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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 7, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 49
Melody's Stories: The Enduring Identity Project
Section One
ALL STORIES
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Melody's Stories: The Enduring Identity Project

Identities denied in death get a chance to live
An identity ignored, a transgender woman's suicide, inspires her cousin to speak for
her - and maybe thousands of others


by Bethany Grace Howe - Special to the SGN

'MELODY SPEAKS:
BRINGING MELODY'S STORIES
OF ENDURING IDENTITY
TO THE WORLD'
PAGLIACCI'S PIZZA (426 BROADWAY E)
December 8 @ 11am-noon


When Melody Owens died of suicide on Dec. 6, 2017, her obituary was not just a record of a life ended - but of one that was all but erased. A transgender woman, the only acknowledgement of her true identity was the word 'Melody' tucked in parentheses between the words 'Kristopher' and 'Owens.' Just one word unexplained, a reminder that even in death Owens would be denied what she so craved in life: acceptance of her identity.

That's not acceptable to Jennifer Henderson, 20, a pre-law student at the University of Washington. Unlike a year ago, however, there's something she can do about it. More, she's hoping that her efforts can not only bring dignity to lives lost, but that maybe those efforts can help prevent transgender suicides in the first place.

Henderson, working with transgender University of Oregon student Bethany Grace Howe, is the co-founder of 'Melody's Stories: The Enduring Identity Project.' A joint effort between students from the universities of Oregon and Washington, with financial support of the Caitlyn Jenner Foundation, those involved see the website eventually holding the collected life stories of thousands of people's true lives.

Indeed, its creators see it as more than just a place to remember transgender people. They hope anyone hoping to memorialize someone who had their identity in life denied in death will want to contribute to the site. People who lived in the closet their whole life, or those whose identity may have been quietly acknowledged by their friends, but denied by the press or their family in death: Henderson and Howe see the site eventually becoming a repository for life stories that cross the globe and the generations.

'I will never be finished grieving the loss of my cousin,' Henderson said. 'But there are ways for us to support and empower individuals like her before we lose them, and I'd like to think this is one of them.'

For Howe, a researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon, working on Melody's Stories has been a chance to take what she's learning about transgender identity as a researcher and put it to work for the transgender community.

'In the course of my research, I spend a lot of time talking to transgender youths all over the country, and one of the things I hear a lot is that they can't imagine living a normal life. That as a transgender person they're never going to get to have a regular job, have a regular family, etc.,' Howe said. 'There's a reason a transgender person takes their life every eight hours in this country, and I'd argue that not seeing your identity reflected in society is a huge part of that.'

'But the reality is this: transgender people do all of those regular things - we just never get to hear about them. Part of that is because the obituary page has been a place where we're erased. It's hard to aspire to something when you don't see any evidence that it's ever happened.' Indeed, it was that reality that inspired Henderson to initially reach out to Howe when they encountered each other one evening in Bremerton.

Kiva Hanson, co-president of the Queer Media Association at the University of Oregon, as well as co-editor-in-chief of the site, has found just working on the project has value beyond the normal classroom assignment. 'This project has given me the ability to support people in their identity, even as they move past this world,' she said. 'More, the ability to create support for people of many identities still fighting for equality is rewarding, and gives a larger sense of purpose to a lot of the work I do.'

The website will officially be active on Dec. 6, 2018, the one-year anniversary of Melody's death. The site will officially debut two days later, during 'Melody Speaks: Bringing Melody's Stories of Enduring Identity to the World,' a celebration and remembrance of Melody's life that will be held on Saturday, Dec. 8 from 11am-noon at Pagliacci's Pizza (426 Broadway E) in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. Pizzas and soda will be served.

In conjunction with the event, Howe and Henderson are hoping others will start thinking about people in their lives who have been denied their identity in death. They invite people to go to their site - www.MelodysStories.com - and submit names and information for getting people's life stories onto the site. Though people are welcome to submit life stories they've written themselves, volunteer writers from both the universities of Oregon and Washington are willing to turn those completed forms, once submitted, into stories.

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