The Somber History of the Transgender Day of Remembrance
November 18, 2011
Nick Krieger is the author of Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender. You can read more of Nick's blog posts at ninaherenorthere.com. This piece originally appeared in The Advocate.
A few days ago, I spoke to the gender-neutral housing floor at an Ivy League college about my new transgender memoir. Before introducing me, the faculty advisor wanted to discuss the students’ responses to the recent vandalism (a “fag” slur) on their dorm, and a film they watched, the trans movie Gun Hill Road, which this advisor only brought to campus after ensuring that the trans character is not killed.
I keep returning to this act of homophobic harassment and the resistance to promoting the historically dominant, tragic trans narrative as I reflect on the approaching Transgender Day of Remembrance on Sunday.
This is the 13th year the growing community of transgender people and allies commemorates those killed due to anti-transgender hatred and prejudice. The history of this day dates back to 1998, when Rita Hester was brutally murdered in her home, and her friend, Gwendolyn Ann Smith, launched the Remembering Our Dead web project. The following year, a candlelight vigil for Hester was held, and would become the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance.
TDOR persists to raise awareness of hate crimes against trans folk, and to publicly mourn those who might otherwise be forgotten. Over 100 international events are listed on the website, along with the names (and occasionally) pictures of those we are memorializing.
In the past couple of years, some activists have brought up concerns over the grave tone and depressing theme. TDOR is the most well known acknowledgement of trans people, and as a trans-questioning person five years ago, the fact that our “special day” focused on violence and murder did little to put me at ease with myself. Almost every trans story I came across focused on pain, tragedy, loss, and suffering. I had to wonder: Is it possible to be a happy, healthy, successful trans person?
While I kept my own process of internal investigation to myself, I observed my transsexual, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming acquaintances in San Francisco from a distance. Over time, I watched them grow into themselves. I witnessed them find peace, joy, and expressions of their own unique beauty. These people inspired me to come out, and when I sat down to write my own trans narrative, I consciously decided to highlight the positive aspects of my experience, to focus on empowerment, and to find the humor wherever possible.
Now that I am a happy, healthy, successful trans person (or at least a person working on self-affirmations) invited to speak at a handful of universities as part of their Transgender Awareness Weeks leading up to TDOR, I aim to strike a balance between the somber and the celebratory, to engender hope while also acknowledging the work that still needs to be done.
Over the last decade, more than one person per month has died due to transgender-based hate or prejudice. A groundbreaking report released earlier this year, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, revealed the extreme challenges that trans people still face.
The statistics are alarming: 63% of participants experienced a serious act of discrimination (i.e., lost job, eviction, physical or sexual assault, bullying, homelessness, denial of medical services), and 23% faced a “catastrophic level of discrimination” —defined as being impacted by at least three major life-disrupting events. Across the board, trans people of color fared worse than the white participants.
As a trans person of many privileges (class, race, and education) talking to other (mostly) privileged college students this week, I find it important to acknowledge the disparities in what my mind links together: a homophobic act of vandalism and the intention to shift away from the tragic trans narrative at an elite university, and the unabated hate-crimes, violence, and discrimination against trans folk, most of whom lack social privileges.
I link these here intentionally, believing our struggles are all linked. While we may separate ourselves under our various social justice causes, our groups and acronyms must join together in the space of our hearts. We all must fight for equality and human rights – like the right to live – by backing, recognizing, and honoring each other.
On Sunday, we commemorate the loss of our trans folk. I call to everyone in the GLBTQIQA — buy a vowel, add a letter, become an ally — to visit the Transgender Day of Remembrance website and review some names and pictures. If you are so inclined, attend a vigil in your area, or simply light a candle in your house. Please take a small moment, even if it is right now, in memory of those in our community, this great big community of humanity, who have been killed in the past year for being themselves.
Then, take a breath and move forward, continue your activism by living honestly and authentically. In honoring our own lives, we remember the dead, something we will continue to do annually until our collective tragic trans narrative is obsolete.