Looking back at transgender progress one year after the murder of Rem’mie Fells | Analysis

Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells. (Photo by Amanda Swiger of Swiger Photography/The Philadelphia Gay News).

By Michele Zipkin

PHILADELPHIA — Next Wednesday, June 9, marks one year since Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, a beloved Philadelphia transgender woman of color, was murdered.

One year later, society has gone through a global pandemic, a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, a Republican-to-Democrat transition of presidential power and, sadly, a continued uptick in the epidemic of transgender murders, particularly Black and Brown transgender women. Fells became an icon within the BLM movement, in communities fighting for transgender lives, and in intersections of the two.

This past year has seen much change for transgender communities locally and nationally, but it hasn’t all been devastating.

“We’re having very serious conversations on a state legislative platform that are very pro-LGBTQ, very pro-transgender, such as having LGBTQ+ identified individuals be regarded as a protected class under Pennsylvania’s existing hate crimes statute,” said transgender activist Kendall Stephens.

Pennsylvania’s hate crimes law does not yet include sexual orientation or gender identity, but Philadelphia protects those classes via an ordinance.

In response to LGBTQ-targeted crimes that happen in Philadelphia, employees of the District Attorney’s Office (DAO) devised a keyword-driven system to track crimes targeted toward queer folks in the city. The goal is to provide better resources for queer and transgender crime victims. DA Larry Krasner also recently added the LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee to the DAO.

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Celena Morrison, Executive Director of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs, cited Darius McLean’s leadership as director of the Arcila-Adams Trans Resource Center at William Way as another local asset in providing resources for transgender communities.

In a written statement, Morrison said McLean’s appointment “has helped raise awareness of the support available to those in need, and his leadership has served as an anchor to the community at a time when it was needed most.”

Part of the programming that McLean is planning will comprise job readiness-centric educational services, resume-building, and interview skills. He also plans to roll out a financial literacy course that will teach folks the basics of home ownership and entrepreneurship, workshops on navigating intimate partner violence, and a podcast focusing on Black and Latinx communities.

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“I feel like jobs and housing are two of the biggest areas that trans folks don’t have a lot of access to,” McLean said. “Though we have laws against discrimination in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, it doesn’t mean that they’re enforced. So creating the ability for our community to make space for themselves and jobs and careers for themselves [is important]. The hope is to do that in collaboration with other organizations and community members.”

Transgender healthcare has also seen a lot of changes over the past year.  On one level, the pandemic’s financial toll has affected trans students’ ability to get university funds that would help them through their gender transitions. PGN previously reported that an influx of transgender students were applying for the University of Pennsylvania’s Townsend Munro Fund this past year, which helps foot the bill for medical supplies needed for transition.

Furthermore, when Penn closed down and most students returned home for online classes, some trans students struggled to hold onto friendships they had forged when they lived on campus. Others felt they needed to conceal their trans identities when they returned home.

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Conversely, some aspects of pandemic life have proven beneficial to members of the transgender community. Deja Lynn Alvarez, director of community engagement World Healthcare Infrastructures and candidate for the state House of Representatives, told PGN that she has noticed that many transgender folks feel safer “going” to non-emergency healthcare appointments virtually.

“A lot of trans people [were] able to maintain their appointments, to stay on their medications,” she said. She pointed to the barriers that many trans people face just traveling to a doctor’s office. “You may have to get on public transportation, you may have to go into an area that you’re not familiar with where you don’t feel safe, [or] you walk into a building where you come across people that have a personal bias against trans people. All of that can be a deterrent from trans people accessing the care that they need.”

Nationally, transgender healthcare protections have been thrown on a bit of a roller coaster in the last year. President Biden recently reinstated nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans in healthcare settings — Obama-era regulations that the Trump administration undermined during the pandemic.

But despite federal pro-transgender policies, state lawmakers are attacking transgender rights by introducing bills that seek to bar young transgender women from playing school sports and prevent transgender youth from getting gender-affirming care.

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“At a time when anti-trans legislation — specifically targeted against our trans and gender non-conforming youth — is sweeping state legislatures across the country, it is clear that the work of municipalities like here in the City of Philadelphia is more critical than ever to ensure equal protections under the law for our most vulnerable communities,” Morrison said in her statement.

The Office of LGBT Affairs has churned out its own set of queer and transgender-centric resources over the past year. The team created the Coping during COVID Resource guide, collaborated with local LGBTQ health organizations to facilitate vaccine clinics in underserved communities, and helped with the Trans Resilience Fund, an initiative of the Gender Justice Fund.

On top of the pandemic widening health inequities and the bevy of transphobic legislation from state lawmakers, trans people are still being murdered at high rates, especially Black and Brown transgender women. Rem’mie Fells’ murder, in tandem with the murders of Mia Green, Tatiana Hall, Michelle ‘Tamika’ Washington and many other transgender individuals, drove people to the streets in protest.

“[Rem’mie] was a disrupter,” Stephens said. “She looked the status quo in the eye and defied it with every waking moment of her life. Now after her death, her voice is still reigning boldly. It’s still causing a stir in a positive way and impacting the lives of her trans brothers, sisters and others. I wish she could be here to see the work that is being done for the trans community.”

McLean cautioned that those bursts of civil rights assemblies often escalate and subside like fads. He clarified that communities should be fighting for minority rights all the time.

“The fact that that’s how that works limits us in how much we can do,” he said. “Unfortunately I feel like sometimes we have to capitalize off of those things so we can get support for our community while people are willing to do it. Again, it goes to visibility every day.”

In the spirit of continuing to uplift transgender and BIPOC communities, occupational therapy students and an alumni mentor from Thomas Jefferson University started a scholarship fund in Fells’ name. They met her while collaborating with the staff of Morris Home, where Fells was living at the time, to facilitate wellness and recovery sessions for the center’s transgender and nonbinary residents. The scholarship is the first of its kind that the university offers exclusively for transgender and gender non-conforming BIPOC students.

The scholarship fundraising page reads in part, “while one scholarship will not create the change needed at this level, it will act as a first step in the right direction.”

Fells’ mother, Terri Edmonds, is also quoted on the fundraising page, saying “I’m so grateful that during her short life here on earth, she was able to touch your lives with her genuine and loving self.”

Michele Zipkin is a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News, where this story first appeared