lewis County Dignity Guild is to build placemaking efforts for marginalized communities, the statement said, while the Rural Youth Alliance focuses specifically on education and advocacy for younger generations and their allies.
“Transgender people deserve to feel safety and a sense of belonging in our communities the same as everyone else. They deserve to live a life free of fear. They deserve elected representatives that do not use their platform to amplify dehumanizing rhetoric that perpetuates the exact environment which brings harm upon them,” read the statement. “They deserve communities that stand up and condemn dehumanization and victimization, wholly and completely, before those actions lead to worse violence. We invite Lewis County to reflect on the tragedies of this past week and beyond and to consider ways that you may be able to personally reach out to the LGBTQ+ people in your lives and make sure they feel safe, supported, and loved in our communities.”
Learn more about the Dignity Guild at https://www.dignityguild.com. The Rural Youth Alliance is on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ryalewiscounty/.