I want to believe in peace. I want to believe we can unlearn violence & affirm our interdependency. I dream of a community of lovers, who navigate pain, joy, laughter and grief together, collectively & with care; experiencing endless beauty. I think I am dreaming of a modern day heaven, or perhaps I am dreaming of the good we were meant to be. Ki'tay Davidson, Why I Quit Philanthropy Dark rectangle with the above quote and a photo of Ki'tay during a presentation to disabled youth. Ki’tay is smiling with an open mouth and snapping in celebration of a great comment by an audience member while facilitating a Disability History, Culture, and Pride workshop for youth with disabilities during the summer of 2014. Ki'tay is holding a microphone in his left hand and snapping with his right. He is wearing a black shirt, orange pants and a faux leather black hat turned backwards.
[Please note that this written version of Ki'tay's eulogy does not reflect some of the spontaneous additions made during its presentation. Other notes: Immediately prior to presenting this eulogy, I opened by centering the space by sharing Ki’tay’s name sign (*heart touch with the eight finger*) that was given by a Deaf individual & asking participants to collectively uplift names/name signs of those who are no longer physically with us. I also acknowledged that I would be switching between tenses because I had not quite figured out this whole thing.]
Saturday, December 13, 2014
Orland Park, Illinois
What an incredible honor.
I am so very humbled, grateful and honored to be counted among those who know and love Ki’tay D. Davidson. My name is Talila A. Lewis--sign name and chosen name, TL. Ki’tay is my life partner, my mentee, my mentor, my dearest friend, and the one who showed me precisely what the meaning of love is.
It is solely because of Ki’tay that the theme of this day & of the rest of my eternity is: Love Wins.
We come together today, not only to celebrate the life & legacy of a beautiful human being who embodied everything that active love is, but also to learn about those who may come from different communities & yet be just as human as you--to learn how to affirm, love and fight with and for them. In doing so, we will love ourselves more deeply and move the world faster toward collective justice & liberation--the world that Ki’tay dreamed of and fought for with all of his being and all of his heart.
There is a quote by the poet Rumi that reminds me deeply of Ki’tay & helps me understand precisely how many of us feel in this moment about his loss. It’s a question and an answer--which is how most who truly knew him remember Ki’tay: Dialogue. Interdependence centered always.
The quote is as follows:
"My heart is so small . . . it's almost invisible. How can you place such big sorrows in it?"
"Look," he answered, " your eyes are even smaller, yet they behold the world."
Ki’tay was a lot of things to a lot of people, organizations & institutions:
While Ki’tay’s work, what he stood for, and how he transformed all of these people and entities can never be encapsulated in any language, what we can be sure of is that they will forever be changed for the better because of his existence and sacrifice.
Many here may have met Ki’tay but aren’t familiar with who he is or what he stood for. Allow me to share a bit about him with you:
Ki’tay is a Revolutionary dreamer, leader and lover. One who prized people, prioritized love & propelled action by empowering all.
Last year, for example he was awarded a prestigious White House award, honoring his contributions as a “Champion of Change” for his transformative advocacy & activism with and for multiply-marginalized people with disabilities. Upon being named the Champion of Change, he penned an open letter to the community saying this, in part:
I challenge the extent to which we place the responsibility for advocacy on those designated as leaders or “champions.” Advocacy is not just a task for charismatic individuals or high profile community organizers. Advocacy is for all of us; advocacy is a way of life. It is a natural response to the injustices and inequality in the world. While you and I may not have sole responsibility for these inequities that does not alter its reality.
Today I am thankful. I am thankful for every ally and individual working, struggling and fighting to make this world a better place--thankful to any and everybody who realizes that this world is bigger than themselves, and who channels that awareness to “level the playing field.” These are people who can acknowledge their privilege and opportunity, and consciously and intentionally use their existence to transform communities...I may have earned a prestigious award, but today it is not really about me. It is about the community and I am simply a singular representative of thousands of people who give their hearts and their time to living a life of transformation. Thank you to all the champions who came before me, to those I have met, and to those who I have yet to meet. Thanks to those champions who have encouraged, listened, affirmed, fought and loved, alongside our beautiful community. Together, we have made change and will continue to make change. There are many chains that need to be broken. We all know it. I support you and welcome you to hold me accountable as we hold all of ourselves accountable to facilitating inclusive and loving environments for all.
These are what I have come to call Ki’tay’s truths.
Ki’tay found innovative ways to speak to injustice in many different contexts—from racism, transphobia, ableism, to discrimination against incarcerated persons and people with a history of incarceration. Indeed, he possessed courage of his convictions. It could be said; and it is true, that many people possess this trait.
However, it was Ki'tay's ability to sit with and actively love oppressors and those who were violent toward him and marginalized communities—most often solely because they do not adhere to that which has been deemed “normal”—that truly set him apart. He could breathe life and love into even those people within mere moments of making their acquaintance. This is what makes him special—reminiscent of what some here may call a prophet; others, a wise man; others still, a light or sage.
He was grounded in love. Always.
Ki’tay did not feign to know all of the answers to the problems of the world, but he prided himself on always learning and evolving to address injustices. Those who know him will tell you that rarely a day went by that he was not researching and sending research to others on issues that most of us could not even begin to understand. When confused about the content, we were not chided or insulted for not knowing, but affirmed for our interest and ability to challenge ourselves. He could explain the most abstract and nuanced concepts with elegance and pith such that all you could do was smile and shake your head after having struggled for days--sometimes weeks--to digest the content.
This was Ki’tay’s love language. Community-centered learning, growth, activism and healing.
He was frequently caught quoting the famed Assata Shakur:
It is our duty to fight. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
He has understood since, well, birth it seems [Ki'tay's mother had just shared some stories about his struggles for justice as a toddler and young child], that we can not remain silent about injustice against any group of people, be they black, disabled, indigenous, gender nonconforming, trans, homeless, sex workers, incarcerated persons, and the list continues. He understood that each individual group’s liberation was inextricably linked to the other--that justice & liberation could only be had if we all stand together and fight for the rights and liberties of the next individual or community. He understood that we are free when we use our freedom to advance the rights of all members of our community; or as Nelson Mandela put it, “to be free is not just casting off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
It was his visceral yearning for universal equality, solidarity & collective activism that explains Ki’tay's immense joy with the recent collective creation of #DisabilitySolidarity with Allie Cannington and myself. Disability Solidarity has been the impetus behind groups fighting for disability justice to dedicate themselves to racial justice and for non disability civil rights organizations to dedicate themselves to disability justice.
On October 17th, I sent Ki’tay an email for which he expressed sincere gratitude. The short email was a quote from the Dalai Lama, who, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, said this:
Man surprises me most about humanity.
Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money.
Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.
And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present;
the result being that he does not live in the present or the future;
he lives as if he is never going to die,
and then dies having never really lived.
One thing Ki’tay did do was live fully. Another was consciously ignore the vanity that pervades our culture. He found the beauty in everything natural. He valued all people regardless of gender, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, religious or spiritual bent (or lack thereof), or gender identity. He found & created beauty where it could not be found and shared this beauty and love with all who would listen—and with those who thought they were not interested, but had no idea.
See, many of you here are familiar with parables and stories of grace and justice that you studied and learned from holy books. I however, was fortunate to witness parables and actions of grace and justice because Ki’tay lived them.
Solidarity for Ki’tay means active resistance to the status quo--letting ALL people know that they are respected, cherished, valued & LOVED. Solidarity also means letting them know that despite our failures, we are committed to their cause because it is inextricably linked to each of our individual and collective causes. Ki’tay believed that the time is now to seek what is just.
Ki’tay did more in twenty-two years than many can complete in several lifetimes. If he were here right now witnessing for and sharing with all of you in light of all that has occurred even over these past several days, I believe his heart would share this modified message from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of my generation and those who are in the generations to come--who wait eagerly for your response. Will you say to us that the odds are too great? Will you tell us the struggle is too hard? Will your message to us be that the forces of life militate against our arrival as full persons, and that you send your deepest regrets? Or will there be another message—of longing, of hope, of solidarity with our yearnings, of commitment to our causes, whatever the cost? The choice is yours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
In closing, I wish to offer you, a call to love & a call of action.
Here is our call to love. This, from the great Paulo Coelho:
In those moments, love appears and says: 'You think you're heading toward a specific point, but the whole justification for the goal's existence lies in your love for it. Rest a little, but as soon as you can, get up and carry on. Because ever since your goal found out that you were traveling toward it, it has been running to meet you.
And now, our call to action--again from the late great Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. . . .Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
Thank you Ki’tay for consciously sharing your love with us.
Thank you Ki'tay for your countless quiet sacrifices in the name of love, liberation, humanity.
I wholeheartedly recognize and am forever humbled in knowing that you are the mightiest of all our miracles.
May we ever uplift, share and act out your truth: Love Wins.
TW/CW: Discussion of death & violence against a transman after his physical passing. This is a relatively short post about how this world treated my partner, Ki'tay D. Davdson, upon his transition herefrom.
When you are trans, you cannot escape violence in life or death.
There is no rest.
When you are trans, you must be at the ready and ever prepared to combat violence--dead or alive.
Particularly striking are the solemn realities of life and death for transfolk of color, transfolk with disabilities, transfolk living with little or no income; and transfolk at any and all of these intersections. For these individuals, there is no fanfare, Vanity Fair, life fair, or death fair. The world calls you what it wants and treats you how it will--dead or alive.
This is just one small part of Ki’tay D. Davidson’s life story. Ironically, it begins a day after his transition from this physical world. Despite his constant warmth & endless love in life, the cold hatred of this world could not help but try to envelop him in death.
These are partial transcripts from phone calls that took place on December 3, 2014:
. . .
Los Angeles County Coroner Investigator: Well, I just spoke with one of my lieutenants and the way we do the death certificate is by anatomical structure.
Me: That doesn’t make any sense and that’s not going to work. . . .
Investigator: I can have the lieutenant call you.
[Lieutenant calls me. ]
Lieutenant: . . . In this office, we go by anatomical reproductive organs that are intact. This happens a lot. I mean we are in L.A.
Me: Right. I get that trans people end up in your office relatively frequently. You mean that you all still don't have any policies in place to ensure that people are correctly identified on their death certificates?
[I repeat what I have shared with at least three other individuals at the coroner’s office--“anatomical structures/organs/etc.” are not in any way determinative of a person’s gender; this kind of discrimination leads to inaccuracies in government documents and dishonors and erases the lives of people; in 2014 the LA coroner must have some kind of policy on gender markers, and so on. . .]
Lieutenant: Here, we just go by reproductive organs. . . This is just the death certificate, the family can dress him up any way you want for the world.
Hurt by the brazen and casual anti-trans violence; and in sheer terror and panic at the idea that all that my partner fought for in life could be blotted out with the simple stroke of a pen, I mustered my best poker voice and let this lieutenant know that an attorney would be in touch with him about this. I suppose I thought that he might simply agree to do as requested. Not so much. I had no idea who was going to take on this case (which literally had to be resolved within less than a day or two).
And so, after his passing, I had to work to find and communicate with attorneys; organize life celebrations in three states, and a funeral in another; support Ki’tay’s mother with all that comes with a sudden passing; hold up all those who Ki'tay touched who needed to be held in this terrible time of loss; while continuing my own volunteer advocacy for disabled/deaf incarcerated individuals and wrapping up grades for two classes of university students. All of this while trying to grieve the loss of the greatest human and partner and figure out what to do about the fact that those who knew him least were busy commodifying Ki’tay:
"It is just a death certificate. You can dress him up any way you want to for the world."
I was at a loss on the phone that day, and have been in a haze for some time since, but here is what I wish I had been able to say to the lieutenant:
Mr. Smith, if your death certificate labeled you as Ms. Smith, would it be "just a death certificate" then?
It is not “just a death certificate,” and our lives & deaths are not a game of “dress up.”
This certificate of death reflects his breath in life. It reflects his triumph in life--over people like you.
Before you lies a man who packed 100 years of active love and righteous struggle into just twenty-two.
Before you lies a man who is unapologetically black, trans, man, disabled, queer, revolution.
Before you lies a man who gave his all for humanity.
After quite a bit of work from a team of attorneys and several who loved Ki’tay, we triumphed. His death certificate rightly reads, male. This was a huge victory for Ki'tay, but I still grieve deeply about this and its many implications.
How many trans people have gone through this violence before him and how many since? What about those who did not have any family who valued the whole humanity of our departed trans loved ones? Those who did not have a partner with education and legal networking privilege? What of them? What of those to come?
I have been consumed by various kinds of grief since Ki'tay's passing. This grief, however--the grief of knowing that transfolk, still have to fight for justice, love & dignity in death--should not exist. And yet, here I am, still grieving this so. Here is my call to love & action for us all:
Do not force us to fight in death like we are made to fight in life.
Do not make us grieve in death like we are made to grieve in life.
Allow our loved ones to grieve our loss, not your violence.
Let us love.
Let us live.
Let us die [of natural causes].
Let us be [free].
As for my partner:
Call him KI'TAY.
Call him HE.
Call him LOVE.
Eternal thanks to the attorneys who supported Ki’tay in death to be his truest self & to family who literally and figuratively showed up at the coroner’s to honor Ki’tay’s whole self & demand the justice that he always demanded for himself and others:
Dorcas Williams, Ki’tay’s Mother
Sasha Burchert, Transgender Law Center
Allie Cannington, Ki’tay’s Dearest Friend
Susan Mizner, ACLU, Disability Counsel
Shruti Purkayastha, Ki’tay’s Housemate & Friend
Chase Strangio, ACLU, LGBTQ & AIDS Project
Turay, Dear Friend of Ki’tay
Ilona Turner, Transgender Law Center
"We know that those who came before us dreamed of things that no one thought could exist. We honor them by continuing to dream—by finding new ways to advance the rights that they gave their lives for."
Talila A. Lewis, Keynote excerpt, 2016 MLK Day Minnesota Statewide Celebration Keynote