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My Reflections on Transgender Day of Remembrance

By Donald Collins

Image credit: Donald Collins

Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), observed on November 20th, was started by writer and LGBTQ pioneer Gwendolyn Ann Smith in 1998, after the death of Rita Hester. Hester was a black trans woman, living and working in the Allston neighborhood of Boston. She was found brutally stabbed in her apartment two days before her thirty-fifth birthday, and died on the way to the hospital. Her killer(s) were never caught.

Trans Remembrance Day serves as an international vigil, where organizations, communities, and individuals gather together, and memorialize the lives of trans folks lost over the past year. Prior to TDOR is Trans Awareness Week, which emphasizes visibility and outreach, and highlights the particular survival-based challenges facing trans people.

According to GLAAD, 2016 is “the most deadly year on record” for trans murders, with at least 26 confirmed deaths. The most at-risk are trans women of color, and those who don’t visually ‘fit’ into our rigid conceptions of male/female stereotypes.


For families struggling to extend support and recognition to the trans people in their lives, coming across these staggering murder statistics is a lot to handle. The very real danger of living as a visible trans person can lead parents and guardians to push children back towards the safety of the closet. 

In the days after I came out to my mom my senior year of high school, she begged me to consider the implications it would have on my safety. She lamented that my life would be “that much harder,” and I was frustrated she kept reminding me of something I already knew. We struggled to make space for our fears in a way that didn’t drive us further apart. It is precisely because of the threat against LGBTQ safety that we most need our families and communities on our side of the court (the rad side).


The first “famous” trans story I consumed was not that of Laverne Cox, but of Brandon Teena, a twenty-one-year old white trans guy from Nebraska who was raped and murdered in 1993.

At the time I learned about Brandon’s story on Wikipedia, I had just started digging around the internet for a language or model to fit what I intuited about myself: that I didn’t identify as a girl, and was deeply unhappy living as one. I was enamored with Brandon. I thought he was gorgeous and cool. He left a home that didn’t understand him and had adventures, got in trouble, got depressed, and tried to place himself in his own skin and the world. But my sense of resonance with Brandon’s gender expression was as life-affirming for me as it was death-causing for him.

Brandon was murdered by two male friends of his girlfriend. Days earlier, they had discovered he was trans, and sexually assaulted and kidnapped him. He escaped, even went to the police and the hospital. The two men then hunted him down, killing him and the two people he was staying with. It was methodical. It was a hunt. It took place over days. People knew he was in trouble. The police were rude and negligent. The hospital lost his rape kit.

Trans Day of Remembrance urges us to confront that by not fully valuing and respecting LGBTQ lives, we maintain systems that facilitate, even encourage, their deaths.


A fellow writer and Emerson grad, Willie Burnley Jr., recently sent me a letter about Transformation. He began by evoking the recent presidential election turmoil, writing, “If I were to be an optimist, which I generally am not, I would say that what is knocking on our door now is not necessarily Death, but change. The two are known to associate, however.”

His words were not directly about Trans Day of Remembrance (or this blog post, or my family life) but I found that they resonated with me for days. Indeed, the taut relationship between Death and change is constant theme of the upcoming joint memoir my mom and I wrote together about wrestling with each other’s differences as I transitioned from female to male. The moments when our relationship was closest to being destroyed, we underwent our most startling transformations.

Death and change are also the patron saints of the LGBTQ community. The threat of hate and struggle for recognition are nearly universal for otherwise unique individuals. And it’s no secret that our allies-at-large (and us) pay more attention when horrible things happen. Young Matthew Shepard died at the hands of homophobes, and the love unicorn of the world reared its rainbow head. This is the reality of human experience. We progress in fits and starts but we do progress.

It terrifies me to think of Death as a part-time operator for the switchboard of change. Brandon’s murder and the cry for justice made my life as a trans man that much more possible. Will we ever be free of that price?


Recognition of trans lives gets stronger when we communicate. Strengthening familial bonds, having friends we trust. Making workplaces, schools, doctor’s office and places of worship safe through education and funding. Talking about where gender meets race, sexual orientation, class, and ability. All this starts with conversations, showing up and being present. There are so many people out there that haven’t reached out yet, or been reached. And this process of “reaching” is exhausting, so we have to take care of ourselves and each other.

Trans Day of Remembrance is our collective reminder to answer the door for change before that second, dire knock. It’s our collective reminder to answer the door for change whether we’re tired, angry, afraid, skeptical, or just sat down for dinner.

Because if we can do that, maybe one day we’ll be the one knocking.


About the Author 

Donald Collins is a trans advocate, writer, and recent cum laude graduate of Emerson College. His culture and commentary writing has appeared in PopMatters, Salon, and Next Magazine, among others.