Transgender Community Wants Proper Identification After Deadly Oakland Warehouse Fire
The father of one victim says all communities must become more accepting so "everyone can enjoy a great party or concert in a space that is not a death trap"
The Oakland warehouse artists' enclave was supposed to be a safe place, emotionally and spiritually, for the artists and free spirits who chose lives off the beaten track. An electronic music party had also attracted many in the transgender community, who had come together on Friday night, as they did regularly, to dance with friends and blow off steam.
But physically, the enclave wasn't safe at all on Friday. A fire ripped through the illegally converted warehouse at 1305 East 31st Avenue in the city's Fruitvale neighborhood, killing at least 36 people.
It's the deadliest blaze in Oakland history, and it counts at least three transgender women among the victims: Cash Askew, 22, of Oakland; Feral Pines, 29, of Berkeley and Em Bohlka, 33, of Oakland.
The father of one is lamenting how few spaces trans people have to gather safely.
"My heart goes out to the entire trans community who feel as if they must gather in unsafe buildings to experience their community and celebrate their identity," said Jack Bohlka in an Instagram post remembering his daughter, Em.
Friends and family prefer their new names be used to identify them, instead of the ones they were born with, following commonly accepted tradition in the trans community. And that means authorities are now also dealing with an unorthodox situation; one they said they're willing to comply with, albeit with a few mistakes.
What's in a Name?When Feral Pines was identified as a victim in the fire, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office on Monday first gave her name as Justin Fritz, her birth name. That was corrected later and the sheriff tweeted an apology.
In an interview on Tuesday, Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. J.D. Nelson said the coroner's office is now identifying the victims to the public by the names their families — not their friends — ask for, and will note the legal name, if different, on the official death certificate, which is the law. Alameda County sheriff's Tya Modete added that department was working with an LGBT advocate to report the proper gender identification.
A name means a lot in the trans community, a fact that was known by most, if not all, of the creative, musical and artistic party goers at the warehouse on Friday night.
"It's called 'dead naming,'" Carol Dauley, an audio engineer and past president of Transgender SF said in an interview with NBC Bay Area on Tuesday. "That means their old name no longer exists. It's disrespectful, and in the eyes of the trans community, there is never a good reason to use the old name."
Scout Wolfcave, executive director at the Trans Assistance Project in Portland and a friend to one of the victims, said using the right names and pronouns is especially important for trans people when they die.
"Many in the transgender community don't want to be referred to by the names they were given at birth, because when they transition from one gender to another, they want to make a clean break from the past," Wolfcave wrote on Facebook.
Pastor Megan Rohrer, of Grace Lutheran Church in San Francisco, said she appreciated that first responders were taking great pain to get pronouns correct.
"I just want to lift up how great I think that is, that they're taking the time to do their best, even though it's really hard," they said. (Rohrer uses they/their as gender pronouns.)
Rohrer also noted that the LGBT community at large has a long history of holding celebrations in unsafe places on the margins of the community, going back to the days of vice squads patrolling San Francisco.
"The trans community and the LGBT community, when they don't feel safe in other parts of community, often find safety amongst artists," Rohrer said.
And yet the warehouse was beautiful, according to Rohrer, and it seemed to them that it was a great place to have a party: "That's kind of the transgender experience. There's so much beauty and there's so much risk, all the time.
Here are brief portraits of the three women who died in the fire.
Feral Pines: 'Shined in the Sun'Wolfcave was roommates with Pines, who moved to the Bay Area from Indiana and was originally from Connecticut. She graduated from Staples High School in 2005 and attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where she studied offset lithography, her father said. She had always loved music.
"I had just texted her on Friday, telling her about something I was doing with my daughter that she and I use to do together and I know that she saw it, so that makes me feel better," Pines' sister, Amanda Parry, told News 12 in Connecticut. And in an email, friend Sarah Patterson said that Pines was a "syth genius with impeccable musical taste," who was also an "anti-facist" who was seen taking down swastikas inside the Ghost Ship.
On Facebook, Wolfcave reminisced about being really close with Pines — they loved and hated most of the same things.
"We also all had eerily similar senses of humor and were constantly joking about death, burners, body horror, poop, tiny glasses, gogurt," Wolfcave wrote. "Conversely, there were a few things that Feral and I would always argue about, like ... whether one would rather go to Burning Man or the Gathering of the Juggalos."
Pines moved to California recently and just "blossomed," Wolfcave wrote.
"She went from the comically sad basement dwelling synth collector," Wolfcave wrote, "to a person that shined in the sun, and moved up and down the 1, and took in the fresh air and saw all these fresh possibilities open up before her."
Cash Askew: 'Brilliant, Talented, Unique' StudentAskew, a graduate of Urban High School in San Francisco, was active in the Bay Area music and art scene and was part of a band called Them Are Us Too. "Them" is a preferred pronoun for many in the transgender community instead of "him" or "her."
The band's debut album on Dais Records, Remain, was released in 2015.
"Cash Askew was an absolutely loved and treasured member of the Dais Records family," the label and band's management team said in a statement.
"We were in awe of her talent, her gentle kindness, and her creative momentum," it continued. "Her passing is an excruciating loss that we may never fully process or recover from."
Askew also was a 2008 graduate of the Children's Day School in San Francisco. "She was a brilliant, talented, unique, nonconformist student," Head of School Molly Huffman wrote in a letter, noting that Askew transitioned to female after middle school.
CDS teacher Terry Askhinos wrote a letter to the school remembering Askew as "a gentle, free spirited 13-year-old who always found ways to be an individual, whether it was in her class work, her fiction writing, her fashion, her art, or her political convictions. Cash was always one step ahead of the rest of us and I often held her up as an example to the class of how to make learning a work of art."
Em Bohlka: Beginning her TransitionHer father, Jack Bohlka of Claremont, Calif. took to Instagram to document his child's life.
"Many of you will remember her as Matt. But recently she was transitioning to become a beautiful, happy woman. She took the name Em. I just wish with all my heart that she had more time to live her life as she truly wanted. My heart goes out to the entire trans community who feel as if they must gather in unsafe buildings to experience their community and celebrate their identity. Our communities must become more open and accepting of all people, all identities, so that everyone can enjoy a great party or concert in a space that is not a death trap."
He also told NBC Bay Area in a statement he will be establishing a fund at his local LGBT center in memory of Em, so that more transgender people will be able to become who they truly are, and so that there will be more safe spaces available.”
Donations to the Oakland warehouse fire victims can be made at YouCaring.com
NBC's Asher Klein contributed to this report.