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Remembering Jennifer Gale

Cross-posted from my personal blog:

I know I haven’t written in a while. Life seems to have gotten really busy as of late. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say, in fact I imagine the next week or so will probably result in a flurry of posts as I get out thoughts on things I have been experiencing, and I work on my end of year post.

Right now, I want to, I need to, take a moment to talk about Jennifer Gale. For many of you, this may not be a name you recognize. I did not know her name until last week when word of her passing was announced. Who was Jennifer Gale? She was a transgender woman who was a local figure here in Austin. She ran for several different offices in here in Austin and Texas, such as Mayor of Austin, Austin School Board, Mayor of Dallas, and numerous other positions. It seems that any ballot in Austin was not complete without her. She spoke frequently before boards and commissions here in Austin. While others said,”Keep Austin Weird,” She said,”Keep Austin, Austin.” She understood that what made Austin unique and special was worth preserving and fighting for. She was a Marine, and she was homeless.

Jennifer Gale died in front of a church here in Austin, sleeping on the street on a very, very cold night. She was discovered around 6am on December 17th; paramedics were called, but she could not be saved. Those words, “She could not be saved” strike me. She could have been saved. She could have been saved if there were shelters and resources that did not discriminate against her for being transgender. Shelter space for women in Austin is very limited, and nonexistent if you are a transgender woman. She slept on the streets because there was nowhere else for her to sleep. She died on the streets because there were no resources that were willing to help her. Organizations like the Salvation Army rejected her because she was trans, because her gender identity did not conform to their religious beliefs.

This last Sunday morning, in the bitter cold, not unlike the weather the night she passed, we gathered to remember Jennifer. People from all walks of life gathered, the transgender community, the homeless, activists, politicians, and ordinary people who were touched by her story. We gathered to not only remember her, but to make a commitment, a commitment to not allow more trans people die on the street because we did not try to do something. There seemed to finally be an acknowledgment that more has to be done here in Austin. Over 130 homeless people have died in the street this year in Austin. Jennifer was not the only one, she faced some of the same challenges, but her struggle to find shelter was made more difficult because she chose to live true to who she was.

City leaders and many other speakers acknowledged that more can be done to make services more accessible to the transgender community. There was an acknowledgment that the city council has a lot of work to do in this area. Many people on Sunday expressed their own culpability in Jennifer’s death. Those same people made commitments which had not been made before, commitments to begin a real dialogue around these issues here in Austin. But, these are not uniquely Austin issues. All around the country, trans people struggle to get off the street as they are repeatedly turned away from services that are not equipped to help them or simply not willing to help them. Does your city have trans-friendly homeless shelters and programs? Where are transwomen told to sleep and bathe, in the mens’ shelters just because they have not had surgery? Is there something you can do in your own community to bring up these issues and start a discussion?

I’d like to close this heavy discussion with a bright spot in Jennifer’s passing. The local media coverage was unlike any I have seen since coming out as trans. Not once were pronouns wrong. In many stories her transgender status was not even mentioned. Not once was transgender, transsexual, crossdresser, transvestite, or other other such terms used as part of the byline or title. The story was reported, most of the time, about a woman named Jennifer Gale. These stories were about the passing of a person and her contribution to the City of Austin and the State of Texas. There was no sensationalism. It was refreshing to see this kind of coverage, coverage that honored the person, not their gender status. As you gather this holiday season with friends and family, I ask one thing of you, I ask you to remember Jennifer Gale. I did not know her, but there are many more people like her living on the streets. Just as they did not choose to be trans, they did not chose to sleep on the streets, rather they do so because no shelters will take them.

3 Responses

  1. At the urging and with the help of the Arizona ACLU, Central Arizona Shelter Services, Inc., the largest shelter service provider in Arizona, recently changed its long-standing policy of refusing to allow transgender people to be housed according to their gender identity. In addition, the Prescott Area Women’s Shelter, on whose board I serve, is in the process of adopting a similar policy. I am saddened by Jennifer’s death, and the deaths of all the other homeless people in Austin and elsewhere, who die every year due to our society’s refusal to provide them with the basic necessities of life.

    For those interested in urging their local shelters to treat trans people with dignity, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Coalition have created an excellent resource titled Transitioning Our Shelters: A Guide to Making Homeless Shelters Safe for Transgender People.

  2. For those of you who would like to know the kind of person Jennifer was a little more, I just found this video of her addressing the city council the night before she died, and singing “Silent Night”. It is also interesting to read the comments, where among the predictable “hate” flames, you can find words from people who were present and listened to her that night. One even said that if they’d known her circumstances, they would have offered her shelter.

  3. Thanks for posting this, Khyri. It is truly sad that our world could not find a place where Jennifer could live in peace and safety.

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