The fire that engulfed an arts space and performance venue in Oakland, CA—known locally as The Ghost Ship—on Friday night killed at least 36 people.
In the aftermath, as friends and families began to identify loved ones they had lost, the process was even more painful for some, who watched people they loved being misidentified in death by the local sheriff’s department and in local news reports.
There were at least three transgender women among the dozens who died, the San Francisco Chronicle reported: Feral Pines (who also went by Riley Fritz, according to The New York Times), Em Bohlka, and Cash Askew.
But the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department had “dead named” and misgendered Pines in their releases. That means the department—and, as a result, some local news outlets—were identifying them by their birth names and genders, which amounts to a denial of trans peoples’ identities even in death. Police frequently use trans peoples’ birth names, especially if they haven’t been changed in their government-issued identification, like a driver’s license.
“The impact that this lack of dignity and awareness has on the community of trans people who are alive right now is it tells them that their fight is irrelevant, that they’re going to be disrespected regardless of how they fight to live their lives,” Eliza Wicks-Frank, a friend and former partner of Pines’ told the Chronicle. “Many times I had conversations with her about how her greatest fear in death was being misrepresented for her true self. It’s about dignity in death.”
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department did not immediately return a request for further comment.
Pines, 29, was a visual artist and musician, who played the bass and planned to start a band. “For many of her trans community, Feral was a guide and sister in a world of small joys and terrible precarity for trans women,” Scout Wolfcave, a friend, told the East Bay Times.
Cash Askew, 22, was a musician. She founded the goth pop band Them Are Us Too. One reporter who interviewed Askew about her music described her as “a thoughtful, bright, and special musician.”
Em Bohlka’s father, Jack Bohlka, posted on Facebook about the loss of his daughter: “Recently she began her transition to becoming a beautiful, happy woman. She at last was living as she was meant to live. I only wish she had more time to fully enjoy her life. She had taken the name Em,” he wrote. She was 33 years old—a poet, baker, and barista.
The Ghost Ship was a safe space for his daughter and the trans community in Oakland, he told The New York Times in an interview. “Although the building itself was not physically safe, the community of beautiful people felt safe with each other,” he said.
As of early Wednesday morning, the cause of the fire was still under investigation–though ABC news reported that a refrigerator in the building is being considered as a possible starting point for the blaze.
The building, an 86-year-old warehouse structure, had recently been cited by city officials for a code violation, and city records showed multiple complaints over the past eight years about the building’s maintenance and safety. There were no fire sprinklers in the building, city officials said over the weekend.