The murder of January Marie Lapuz brought a South Asian LGBT organization in Metro Vancouver to a standstill—one that lasted for several years.
In September 2012, police found Lapuz, a 26-year-old transgender woman, stabbed multiple times in her New Westminster apartment and she later died in hospital. In 2014, Charles Jameson "Jamie" Mungo pleaded guilty to manslaughter in June and was sentenced to eight years in prison that October.
By phone, Sher Vancouver founder Alex Sangha recalled how members of his group were so unnerved, traumatized, and grief-stricken by Lapuz's death that they ceased holding events, dropped out of participating in the Vancouver Pride parade, and didn't have the strength to organize any protests or rallies.
"She was suddenly and brutally taken from us and it just shocked us," Sangha said. "We never had closure."
Although Lapuz was from the Philippines and spoke English, Tagalog, and Chinese, she joined Sher Vancouver after befriending the group's moderator Ash Brar, who is South Asian but is also from the Philippines and fluent in Tagalog. Lapuz became the group's social coordinator, who hosted all of their events, not to mention also danced and sang up a storm.
"She was like the heart of our group, she was the social glue of the group, she was the mother of our group, and she was so loved", Sangha said. He described Lapuz as funny, loyal, and committed, and pointed out that she helped mentor many trans women through their transitions.
Her loss was a major blow to the organization—and it took them a lengthy period of time to find their feet again.
What did mobilize the group again eventually was when Sangha decided to pursue the creation of a film about Lapuz to illuminate what she meant to them.
"It [her death] was so tragic…so we wanted to create a positive legacy for her," Sangha said. "We wanted the film to show that the impact a death can have, that a murder can have, on not only the family and friends but the community at large."
Sangha said a Kwantlen Polytechnic University journalism professor recommended two students to him, Elina Gress and Lenée Son, who agreed to make a short film about Lapuz, starting in 2015. After Gress and Son completed that short, they wanted to continue on to make a longer film.
As Sangha said his group was unhappy with how media was reporting on Lapuz and "kind of blaming her for being a sex-trade worker", they were all in support of a larger project, which became My Name Was January.
He said that they wanted to give voice and self-determination to trans women of colour to express themselves and speak for themselves, which is why the film includes not only Lapuz's friends but also many trans women interviewees who discuss the various experiences of transgender people.
"A lot of times their voices aren't heard and they're silenced and a lot of the issues that January faced as a trans woman are the same issues that other trans women of colour face," he said.
Sangha said that the making of the film was very emotionally challenging because it forced them to constantly think about Lapuz over the past few years. What was particularly difficult was when January's adoptive mother Betty Lapuz was being filmed, which Sangha described as "so heartbreaking".
With the completion of the film, it has already been accepted to several U.S. festivals, and has been submitted to several local film festivals for consideration for exhibition in 2019. Vancouver-based Moving Images Distribution, which focuses on social justice issues, has also picked up the film for distribution. After the film festival circuit, Sangha said that they may also hold local screenings at venues such as libraries.
With the film being released, Sangha said he feels he now has peace of mind and acknowledged that working on this project helped them all to regain momentum.
"I realized that January doesn't want us to suffer in silence and not to make a difference in this world, and not help people like we were helping before," he said. "She wants us to get out there and to help trans women of colour and to help other gay and lesbian people and bisexual people, and to get out there in the communities."