Written by Emily Mullins
The Rev. Barbara Peronteau is a little nervous to lead the first ever Transgender Day of Remembrance memorial service to take place in her church, city or county. But the member of Calvary United Church of Christ in Reading, Pa., and chair of the interfaith service committee for Reading Pride is hopeful the event will raise awareness about transgender people and the challenges they face, while paying respects to the 71 transgender people who have been killed in the U.S. this year out of hate, ignorance and fear.
"There is a reason these brutal murders are going on and it's because people shove us under the rug and pretend we don't exist," said Peronteau, who came out as transgender four years ago. "If more people knew we existed, then I think the institutions that are supposed to support us would be more supporting."
The memorial service, an initiative of Reading Pride, will take place Wednesday, Nov. 20 at Calvary UCC. Peronteau will lead the service, provide history about the Transgender Day of Remembrance, celebrated every year on Nov. 20, and offer personal accounts of the different forms of discrimination and violence transgender people face daily. She will then dim the lights, light a white candle, and read the names and causes, locations and dates of death for each transgender person killed this year, ringing a bell in memory of each of them. A reception will follow the service.
While Peronteau would be glad to get 20 attendees, she doesn't know how many people to expect. But she is grateful that her involvement with Reading Pride and the acceptance of her Open and Affirming congregation has finally given her a platform through which to share her voice and her story.
"The institutions that are supposed to support us – the medical community, family, government, the faith community – have all let us down, and right now we are pushing back," Peronteau said. "We are teaching, organizing, writing and getting in contact with our legislators on national, state and local levels. All of that is going on, but even more of us should be doing it."
Peronteau knew she was transgender at age 5, but it wasn't until four years ago, at age 55, that she opened up about who she is. At that time, she was married and was the pastor of a small congregation. Before undergoing her transition, she left her role as pastor. And even though she left her church in good hands, Peronteau found she was not welcomed back after her transition was complete.
"I thought leaving was a pastoral thing to do," Peronteau said. "I needed to go through this first, to go get my act together and be who I am, but I did not think it was fair to do it in front of the congregation. They didn't need to go through that with me."
Peronteau was "churchless" for a little while, as the closest ONA church to Reading was more than an hour away. But then she heard about Calvary UCC, which was in the early stages of becoming ONA. Peronteau joined the congregation and played an important role in shepherding the church through the process. With more than 80-percent approval, Calvary UCC became ONA last April. Joining Calvary UCC nearly four years ago has been good for her, Peronteau said. But she thinks the access to research and new information about transgender people combined with awareness from events like the Transgender Day of Remembrance is good for everyone.
"I want to put it in perspective," Peronteau said. "There are tragedies in life that we need to and must remember. And this is the day that we remember trans men and women who were brutally murdered for simply no other reason at all other than because they are transgender."
The Transgender Day of Remembrance is a day to memorialize those who have been killed because of their gender identity or expression, and to bring awareness to the continued violence endured by the transgender community. The Transgender Day of Remembrance was founded in 1998 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith to memorialize the murder of her friend Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was murdered in her apartment Nov. 28, 1998 in Allston, Mass.