Fifteen years ago, on a rainy evening in San Francisco, a group of transgender people and others met at the Castro Street MUNI station. From there, this small group would walk across the way to the Castro Theater, standing out front with placards naming various victims of anti-transgender violence while “The Brandon
Teena Story” was shown inside. I then said a few words while standing out in the street in the rain — the sidewalks were smaller back then — and we all made our way back to MUNI and headed for home.
From these rather humble beginnings was formed the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Today it honors those lost in the last year due to anti-transgender violence around the globe every Nov. 20. It has become something much larger than was thought possible by those of us who met that one night. Today it is one of the few yearly events honored throughout the LBGT community — and even beyond.
I’m honored to have founded the event and am truly humbled to see what it has become. I founded it, yes, but it has gained a life far beyond me — and that is cool.
Every year, as I give interviews about the event, I get asked one question that has a very difficult answer: People want to know if the number of people being killed due to anti-transgender violence has dropped. The answer? No, the number of people being killed due to anti-transgender violence has not markedly changed in decades.
In fact, it is possible that the numbers have grown as the transgender community has gained visibility. It is hard to say for certain, as reporting of anti-transgender murders has also improved, and the community is paying attention to these deaths a lot more.
Those interviewing me never ask what seems like the obvious follow-up question: If this hasn’t helped cause a decline in anti-transgender violence, can the Transgender Day of Remembrance be seen as a failure or, at the least, ineffective?
I don’t have an easy answer to that question, and I don’t think there even is an easy answer to be had.
I suppose if your metric is a simple cause and effect, then yes, it would seem that the event itself has not caused less anti-transgender murders to happen, and that is a pretty damning indictment of the event. But, the same could likely be said of most other attempts to draw attention towards violence and murder in other communities. It is not so cut and dry.
What the Transgender Day of Remembrance has done, first and foremost, is build an awareness of anti-transgender violence. It has not done it via ribbon magnets, color-coded merchandise, silicone bracelets or other tchotchkes. Instead, it has done it via direct action, honoring those we have lost, and remembering them when so many others would rather they simply be forgotten.
It has helped bring together a community, and provided a focus. The Transgender Day of Remembrance was the first transgender-specific event. Today many tie it into a Transgender Awareness Week, while the Transgender Day of Action and Transgender Day of Visibility borrow liberally from the Transgender Day of Remembrance’s name. The transgender community honors its lost, something I personally consider a very noble and valuable thing.
Along those same lines, the Transgender Day of Remembrance has increased the visibility of transgender issues overall. In the fight for rights, the first and foremost one is simply the right to exist. From the discussion of anti-transgender murder comes discussion of violence, prejudice, slurs and so on. It has been cited in hate-crime bills, in anti-bullying measures and in all forms of transgender-inclusive equal-rights bills.
The event has also served as a place for members of other communities to begin to understand our issues. They may glaze over a lot of our needs and desires, but everyone can understand how violence and murder can affect a community, and everyone should be able to empathize with another’s loss.
It is also important to note that the event has not only drawn attention to the issue of anti-transgender violence, but has also drawn attention to other prejudices visible in these murders. It’s not enough to simply talk about bias against transgender people in these murders, but also that the majority of these cases are transgender women and are black or other people of color. The places where transgender issues intersect with racism and sexism are abundant in the event; you cannot talk about anti-transgender violence without looking at this broader picture.
Now back to that question at hand. All of these have been the impact of the event over the last 15 years. In the grand scheme of things, the Transgender Day of Remembrance is a very big part of what the transgender community has become over the last 15 years. These are our histories, very much intertwined.
While the rate of violent anti-transgender murder may not have changed as a direct result of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, I do believe that the consequences for these murders have been affected. These killers may not know it when they commit murder, but the transgender community is now one that does pay attention to those it has lost, and will be there to see that justice is served.
That, to me, is the biggest part of all. We as a community have grown to the point that you cannot so easily murder us. We’re not so easily forgotten that you can erase us with a knife or a bullet. In our numbers, we have strength and will always fight for justice.
And that is the real answer.