We gather here tonight to pay our respects to a brave woman whose life was cut short. Who cried out for justice, but never saw it. On the steps of this church, I met Duanna Johnson this past summer after the abuse she suffered was revealed to the public. I was struck by her gentle spirit and the gratefulness she expressed as members of our community stepped forward to support her struggle.
Duanna had the courage to demand respect from those who did not understand her and abused her. She galvanized our community by calling attention to the verbal and physical violence inflicted on people because of race, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation. We can all learn from her life. We know that she did not have great means, but she never let anyone take away her dignity. She stood up for herself. She forced our city to reflect on the awful violence and ignorance that plagues our city. Her life moved our city’s leaders and the police to re-examine how it treats people who live at the margins of our society. More importantly, she gave us hope.
She gave hope to young children everywhere and in this city who wonder if there is anyone else out there like them who’s struggled with questions about gender or sexual identity. Children who have quietly endured suffering when no one hears their cries. They know they are not alone and that others have gone before them to pave the way to greater respect, dignity and freedom.
In Jewish tradition, it is said that one can give no greater gift than to bury the dead because it is a gift that can never be repaid. In fact, people from all over our nation have contributed to her family’s funeral expenses. But we can give more. Her life will mean even more to us if we dedicate ourselves to making Memphis a safe place for all. All of us - black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor, transgender or not - must continue her struggle by pressing our government and law enforcement agencies to treat all people with respect, fairness, and dignity.
Duanna is no longer with us in life. But her light will cast out the darkness if we tend the flame.
May Duanna rest in peace and may justice be served to those who murdered and persecuted her.
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