Yes, We Still Need a Transgender Day of Remembrance (and Resilience)
It’s been a year of increased transgender visibility—and reported murders of trans people—and Friday’s commemorations will be the largest ever. Should we be mourning, marveling, or both?
November 20 is the annual “Transgender Day of Remembrance,” an occasion founded in 1999 to remember transgender people who have been victims of violence. But in the age of Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Transparent, is such a day still needed?
The answer is an emphatic yes. As The Daily Beast has reported throughout this year, the number of reported murders of trans people, in particular of transgender women of color, has increased in 2015. As we said last August, it is both the best of times and the worst of times for those who are transgender or gender-nonconforming.
Taking a cue from the #sayhername hashtag, we can start by saying the names of those whose deaths have been recorded this year in the United States: Papi Edwards, Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Yazmin Vash Payne, Taja Gabrielle De Jesus, Penny Proud, Kristina Gomez Reinwald, Keyshia Blige, London Chanel, Mercedes Williamson, India Clarke, K.C. Haggard, Amber Monroe, Shade Shuler, Elisha Walker, Tamara Dominguez, Kiesha Jenkins, Jasmine Collins, Kandis Capri, Ashton O’Hara, and Bri Golec.
Most, though not all, were women of color. About half were engaged in sex work. These were women living at the intersections of transphobia, racism, homophobia, sexism, and criminalization. They are the most extreme victims of a vicious “backlash” against transgender people, before the “frontlash”—i.e., meaningful progress in transgender rights—has even taken place.
But they are by no means the only ones. The repugnant, deceptive maligning of transgender identity that we recently saw in Houston has already been echoed around the country. In my hometown of Tampa, Fla., an enterprising homophobe is fighting a local nondiscrimination ordinance saying that “men who claim they are women can use the ladies’ restroom, locker rooms, and showers in any facility” in the city.
Lies, ignorance, and filth. Nondiscrimination bills are not about bathrooms. Transgender women are not men who claim they are women. And thanks to the rape culture that homophobia itself props up, men have been assaulting women for years without any need for a trans-inclusive non-discrimination law.
Indeed, forcing women like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox into the men’s room would make them vulnerable to assault—just like the women whose names are listed above.
Meanwhile, 15 percent of transgender people live in poverty, compared with 4 percent of the U.S. population. Between 19 and 30 percent report suicidal ideation prior to gender transition therapy (only 1-6 percent do afterward). Gender identity and expression are grounds for firing employees in 33 states. Proper medical care is still inaccessible for many transgender people, who often must navigate varying degrees of useful and useless medical professionals before finding appropriate transition care, or ordinary health care from someone who understands gender and gender identity.
And, reports Planet Transgender, “a person who is transgender is 400 times more likely to be assaulted or murdered than the general population while only making up less than 1.5% of the total population.”
For all these reasons, at least 142 Transgender Day of Remembrance vigils are planned across the country Friday, according to the international TDOR website.
And yet some have suggested that today be renamed the Transgender Day of Resilience, not (just) Remembrance. On the one hand, the violence against transgender people remains under-reported and under-appreciated. On the other hand, if violence is the only story being told, it’s easy to miss the many ways in which trans people have triumphed over adverse circumstances to create lives that are remarkable in their depth and diversity.
This extends far beyond Hollywood’s often sensationalistic interest in transgender identity, incidentally. (Caitlyn Jenner is fine for the mainstream, and doing powerfully important work, but check out the indie film Tangerine for a better look at trans lives.) The first transgender White House staffer began work this fall. The U.S. military has begun to relax its ban on transgender soldiers. The world is changing.
There is also a wide experience of gender identity around the world. Earlier this year, for example, we reported that Thailand—which has a long-standing tradition of the kathoey, or “ladyboy”—was planning to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in its new constitution. Similar traditions exist in India, Nepal, and the Philippines.
Here in the United States, there has been a remarkable change in how law enforcement and media are responding to cases of violence. To be sure, it is likely that many acts of violence against trans people are not reported, or not properly reported. Yet, as in the case of Kiesha Jenkins last month in Philadelphia, there is a growing awareness of the epidemic of violence on the part of the public, and an increased ability of police departments, at least in major cities, to recognize anti-trans violence when it occurs. There is still a long way to go, and for many trans women of color, the dangers of racial policing may outweigh any new sensitivity to gender issues. But there is no question that the last few years have seen positive changes.
So—both resilience and remembrance. Even as trans lives are misrepresented and stigmatized in Halloween costumes and Houston hater rallies, they are also thriving in ways that would have been impossible a generation ago, or even a decade ago. The changes can seem sudden.
Yet as Joanne Keatley, who transitioned 50 years ago, told me over the summer: “The people who are transitioning now are able to do so because of the people who gave their lives for them to be able to do so. This transgender moment has been a long time coming and it didn’t happen overnight, and we need to be mindful of that.”
“So,” Keatley said, “I’m torn about this moment. It’s fantastic, and we need to grab the moment and make the most of it—grab it and really use it to raise awareness of the issues that still affect us and still deny us the opportunity to fully function and live in this world with the human rights and dignity that we all deserve.”