I’ve long dedicated my life to transgender causes. Yet there is one thing I will forever be most known for, and that is the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
It started in anger, as I heard of yet another transgender murder and saw a community seemingly unaware that our lives were being taken from us. I started a website featuring George Santayana’s famous quotation, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” and an ever-growing list of names of those killed due to anti-transgender violence and prejudice.
From this led to a street protest in San Francisco that, with the help of Penny Ashe Matz in Boston, became the Transgender Day of Remembrance. On Nov. 20, 2016, we honored the 17th Transgender Day of Remembrance.
A lot has changed in those years, including the transgender community itself.
At the time we started, just getting transgender support groups to acknowledge that trans people were being murdered, and to honor their passage, was a challenge. While a few of the so-called “safer” cities would hold large candle-lit marches, many others held events behind closed doors, with only a handful of people quietly memorializing those we’d lost.
At the time, we were at the very end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, with Bush around the corner. We still had “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the next president would not necessarily be favorable — especially to transgender folk. Many of us were outed to employers thanks to the “Gender No-Match” letters the Social Security Administration sent out under George W.
After Bush, and into Obama, the world changed. Transgender people have — in spite of recent difficulties over public accommodations and such — become a part of the popular consciousness like never before. We’re on America’s television screens, whether it be in reality shows like “I Am Jazz” or on Fox for the reboot of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” to name just two examples.
Likewise the community in the beginning of TDoR was a small one, largely closeted and more than a little hegemonic. It was largely white, largely older, largely cross-dressers and transsexuals. Today, that has changed as we see more people exploring new avenues with gender, and more people of color and trans youth. There are still huge steps to be made here, but we’re moving in the right direction.
With greater visibility has come an unmistakable reality. In 17 years of TDoR, we have not seen a decline of anti-transgender murders. Indeed, we’ve seen the number of murders trending upwards as transgender visibility grows.
Many on the right have set out to demonize transgender people after they lost the battle over marriage equality. We wer an election-year issue, and as fears about trans people in restrooms grew, so has the threat of violence against us.
We’re being killed at a rate greater than two per month in the United States. Worldwide, that becomes more than two each day, particularly in Brazil. This is simply unacceptable. I would also be utterly remiss if I did not remind people that it is trans women of color who remain most at risk in the United States, and that we cannot ignore issues of racism and sexism in any discussion of anti-transgender murders. This is an intersectional fight.
Our community is at another crossroads. With the election season behind us, and an uncertain road ahead, it is once again up to each of us to rise. We need to band together. We need to continue to secure our unalienable rights. I hesitate to add that one right stands above all else that we need to fight for: the right to exist.
Being aware of these murders has never been enough. I’ve always been a firm believer in the words of Mother Jones, and have applied them to the Transgender Day of Remembrance many times: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” We set aside this one day to mourn — but take all the other 364 days and fight, keep them in your heart and do what you can to ensure that not one more falls.
On Nov. 20, we honored our fallen. On Nov. 21, and thereafter, we need to continue the struggle and make this world a better one for all transgender people.