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Celebrating lives, reflecting on loss: How LGBTQ+ people and their loved ones are marking Trans Day of Remembrance

A Nation in Transition | CBS Reports
A Nation in Transition | CBS Reports 22:23
Precious Edwards and Jacob Williamson
Promise Edwards and Jacob Williamson Promise Edwards

Promise Edwards, a single mother of three living in Laurens, South Carolina, spends her spare time passing QR codes out to schools, churches and members of her local community. Scan one, and you'll be led to an online document full of LGBTQ+ resources across the state — which Edwards hopes to expand to a nationwide list by 2024. 

The heart-shaped codes — on stickers, embedded in keychains, printed on T-shirts and more — are sometimes adorned with sparkles or owls because, according to Edwards, they were "Jacob's favorite thing."

Edwards, known as Aunt Lulu to 18-year-old Jacob Williamson, welcomed the newly out teen into her home after he was kicked out of his own. 

"The day after he moved in with me, he said, 'I'm trans, and I go by he/him and I want to be called Jacob,'" said Edwards, whose mother had been Edwards' childhood best friend. "I said, 'OK. I love you,'"

"He was only allowed to be himself for 28 days."

Four weeks after Williamson went to live with Edwards in June, he went missing after going to meet up with online friends for the first time. 

Edwards had begged him not to go, even asking her boss to change his shift at the Waffle House where they both worked to make scheduling harder — but Jacob was unconvinced. He shared his location with Edwards through an app, got in the car and left.

It was the last time Edwards would see him alive. 

After she could neither get in touch with him nor see his updated location, Edwards reported him missing and spent the next four days talking to law enforcement, hanging posters, and frantically searching for Williamson. She knocked on doors, passed out flyers and posted online — but to no avail. 

His body was discovered by police on the side of a South Carolina road — just three days before Edwards' 37th birthday.

Williamson was at least the 14th trans person murdered in the U.S. in 2023, against a worrying backdrop of statistics that show trans people are more at risk than ever, despite only making up an estimated 0.5% of the U.S. population.

Data compiled shows 320 trans and gender-diverse people were reported murdered between October 2022 and September 2023, according to nonprofit Transgender Europe, though actual numbers could be even higher. 

Ninety-four percent of the victims were trans feminine people or transgender women — meaning they were not assigned female at birth — and three-quarters were younger adults, between the ages of 19 and 40.

Candles and portraits
Candles and portraits of people from the transgender community are pictured during a ceremony to support the transgender community and raise awareness on the issues that transgender people face in the country. HILDEGARD TITUS/AFP via Getty Images

"Most victims were Black and trans women of colour, and trans sex workers," stated the report, its Nov. 13 publication intentionally coinciding with the start of Trans Awareness Week. 

The week culminates each year in Trans Day of Remembrance, which was founded on Nov. 20, 1999, by trans advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith, to honor Rita Hester, a trans woman who had been killed the year before. The vigil honored Hester and the deaths of all the other trans people who had been lost to violence that year, according to GLAAD.

"It's a day to honor and remember the folks that have died, but it's also a chance for us to reckon with, where do we go from here?" said Arielle Rebekah, communications consultant at the Transgender Law Center. 

"Every day is the day to think of a way forward," they said.

Mariah Moore, the co-director of policy and programs at the Transgender Law Center, agreed and reflected on how imperative it is for allies to show up for trans people. 

"A lot of folks are very vulnerable and feel alone and isolated," she says. "You could change the trajectory of someone's life by simply saying something — letting them know that they have someone ... that is also standing beside them, willing to fight for them." 

In addition to her work at the Transgender Law Center, Moore is also one of the co-founders of an organization called House of Tulip, which was born during the COVID-19 pandemic and works to find long-term housing solutions for trans and gender non-conforming people in Louisiana, where she is based.

"The goal is to help folks build a stable foundation so that they can have access to the futures that come so easily to others," she says, adding that the organization is a shining reflection of successful "coalition work;" identifying a cycle and working to fill a need by collaborating with others and sharing knowledge and resources. 

In the U.S., 586 anti-trans bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year alone, and aim to restrict or completely ban access to gender-affirming care, rid trans youth of the ability to participate in sports, arts and clubs — and in more extreme cases, even threaten parents with child abuse charges for affirming their kids' gender identities.

In the current tenuous political climate, the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth is worsening, according to the results of a national survey by The Trevor Project, which found that 41% of LGBTQ+ young people had seriously considered suicide in the past year. Additionally, youth who are transgender, nonbinary and/or people of color reported higher rates of suicidal ideation than their cisgender and White peers.

"I feel that Jacob was not targeted because he was trans, but yet, he was targeted because he was trans," says Edwards. "These people preyed on the fact that Jacob was partially out; that Jacob was ostracized from his family; that he had nobody but me and my family."

People Celebrate Transgender Day Of Remembrance In Rome
Transgender Day Of Remembrance celebrations in Rome Stefano Montesi - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Since Williamson's murder, Edwards says that while many in her life — including close friends and family — have turned their backs on her, the trans community has embraced her with open arms as she continues to fight for justice for Jacob.

"I really just wish we could have had this support when Jacob was alive," she said. "And we probably wouldn't even be talking right now." 

But further data from The Trevor Project provides a glimmer of hope for others within the trans and gender non-conforming community: youth who reported gender-affirming school and home environments reported significantly decreased rates of suicidal ideation — with actions as small as being addressed by their correct pronouns, having access to gender-neutral bathrooms or being able to wear gender-affirming clothing making a noticeable difference.

As Rebekah puts it, "Even in the face of this violence, we are thriving."

"Yes, we might be under attack," adds Moore. "But guess what? We've also fought back. And we're winning." 

Each year, though violence against the community soars, young people are increasingly identifying as trans and seeing themselves reflected in culture, including in film, television and literature. Transgender Day of Visibility is even now recognized by the White House.

"My life is great," says YouTube star Eden Estrada, also known by her online alias, Eden the Doll. "I had a hiccup, but my life is good."

In August 2020, video depicting a violent attack on Estrada and two of her friends was posted online, where it quickly went viral and became national news overnight.

Eden and family
Eden and family @edenthedoll @mr.Shearhod

While waiting for an Uber in Los Angeles, Estrada alleges that the trio was beaten and robbed, with one of Estrada's friends knocked unconscious in the fray. The LAPD later investigated the incident as a hate crime.

"I'm grateful to be alive," says Estrada. "I've been through something traumatic, but I came out of it really, really, strongly."

Estrada is now happily engaged, has a flourishing career and in her own words, is "over" what happened to her. But reflecting on Trans Day of Remembrance, she recognizes this could have been a different story.

"This day, it could be about me," says Estrada. "Something worse could have happened to me that day."

Estrada said that she uses this day not only to reflect on loss, but to reflect on the LGBTQ+ figures who paved the way for trans people today — people like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Erica Andrews, she said, adding that she also uses this day to reflect on past versions of herself as well.

"I think it's remembering where you started, where you're at and where you're going," she said.

Rebekah feels similarly about Trans Day of Remembrance, which they say is an opportunity to elevate stories of trans joy and triumph.

"People need to see that trans folks are also changemakers; are also leaders; are also successful across all fields, across all industries, across all areas of life."

When asked how she will be spending Trans Day of Remembrance, Moore says, "I need to take time to really mourn some of the folks that I've lost recently, and just take time for myself as a Black trans woman... honor myself and the work that I'm doing."

"I think this year, I need some time for me."

It has been nearly five months since Williamson's body was recovered. 

The two people he went to meet that day were both arrested and charged in his death, but that's not enough for Edwards. "These people still get to talk to their families on Christmas," she said.

"And we don't."

She says she will be keeping Williamson's memory alive on Trans Day of Remembrance by hanging Christmas decorations at the site where his body was found and attending an event in honor of the day at the University of South Carolina Upstate, where she has been invited to speak.

While Williamson and at least 319 others who have been lost to violence this year will be in hearts and minds on Trans Day of Remembrance, Moore points out that countless trans people have also been lost to lack of basic resources like housing, healthcare and food.

Jacob's Ladder QR Code Keychains
Jacob's Ladder QR Code Keychains Promise Edwards

"It's important that we uplift those stories and use Trans Day of let folks know that trans people are loved and have people fighting for them," she adds. "Don't be silent when you see injustice is happening."

Edwards believes Trans Day of Remembrance is an opportunity to provide support in death for trans loved ones that they may not have had in life, and bring attention to the fact that nobody is above experiencing loss.

"It means awareness that this actually happens to people that we know and we love," she says.

But more than anything, Edwards hopes wherever Williamson is now, on this day and all days, that he is at peace.

"He had a life full of conditions," she says. "I hope that where he is, he feels love. Unconditional love." 

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