The Power of Virtual Placemaking: A Transformational Memorial

The Transgender memorial in Second Life

The Grounds of the International Transgender Hate Crimes and Suicide Memorial

The power of virtual immersive platforms becomes really clear when you find a place in a virtual world that really uses the environment effectively. The International Transgender Hate Crimes and Suicide Memorial provides an excellent example of such a space.  To start, the memorial is a peaceful, visually appealing place: a beautiful building and surrounding green space, with the sound of waves crashing at the shore. The dark granite walls, reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, lend a somber tone to the space and the feeling of being in a protected enclave.

Upon entering the building you encounter an alter filled with pink and blue candles.  This is the memorial for transgendered people who have died from suicide. Each candle has a name associated with it and when you click on the candle a description of what happened to that person comes up in the chat. I clicked on quite a few of the candles: the tragedy of these deaths comes through loud and clear. Nearby the altar is a box where you can submit a request to light a candle for someone.

 

The alter with candles inside the memorial

The Altar with Candles

Outside there are headstones, each one representing the homicide of a transgendered person. Once again, as you click on each headstone a description of how the person was murdered is shared in chat. The horror of these deaths is palpable. There are two large pillars on either side of the memorial which have names etched in brass, listed by year. Currently there are names going as far back as 1998, but one of the memorial creators, Random Demin, told me they have names going back 40 years.

Its hard to describe the emotional power of this place. I felt a deep sadness and anger: the candles, headstones and list of names all come together to drive home the violence, loss and utter senselessness of these deaths. The information here–about the violence our society perpetuates against transgendered people–is not new to me. But this information is delivered with a powerful punch: the names of people and the stories about their death personalizes the information in a way that statistics can’t.

Stepping back from this experience, it’s helpful to consider how this place might be helpful in a healing process for some people–clearly not all of what’s needed, but certainly presenting an opportunity for transformation:

  • Suicides often invoke shame for survivors, and shame isolates people and grows stronger in isolation. Certainly there is a lot of cultural shame that is levied on transgendered people. Standing in front of those candles–yes, even standing as an avatar–one can sense the power of numbers. All of a sudden it’s no longer about one suicide…it’s about many suicides and it’s about a world that hurts people for who they are, hurts them so much that they feel they have no choice but to leave it. This awareness of the larger context can help support a transformation of shame into anger: anger at the conditions that make it a hostile world.
  • You can memorialize someone you’ve lost with a candle or a headstone by contacting the site’s creators. This is a powerful symbolic act for many people in real life and virtual life. It burns perpetually, both in memory of the loved one and bearing witness.
  • It’s hard to come to this memorial space without seeing the larger context: a society that is hostile to a group of people. Understanding this larger context provides a deeper level of understanding and potentially can become the impetus for taking social action. Taking action is taking power back, and powerlessness is part of the core of what is so difficult when a loved one is lost to a traumatic death.
  • Building this memorial space is both a healing act and an act that challenges our larger society to take stock of such senseless deaths and challenge the people and culture that perpetuate this violence.

    Statue in the Courtyard

Random Demin was able to give me some background on this project. She and Gwen Collins created the memorial in 2007 and held their first 24 hour vigil there that year on the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, November 20th. This Day of Remembrance was established in 1999 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith. Moreover, the project has a larger long-term goal of creating a memorial in real life. In the mean time, Second Life provides a good substitute that can fill some of the functions of a real life memorial in a safe place.

This memorial is a wonderful example of the power of virtual placemaking in terms of healing grief, raising awareness about injustice, and facilitating community. You can visit the memorial in Second Life at http://slurl.com/secondlife/Hejira/228/27/21/ As in past years, they will be holding a 24 hour vigil there on November 20, 2010. You contact Random Demin through Second Life or through the Foundation for Advancement of Transgender Equality,  F.A.T.E. International.

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