24 April 2010

From Protest To Empathy: St. Vincent's Hospital and Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar

Today I participated in the rally for St.Vincent's Hospital and the vigil for Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar.  As I expected, they presented a study in contrasts, though to an even greater degree than I expected.

By the time I arrived at 25th Street and Ninth Avenue, the march to St.Vincent's was already underway. So I walked along windswept yet sun-drenched Chelsea and West Village Streets to the hospital, where about a hundred people gathered around a podium where various community activists and politicians spoke.  I could immediately feel the tense anger that grew more intense when Tom Duane, the chair of the New York State Senate Health Committee, took the microphone.

Duane, at times barely audible even though he used a microphone, said what others had already said:  that the people were angry and that the hospital's closure is an injustice that will lead to deaths and other tragedies and disasters.  Probably anyone chosen at random from the crowd could have said exactly the same things, verbatim.  Chants of "What are you going to do?" filled the air.  One mustachioed man very loudly reminded him that he's up for re-election in November.  That man, I'd guess, voted for him not only in the most recent State Senate election, but in earlier contests, including the one that made Duane one of the first two openly gay candidates (Antonio Pagan was the other.) to be elected to the New York City Council.   I would guess that a lot of other people in that crowd voted for Duane every time he ran for office.  Now they, like that man, were feeling some combination of disappointment and betrayal.

I recalled the time I met Duane in Albany.  That was about seven years ago, during the time I was going to my job as Nick but socializing--and working as an advocate and volunteer--as Justine. Only a few weeks before that, the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), which Duane sponsored, became law--about thirty years after it was first proposed.  Some of us were disappointed and even upset because there was no language to protect transgenders or others whose gender identity and expression do not fit into societal expectations.  We thought that perhaps SONDA would at least open the door a crack so that a more inclusive law could pass.  However, meeting him made me less hopeful that would happen.  Though I never met him before that day, I had the sense that the fight for SONDA took a lot out of him; today I had the sense that he still has not recovered from it.   And his sense of fatigue seemed to fuel the anger and hostility of the crowd.

On the other hand, if anyone at the vigil for Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar was there to express rage, I didn't notice.  It seemed that the atmosphere was the inverse of that of the St. Vincent's rally:  There was a profound sense of grief, even among those of us who had never met Amanda, that unexpectedly (at least to me) found expression as empathy.  Even if I weren't a trans woman, I would have been able, in some way, to identify with others who attended.  Many of them knew her and were lamenting the loss of a "dear friend" and "beautiful soul." Nearly all of us has lost someone dear to us; a few of those deaths were horrific, as Amanda's was.  

Now I am thinking of all of those times someone has endured a particularly violent, tragic, painful or simply protracted process of dying, and after that person died, someone said, "She's in a better place now."  I certainly hope that's true for Amanda.  Now I'm realizing why such a wish might seem banal to some people, and why some might deem me a simpleton or worse for echoing it:  That vigil, whatever anyone may want to say about it, was probably a better "place" than any she had experienced in this life.   

Perhaps her spirit was guiding us. The proceedings were free of rancor and hostility.  Those of us who had never met her could feel a connection to her, and even the cops who were there seemed, if not benevolent, at least less like the ones who aid and abet the harassment and violence that too many of us experience. In fact, someone even praised their work, even though the cops we saw weren't directly involved with the capture of the man who is charged with killing her.  Elizabeth Maria Rivera, who organized the vigil, said that she was orignally going to hold a protest on the steps of the local (104th) precinct house.  But, upon learning that the man charged with murdering Amanda had been captured and returned to New York, she changed plans.   She and I exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers; I did the same with a few other people there.  Perhaps I will meet her, and some of the others, again some day.