Oak­land fire exposes rift over naming trans­gen­der vic­tims

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

SAN FRAN­CISCO: Feral Pines proved to be as com­plex in death as she was in life as friends and fam­ily strug­gled this week to set­tle on the cor­rect name to re­mem­ber the victim of the Oak­land ware­house party fire killed along with 35 others. Pines, a 29year-old trans­gen­der woman who re­cently moved to the San Fran­cisco Bay Area, was born in Con­necti­cut in 1987. Rel­a­tives largely knew her as Ri­ley, which she asked them to call her af­ter she grad­u­ated from col­lege.

But her death set off a storm of grief com­bined with anger, as friends called news me­dia out­lets and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials to in­sist she should be named and mourned in death as Feral Pines, the name she used with them, il­lus­trat­ing the dif­fi­culty of iden­ti­fy­ing vic­tims who have not of­fi­cially changed their names. They es­pe­cially ob­jected to the use of the first name she was given at birth. Two other trans­gen­der women died in the fire, and only one had legally changed her name.

“It takes an im­mense amount of la­bor on the part of an in­di­vid­ual trans per­son to get peo­ple to rec­og­nize who you are and to re­spect who you are,” said Scout Wolf­cave, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Trans As­sis­tance Project and a friend of Pines. For trans­gen­der peo­ple, names given at birth may be “some­thing you try to leave be­hind, and to have peo­ple drag that up in a mo­ment you can’t de­fend your­self it’s painful. It’s painful for friends.”

In the wake of the fire, gay, les­bian, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der or­ga­ni­za­tions have called on me­dia out­lets to re­fer to trans­gen­der peo­ple by the name and gen­der with which they iden­tify or iden­ti­fied. Proper naming is crit­i­cal be­cause it val­i­dates the way peo­ple who have died lived and saw them­selves, said Alex Sch­mider, se­nior strate­gist for trans­gen­der me­dia with GLAAD, a group that mon­i­tors me­dia and ad­vo­cates for gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der peo­ple.

Com­pli­cated issue

Yet that may not al­ways be easy when friends dis­agree on ac­cept­able names, or par­ents in­sist on an­other name even if they ac­cept their child is trans­gen­der, he said. “It is a com­pli­cated issue,” Sch­mider said. “It’s a case-by-case ba­sis, and we don’t al­ways have as much in­for­ma­tion as we would like.” A le­gal name and gen­der change would de­cide the issue, but peo­ple fre­quently do not have the money or time to em­bark on the ef­fort, said Sasha Buchert, staff at­tor­ney at the Trans­gen­der Law Cen­ter in Oak­land. It can take up to nearly a dozen forms and at least $450 for a court order to start the lengthy and com­pli­cated process, she said.

“The fees around pay­ing for this process are of­ten out of reach for folks who are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing high rates of em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion,” she said. “It’s very com­pli­cated.” In Cal­i­for­nia, next of kin de­cides the name that goes on of­fi­cial re­ports ab­sent other doc­u­men­ta­tion, said Tif­fany Woods, a trans­gen­der ser­vices con­sul­tant who worked with Alameda County Sher­iff’s Of­fice on the best way to iden­tify those who died in the fire.

“Ev­ery­one’s been proac­tive and hav­ing these in­tense con­ver­sa­tions about do­ing the right thing,” she said. Of the three trans­gen­der vic­tims, Cash Askew, 22, was the only one who had changed her name legally. Her fam­ily re­leased a state­ment Fri­day prais­ing the Oak­land gui­tarist and artist as a “ten­der, lu­mi­nous spirit.”

Em B, also known as Em Bohlka, was re­mem­bered as a car­ing per­son and poet who traded Kurt Von­negut quotes with her fa­ther. “Em was tran­si­tion­ing into a beau­ti­ful, won­der­ful, happy woman,” Jack Bohlka, her dad, wrote in a text mes­sage to The As­so­ci­ated Press. “I only wish she had more time to com­plete her tran­si­tion. It was so won­der­ful to see her be­com­ing who she was meant to be.”

Woods said she has not re­ceived com­plaints about the way Bohlka has been iden­ti­fied. But she said mem­bers of the Fritz fam­ily ob­jected af­ter learn­ing that Ri­ley Fritz was ini­tially iden­ti­fied solely as Feral Pines, 29, in a city list of names con­firmed as those who died in the fire. The of­fi­cial city list of the dead now lists her le­gal birth name, which friends say she ab­horred.

It also says she lived her life as Ri­ley Fritz. The name Feral Pines has been re­moved. Brother Ben Fritz said Ri­ley was the name she asked him and other rel­a­tives to call her, but de­scribed her as a com­plex per­son and said he also knew her by other names, in­clud­ing Feral Pines and Fyrah. He re­mem­bered his sis­ter on Fri­day as some­one who could turn a dis­cus­sion about what to eat into a talk about the pol­i­tics of ve­g­an­ism. “She saw ev­ery­thing in more so­phis­ti­cated ways than most peo­ple,” he wrote in an email.

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