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Rally for Black trans lives draws enormous crowd in Brooklyn

As Black Lives Matter protests continue around the country, throngs in New York City put a lens on the dangers facing the Black transgender community.
Image: The sister of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who died in Rikers Island Jail last year, speaks to a crowd gathered outside the Brooklyn Museum for a rally and march for Black transgender lives on June 14, 2020.
The sister of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who died in Rikers Island jail last year, speaks to a crowd gathered outside the Brooklyn Museum for a rally and march for Black transgender lives in New York on Sunday, June 14. 2020. Sekiya Dorsett

Protesters packed the courtyard of the Brooklyn Museum and surrounding parkway in New York City on Sunday in support of Black trans lives, merging the fight to protect two deeply marginalized groups.

The rally began about 1 p.m. in front of the museum, just a short walk east of Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza, as activists made speeches emphasizing the importance of human rights for Black trans lives. About two hours later, attendees began to march north, led by event organizers and Black transgender women in front.

A number of groups, including the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, The Okra Project and Black Trans Femmes in the Arts, co-organized Sunday's rally and march.

A spokesperson for the organizers did not have an official estimate for the crowd, but a swarm of attendees covered the plaza in front of the museum and took over the road on Eastern Parkway, likely in the thousands.

The speakers included transgender activist Raquel Willis, author Ceyenne Doroshow and the family of Layleen Polanco, according to the event's homepage.

Polanco was a transgender woman who died in June 2019 after an epileptic seizure while in solitary confinement at Rikers Island jail. Video obtained by NBC Out on Saturday revealed that guards tried to wake her for about an hour and a half before calling for help.

"The video is the last piece of the puzzle," David Shanies, an attorney for Polanco's family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of New York and several Rikers staffers, told NBC News. "It's the last bit of indifference to her life that we saw and recklessness to a person who obviously needed help."

The rally came just days after two Black transgender women were killed in Ohio and Pennsylvania, each of which are being investigated as homicides.

The body of Dominique "Rem'mie" Fells was found Monday floating in the Schuylkill River in southwest Philadelphia, according to NBC Philadelphia. She was bruised, and both of her legs were severed, police said.

Fells' death was a reminder that as the nation discusses Black Lives Matter, transgender lives are included, Philadelphia's Office of LGBT Affairs said in a statement Thursday.

"We are reminded with this, and countless other painful losses — especially within our transgender communities — that there is much left to do until we achieve full equality, respect, and support for us all," the office said. "The murder of transgender people — especially those of color — is truly an epidemic, and a crisis that we cannot afford to allow to persist any further."

The day after Fells' body was found in Philadelphia, Riah Milton, 25, was shot to death in Liberty Township, Ohio. Authorities said Milton, a Black transgender woman from Cincinnati, was lured to the township in an attempt to rob her, according to a statement Tuesday from the Butler County Sheriff's Office.

Two people, an 18-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl, were arrested and charged in Milton's death.

Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the Human Rights Campaign's Transgender Justice Initiative, urged people in a statement to remember that they can speak up before any transgender person dies.

"In the same week countless people across the globe stand up for racial injustice, in the same week we honor the 49 victims of the Pulse massacre in Orlando, in the same week a billionaire author spouts transphobic rhetoric to millions — in this same week, we have lost two more Black transgender women to the same fate most of us worry about every day," Cooper said.

As the country rallies behind dismantling racist systems that put Black lives at risk in the wake of George Floyd's death, activists have also put a lens on Black trans people who are at the intersection of two dangerously marginalized groups. June is Pride Month, a celebration of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, which is often credited with being a turning point in the liberation movement of the LGBTQ community.

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On Friday, President Donald Trump's administration finalized its rollback of protections against gender identity discrimination in health care regulated by the Affordable Care Act.

The administration would recognize "sex discrimination according to the plain meaning of the word 'sex' as male or female and as determined by biology," according to a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The move means insurance policies and health care regulated under the Obama-era Affordable Care Act can deny services to transgender people.

There can be no hierarchy created to determine which Black lives are more valuable than others, Tiq Milan, an LGBTQ advocate, wrote in an essay for NBC Think on Tuesday.

"Race and gender equality go hand in hand for Black LGBTQ people," Milan wrote. "We can't pick only one kind of justice because to examine them both is too complicated or makes some us look at our own complacency."

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