Local Dancer Finds Identity Through Salsa Dancing

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Photo by Nicole Krasean

Published on Sept. 1, 2015 in the Indiana Daily Student

The salsa dancer looks into his partner’s eyes. He takes her hands and starts to dance, the same dance that has defined his entire identity.

He clears his mind and thinks to himself:

Listen to the beat.

Right, left, right. Gabriel Escobedo’s feet follow salsa’s three-step pattern. The same movements he learned in his childhood living room. The dance he danced at his cousin Danny’s wedding. And that time with the pretty girls from St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in high school. He moves his body to the beat. By now, the steps are ingrained in him.

The song, “El Cantante,” cuts through the noise of Bloomington’s Farmers’ Market.

“Y canto a la vida / De risas y penas”

(And I sing to life / To laughter and penalties)

Gabriel and his partner dance through the street. When he’s dancing, the world around him disappears. He forgets the stress from his doctoral research with IU’s Anthropology Department and classes with the Arthur Murray Dance Studio. The adolescent memories of feeling lost, out of touch with his Mexican-American heritage, vanish.

All that’s left is his partner and the music.

Gabriel has met two kinds of dancers. There are the technical ones, who only focus on their appearance. And then there are people like him, who just go with the music.

He lets himself move to the rhythm, focusing on his partner. When he pulls her close, he feels if she’s scared or comfortable. He senses whether she wants to dominate or 
be led.

They find a balance through their movements, pushing and pulling to the beat.

“Que hoy han venido a escuchar / Lo mejor, del repertorio / A ustedes voy a brindar”

(We now have come to listen / The best, the repertoire / To you, I will give)

To him, it feels like the moment will last forever. He feels greedy, always wanting more dance. More music. He raises his right hand, spinning his partner underneath, never breaking the three-step pattern.

He tells himself to never think too hard.

Lose control. Feel the music.


When he was seven, his parents stopped teaching him Spanish. It was for his protection, he said. He could probably get a better job if no one thought he was an immigrant.

The Escobedos were second-generation Mexican-Americans living in Arlington, Texas. Gabriel and his extended family all lived under one roof. His aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and parents watched telenovelas together on the TV in his living room.

One night his grandmother’s yellow dog, Precious, jumped on Gabriel’s face, licking him. Gabriel wrestled with the excited dog, laughing, and carrying her around the room. His relatives watched him move around.

“He’s dancing! He’s dancing!” his grandmother said.

Dancing? Gabriel thought about the word. What does that mean?

“After that, my mother and my aunts or whoever would grab me and try and teach me how to dance,” he said.

He learned salsa on the street — en la calle. At parties, in the park, in his living room. Wherever people and music met, Gabriel tried to dance. But he didn’t speak Spanish. No one except for his family thought he was Latino. When his friends would ask him something in Spanish, Gabriel would stay silent. He picked up bits and pieces of slang but could never completely express what he wanted to say.

“It was like the tongue you were meant to have was taken away from me,” he said.

To show everyone how he felt, he would dance with them.


Gabriel dips his partner.

“De momentos malos / Y de cosas buenas / No hay tiempo para tristezas / Vamos cantante comienza!”

(In bad times / And good things / No time for sadness / Let the singer continue!)

When he came to IU last year, Gabriel started a nonprofit program, Paso a Paso, where he taught people to dance. He hosted the first event in the Neal-Marshall Black Cultural Center for more than 60 attendees. He even developed a series of non-verbal cues for sitting and standing salsa partners to help his friend in a wheelchair navigate the dance floor.

The world around him comes back into motion. He hears the sounds of the market — the shoppers haggling, the kids playing in the grass. He remembers his growing list of responsibilities. He wants to find ways to show how dance is more than just movements.

He said, for him, it creates 

As the song ends, Gabriel smiles at his partner.

“Thank you for the dance,” he says, moving away.

The next song begins as he holds his hands out for someone new, already moving to the beat.

To save a species

Dr. Robert Shumaker has dedicated his life to the care and conservation of orangutans. Now, at the brink of their extinction, he continues his work at the Indianapolis Zoo.

In his hands, he cradles a mold of an orangutan skull. The species he worked with every day at the zoo, the species he dreamed about as a child, is disappearing.

Dr. Robert Shumaker remembers the trip to Borneo. There were more than 200 baby orangutans crammed into cages by the dozen. Watching the doctor with their brown eyes, their long fingers clung to the metal bars. As he stepped between the cages, he realized he was looking at what could be the last generation of orangutans on Earth.

He brushed his finger against their tiny hands.



That was 15 years ago.

Now, through a thin opening in the exhibit window at the Indianapolis Zoo, another orangutan reaches toward him. This one has never seen a rainforest, never climbed a tree outside of the United States.

Dr. Rob— almost everyone calls him Dr. Rob — places a paper cup full of banana chunks in the open palm. The orangutan tilts the cup into his mouth.

“All right, Azy. Ready?”

When he walks around the zoo, he carries himself with a sense of focused urgency.

At 51, Dr. Rob is known for his research on the cognitive abilities of orangutans.

He’s more than 6 feet tall and wears plaid shirts tucked into khakis. He never calls his demonstrations shows. People think less of apes, he believes, when they’re made into a spectacle.

Dr. Rob has worked with Azy for more than 30 years. He calls Azy his colleague and his friend. Through his daily demonstrations, he pins his hopes for the future against the threat of extinction by showing people how similar we are to orangutans.

The 250-pound orangutan slouches against the wall of glass. Behind him, fire hoses dangle like vines above the concrete floor. His orange-brown fur is thick and long, covering his back and legs, with 
matted tassels hanging from his arms. Wide cheek pads frame his dark brown eyes, which scan the room of people.

Dr. Rob turns to Azy while attaching a body mic to his collar.

“Check, check.”

He looks out at the crowd.

“Let’s get started.”


His most vivid childhood memory is standing in his sneakers, lunchbox in hand, watching an orangutan at the National Zoo. He was only 5 years old, but he still remembers the large, round face and the small, intense eyes staring back. He saw a humanness there. He wondered what the orangutan was thinking.

Ever since that day, he’s wanted to work in a zoo.

Dr. Rob first met Azy in 1981, as a high school volunteer in the National Zoo’s Ape House. He made sure the animals were safe and the exhibit was clean. Whenever he got the chance, he held informational classes for zoo visitors.

Azy was already a juvenile. His 
impressive cheek pads hadn’t formed yet. Rambunctious and 
mischievous, he always wanted to play and wrestle with the 
other apes.

Dr. Rob never imagined how they would grow up together, how his fascination with Azy would turn into his life’s work.

In 1992, as part of his graduate studies, Rob helped design an exhibit called the Think Tank. The exhibit tested the cognitive and tool-making abilities of the zoo’s orangutans. At the Think Tank, the apes learned to combine biscuits with water to make gruel and to use rods to reach grapes from long distances. Dr. Rob used flash cards and computer monitors to teach orangutans to associate abstract symbols with things and people — a rudimentary language, just for them.

Eventually, Dr. Rob opened the demonstrations to the public. He would ask Azy to look at a picture of an object and select the correct symbol for it, right in front of a crowd. Azy and the other orangutans learned the symbols for apple, banana, Dr. Rob and Azy. Dr. Rob noticed how Azy’s younger sister Indah always picked up numbers faster than he did.

It was around then when Dr. Rob met Anne, a student volunteer who helped narrate the elephant demonstrations. Anne started making excuses to help out at the Ape House. In her mind, Rob was a different class of keeper. He stopped carrying a wallet, because the orangutans kept fishing it out. He even made sure the zookeepers surprised the apes with cakes on their birthdays.

Anne always joked Indah was the “other woman” in Rob’s life. She knew Indah was in love with him when she saw her looking at Rob with her hands clasped together, head tilted to the side like a hopeful romantic.

“All dreamy-eyed,” Anne said.

As the Think Tank’s popularity grew, Azy and Indah became something of celebrities. Their names were in the paper. Indah’s face was on the cover of Smithsonian 

In 2000, Dr. Rob and Anne got married. On his bookshelf, he put a picture of Anne from their wedding day next to a vintage Dr. Zaius action figure from “Planet of the Apes.”

After almost two decades at the National Zoo, Dr. Rob moved to Des Moines, Iowa, where he joined the Great Ape Trust. With the support of the National Zoo’s primate curator, Dr. Rob brought Azy and Indah with him.

But within six weeks of moving to Iowa, Indah developed an intestinal 

One night, Azy watched as Dr. Rob and staff carried an unconscious Indah from the exhibit.

Even with the emergency surgery, Dr. Rob knew it was too late.

“When we lost her, we lost 50 percent of 
everything,” he said.

She was 24.

Dr. Rob knew he and Azy were grieving together. After Indah’s death, Azy sought out the company of others almost constantly. First thing each morning, he waited for Dr. Rob and the other keepers near the entrance of the exhibit.

They sat near each other without speaking. Through mesh netting, they worked on Dr. Rob’s research or held hands. But mostly, they sat together on the floor of Azy’s living area and stared. All Azy wanted was his 

Dr. Rob couldn’t be sure Azy understood that Indah died.

“But he certainly understood that she was gone,” 
he said.

In 2009, Dr. Rob moved to Indianapolis to help open the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center. Dr. Rob’s role as the vice president of conservation and life sciences put him in charge of the zoo’s many animal and conservation departments, but his primary research remains with the orangutans.

Dr. Rob and conservationists at the Indianapolis Zoo set out to make Indianapolis the most 
orangutan-literate community in the world.


After arriving in Indianapolis, he hung a photo on the wall next to his new desk — Indah’s hand and his own, clasped together, tight.

All Dr. Rob wants is to make people care more about orangutans as complex creatures that deserve our respect.

Especially in a world that’s working against them.

Development of palm oil plantations in the Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatrais destroying the wild orangutan’s habitat. Dr. Rob remembers the machines cutting through the rainforest like weed whackers, the severed tree trunks clogging the rivers. He knows if nobody does anything, orangutans will die out in 10 to 20 years.

On his trip to Borneo in 2000, Dr. Rob watched local women at the rehabilitation center carry the babies from cage to cage. They fed them, they held them. When the orangutans matured, the center’s staff tried releasing them back into the wild. It worked for a few, but many orangutans needed to be taught to climb trees. Those that could be released trusted humans and became easy targets for hunters and farmers. For every baby he saw in the center, Dr. Rob guessed at least a mother and three other 
babies had died.

Loggers and palm oil plantation owners have destroyed more than half of the orangutan’s natural environment in the past two decades.

He looked at the infants and thought of the orangutans in zoos back home. They 
were safe.

After opening in May 2014, the Indianapolis Zoo’s Orangutan Center became the largest of its kind. Architects designed it to give the orangutans choices within the exhibit. Hidden passageways connect the atrium to outdoor yards and the Hutan Trail, an aerial rope line 85 feet above the ground without a net.

As visitors walk through the exhibit, a few swipe their credit cards at conservation stations that allow them to symbolically plant a tree in Borneo. Dr. Rob helped start a tree-planting project in conjunction with the Kutai National Park. The zoo spent more than $10,000 to restore orangutan habitats, which would plant more than 1,000 trees. More trees mean more homes for the orangutans.

Some have labeled the plight of orangutans the worst conservation failure of our time. During the past decade, conservationists have increasingly looked to zoos and to people like Dr. Rob to rescue the species from extinction.


Azy presses the touch screen.

“He’s very confident,” Dr. Rob says to the audience during his demonstration. “He can use photographs and drawings to identify objects.” In today’s case, he tests Azy’s ability to recognize and tap a symbol for the word “cup.”

He presses the space bar on his laptop. A dozen symbols flash onto Azy’s touch screen panel, his eyes darting between each one. Some are squares. Some are lines or squiggles, all a part of the symbolic language Dr. Rob developed. Azy taps a circle with a dot in the center.

“Good, good, good!”

Another set of symbols appear on Azy’s screen. He motions toward the circle with a dot in the middle, but hits the wrong one.


No treat.

Azy tries again, but the same thing happens.

“Hold on, hold on,” Dr. Rob says, as Azy tries another time. “His hair is in the way. Give me your hand, Azy.”

The audience chuckles.

Dr. Rob grabs Azy’s palm and brushes his soft hair away from his fingers.

Orangutan hands feel like human hands. Some are rougher, some are smoother. Every orangutan has a unique fingerprint. They don’t like to be dirty or touched by strangers. They let only their friends touch them.

“We’ll have to trim that later,” Dr. Rob says, letting go.

Orangutan fingers are twice as long as a human’s. Just one of their fingers can support the entire weight of their bodies. Male orangutan arms stretch nine feet from fingertip to fingertip, which is why wild orangutans hardly touch the ground. They’re climbers.

“Good progress today,” Dr. Rob says. “Alright, bud.”

It’s a busy Wednesday afternoon, and children are in awe of Azy as he recognizes symbol after symbol.

They sit on the floor while conservationist Paul Grayson stands nearby.

“We want people to understand that the loss of orangutans would be like losing one of our closest friends,” said Grayson, the zoo’s senior vice president of conservation and science.

Grayson’s phone rings.


His wife is on the other end. She is bringing their grandsons to the exhibit.

“Great,” he says. “I’ll be here.”

Grayson tucks his phone in his pocket as more school groups watch the 

Some of the children yell, “Azy!”

Huh, Grayson thinks to himself. They remembered his name.


Dr. Rob closes his laptop as the audience disperses. The school groups go on to the next exhibit, to the elephants or the dolphins. Three screens above Azy play footage of wild orangutans swinging from branch to branch.The rainforest looks lush and peaceful.

Dr. Rob wonders if it will work. Will the exhibit make people care? Will he see the extinction of orangutans, even after all he’s done?

Sometimes he can’t help but bring his work home 
with him. He always has a thing against apes in show business.

One time Anne bought a VHS tape of “George of the Jungle” from a garage sale.

“No child of mine will watch this,” he said, opening the lid of a trashcan. He broke the tape in two and threw it away. 

Anne and Dr. Rob have two children: Carly, 9, and William, 13.

Dr. Rob fears his two children will grow up to a world without orangutans. He knows ifconservation efforts don’t improve, wild orangutans will die out within 
Carly’s and William’s lifetimes.

Azy is 37, with a life expectancy of about another 15 years. Dr. Rob is about the same distance from retirement. In those next 15 years, Dr. Rob believes, the future of the orangutans will be 

Azy scoots away from the window.

Dr. Rob unclips his body mic.

He doesn’t know anyone who has worked with one orangutan for 30 years, or even 20.

“It’s not something you can really talk about with other people.”

As far as he knows, their friendship is the first of its kind.

He has to believe it won’t be the last.

A Mother’s Mission, Indiana Daily Student, Fall 2013


The audience was silent as Judy Shepard recited the victim impact statement she read in the trial following her son’s death, 15 years ago.

“He was my son, my first-born and more — he was my friend, confidant and constant reminder of how good life can be and also how hurtful,” Shepard said.

In 1998 Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson murdered her 21-year-old son Matthew, fueled by anti-gay hatred. Matthew was kidnapped, beaten and tied to a fence near Laramie, Wyo., where he was discovered unconscious 18 hours later.

The crime struck the Shepard family and the country by surprise, inspiring a movement that continues to this day.

Shepard urged students, faculty and community members to speak out against hate Tuesday night in the Whittenberger Auditorium in the IU Memorial Union.

For 15 years Shepard has toured America and the world, telling Matthew’s story and encouraging safety and acceptance.

“Hate starts with fear and ignorance of things we don’t understand,” she said.

Hundreds of audience members filled the auditorium to maximum capacity, with dozens of students standing in the doorways. It was sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Student Support Services along with several other organizations around campus.

Director of the GLBTSSS Doug Bauder, along with junior Kaleb Crain, introduced the event.

“I’m not a professional speaker,” Shepard said. “I’m a mom with a story to tell and opinions to share.”

She said the night she got the call was something she’d never forgot.

Shepard was living in Saudi Arabia with her husband at the time, and she thought it was simply a late-night call from Matthew.

He could never work out the time difference between the countries, Judy Shepard said.
After hearing the news of the crime from the hospital, she had to wait days to travel and see her son, not knowing if he was alive or dead.

“Waiting to see Matt felt like an eternity,” Judy Shepard said.

When she saw the figure in the hospital bed, she knew it was her son underneath the bandages.

He still had the cute little bump on his left ear, but the twinkle of life wasn’t there, she said.

Matthew Shepard died on Monday, Oct. 12, after being in a coma for several days.

“All of our hopes and dreams for Matt were killed for twenty dollars,” she said. “There are days I think I cannot go on. But I know the love of my family and friends will support me, and it’s my duty to Matt to go on.”

Shepard said she struggled with the decision to publicize her son’s story, but she knew it was what Matthew would have wanted.

“We wanted Matt to be the martyr,” she said. “We knew we couldn’t hide.”

Judy Shepard said she is determined to use her grief over her son’s death to make the world a more accepting place for everyone.

She started the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization dedicated to replacing hate with acceptance and compassion through educational and outreach programs.

All proceeds from her speaking engagements directly benefit the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

The images of burning crosses and Matthew’s face appeared in the background as Judy Shepard’s voice spoke to the silent audience.

Her message was poignant and serious, yet she maintained a conversational tone.
“I consider myself a private, shy person,” Judy Shepard said. “I have to think that Matt is up there helping me do this.”

Shepard said she thinks society has become silent, indifferent and complacent to hate.

She encouraged students to tell their own stories in order to encourage acceptance of all individuals, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation.

“If there isn’t a problem being discussed then there is not a solution being discussed,” Judy Shepard said. “We can profess anti-bullying policies and counseling, but if the community is not on board then it is all for nothing.”

She said with the government shutdown, the nation has lost precious time and momentum in passing legislation protecting LGBT individuals, specifically those in the workplace.

Individuals can still be fired for being gay in 35 states, she said.

She said she hopes students can be not only advocates for legislation, but also be leaders in their own communities.

“Engaging today’s generation is a challenge,” she said. “Don’t let your personal bubble prevent you from branching out.”

Judy tells her story to thousands of individuals each year, but true change can only come if students speak up.

“As much as I don’t want there to be any more Matthew Shepards, I don’t want there to be any more Aaron McKinneys and Russell Hendersons,” Judy Shepard said. “And you can change that.”


Transforming Identity, Indiana Daily Student, Fall 2013

Check out the follow-up story I wrote here.


Junior Ethan Jackson was called out in the middle of his Kelley School of Business class and accused of cheating on a test last year.

He was registered in the course under his preferred name — Ethan — but because of University policy, his student identification card still had his legal name, the name he no longer responds to, printed on it.

Jackson, who declined to provide his legal first name, works as a Resident Assistant, is a business major and is also part of IU’s transgender student population living on campus.

“The name on my ID card didn’t match the name on my professor’s roster, so there was no documentation proving that I was Ethan, the person supposed to be taking the exam,” he said. “When I walk into a classroom, I never know if the name my professor
has on the roster will be my legal or preferred name.”

Although IU policy allows students to list a preferred name alongside their primary or legal name in official academic records, some online databases such as OnCourse rosters automatically use students’ primary names, Senior Associate Registrar Lisa Scully said.

A transgender student advocacy committee recently drafted a policy proposal calling for a centralized process to accommodate anyone using University information systems that choose to identify themselves under a preferred name.

Currently, students can register a preferred name with the bursar office, but other data management entities such as the Health Center and Parking Operations often pull information that uses a student’s legal name.

Assistant Director of Residential Life and Diversity Education Barry Magee, along with graduate student Nicholas Clarkson, presented the first draft of the proposal to the Bloomington Faculty Council on Monday.

The proposal focuses on the idea that information technology systems should prioritize student ID number and preferred name and hide an individual’s legal name in as many instances as possible.

“In certain areas the University doesn’t have policies addressing transgender and genderqueer issues and how to effectively accommodate students that don’t fit within the gender binary,” Magee said.

When applying for acceptance into IU, individuals are required to indicate their gender based on two options: male or female.

“We are all raised in a world dictated by our gender,” Magee said. “Right from the get-go all the people around you say, ‘is it a boy or a girl?’ From there we choose games, clothes and activities based on fitting into one of those two boxes.”

Only when students begin to apply for housing do they encounter an additional gender option of transgender.

More than 12,000 students fill out the housing application each year, and an average of 20 students self-identify as “transgender,” according to records at the Office of Residential Programs and Services. The number of transgender students has increased during the past decade, said Sara Ivey Lucas, assistant director for housing assignments.

“RPS continues to be a leader in pushing campus to think about breaking the gender binary,” Lucas said.

RPS now offers gender neutral bathrooms or individual “pods” with a toilet, shower and sink in every residence center on campus except for Eigenmann, Jackson’s residence hall for the past two years.

Magee said not all trans-identifying students share the same opinions on matters such as housing.

“We have mixed signals in our systems throughout the University,” Magee said.
University policy states that it will not discriminate against a student’s arbitrary characteristics, such as gender and gender identity.

In August, the nationally-recognized nonprofit organization Campus Pride released its annual list of American universities deemed as having the safest, most inclusive environment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender students.

This year, IU didn’t make the cut.

Institutions are ranked using the Campus Pride Index, which allows colleges to self-assess their resources through a set of questions based on eight different LGBT-friendly factors, including policy inclusion, support and institutional commitment, and housing.

This year, IU scored five stars overall but lacked an “accessible, simple process for students to change their name and gender identity on university records and documents, LGBT housing options and themes, and insurance coverage for students transitioning from male to female and female to male to cover hormone replacement therapy,” according to the organization’s website.

“The first year the list came out, we were in the top five schools,” Magee said. “If one year someone forgets to fill out part of the application, then our rating is affected by that.”

But students like Jackson attribute IU’s slip in the rankings to a specific cause: IU’s discrimination of transgender people.

“It makes me happy that IU fell off the top 25 for LGBT-friendly schools because that’s an acknowledgement to IU’s lack of policy in place right now for transgender students,” Jackson said.

He said his leadership position as an RA allows him to keep a conversation going that challenges gender stereotypes.

“Most of the discrimination I face isn’t from the student body, it’s from the institution,” he said. “Curiosity leads to some rude questions, but I’m all about educating people from my experiences.”

This is the second year he and his coworkers fought the policy of the University Information Technology Systems that demands RAs use their legal name when filing incident reports.

As a part of his job, Jackson said he was not able to  identify himself with his preferred name — Ethan — on any official paperwork.

“Last year we had a giant battle with UITS to get my preferred name used,” Jackson said. “When they redesigned the entire program this year, I faced the same exact issue — no one thought to include the preferred name clause again.”

Follow reporter Matt Bloom on Twitter @matthew_bloom.

Transgender Day of Remembrance, Indiana Daily Student, Fall 2013


As the sun set and the temperature dropped Wednesday night, almost 50 students, faculty and community members paraded down Kirkwood Avenue, holding candles in memory of victims they never knew.

They read the names of 300 transgender people who were murdered in the past year as the result of hate crimes around the world.

The event marked the Transgender Day of Remembrance, and it was the largest IU has seen since the event’s inception. Students began honoring the day in 1998, the year Rita Hester was murdered in Allston, Mass.

Participants chalked names of the deceased on sidewalks and buildings as they walked, writing things like “down with the gendered order” and “R.I.P Victoria.”
Sounds of snare drums echoed down the street as a line of five cars followed. As they pounded on drums, no one spoke.

Sophomore Ash Kulak and other members of the Gender Warriors student group led the group toward its destination: the Monroe County Courthouse. On its front steps,
Freshmen Josie Wenig and Tom Williams read aloud names of those killed.

The Gender Warriors is a student group offering a safe and confidential support system for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. They canceled their weekly meeting at Boxcar Books to organize the candlelit vigil.

Wenig said she hopes to raise awareness for people who aren’t yet involved with queer groups at IU.

“We live in a dangerous world for queer people,” Wenig said. “But we have each other, and we can come together on days like this.”

Kulak said violence against trans-identifying people in today’s world is a huge problem, something not everyone thinks about.

“Different ways to combat violence toward gender non-conforming people of color or other intersecting factors of minority status — that needs to be driven home to people,” Kulak said. “Let’s not just memorialize trans-white people.”

Before marching to the Monroe County Courthouse, the group gathered in Dunn Meadow with organizations such as Monroe County Middle Way House and representatives from Culture of Care.

Williams gave a speech to the group, reading a statement recounting the death of Rita Hester.

The African-American transgender woman from the Boston area was about to turn 35-years-old when officers found her dead in her apartment with stabbing wounds. To this day, her murder is unsolved.

“One theory is that Rita’s murderer was a suitor who became furious when he found genitals he did not expect,” Williams read. “But Rita left a legacy.”

Today, they aimed to remember those who have given their lives “daring to live a life of authenticity,” Williams said.

Members of the Indiana Queer Prisoner Solidarity attended the event and gave speeches advocating against violence.

Khalil, one of the group’s members who asked that his last name be kept anonymous, spoke of his time in prison where he witnessed first-hand violence against transgender prisoners.

“On November 21, 2003, I was on my way to jail in Miami, Fla.,” he said. “On the bus was a transgender man who was asked to reveal his biological sex.”
Khalil paused for a moment, looking out to the audience.

“For this, he was taken off of the bus and raped in the bathroom by the prison guards,” he said.

Later Wednesday night, about half of the group at the event would branch off to gather at the Monroe County Jail, chanting in protest of what they believe is the unfair targeting of the transgender population in jails.

After the final victim’s name was read aloud at the courthouse, the group was silent. Some candles still burned, while others lie in a puddle of wax on the cement steps.

“Nothing ever makes this better or will undo what has been done,” Kulak said. “But we will work. And it will get better.”

Follow Matt Bloom on Twitter @matthew_bloom.