MLP Executive Director Alex Patchin McNeill gave this reflection at the Transgender Day of Remembrance memorial service at Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH
Not so long ago, hardly anyone recognized me as a guy. I spent most of my time in public grimacing every time a seemingly friendly waiter or cab driver or friend of a friend called me “lady” or “ma’m.” My body was a blurry mirage of my female anatomy overlaid with a masculine of center presentation. Nowadays most people greet me as “buddy” or “hey man” or even a “hello sir” or “mister McNeill.” My weekly injection of testosterone has deepened my once high voice, smoothed out my round face (sort of), and broadened my shoulders to the degree that my history of being born female bears as much relation as a distant cousin, you can see the resemblance if you squint, but perhaps knowing we’re related is just a placebo effect.
However I can pretty regularly predict the times I will most likely get mam’ed or rendered suspect by the ghost trails still visible against the skyline of my body. The latter is via the good folks at TSA and their despicable body scanner. Every time I go through, which is frequent these days, I get pulled over so an agent can rub down my chest to make sure the only thing dangerous about me is my body’s transgression against their status quo. The second most frequent instance is when I’m calling strangers, usually for customer service, or takeout. I greet the person on the other end of the line with an enthusiastic “hi!!” Apparently my gusto is a female thing as I am almost certain to find myself called ma’m after that. I could work on trying to say “hello” in a down tone, but I decided I’d rather be called ma’m then dispense with greeting customer service and restaurant professionals with friendliness.
One summer, while I was in seminary, I worked at a group home specifically designated for youth in the foster care system who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer. Each youth had stories of what it was like living in a non LGBT affirming group home before they came to this one. Though the teen’s sexual orientations’ was diverse, what united them together was an experience of ridicule, harassment, or bullying due to their gender presentation. Some of the youth actively identified as gender queer, intentionally not conforming to gendered expectations, but many of the teens just identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual and didn’t actively think about the intersection of their gender and sexuality. However in the minds of those making their lives a living hell, their identity didn’t matter, only the fact that they could be ridiculed for wearing certain items of clothing, walking a certain way, a particular lilt to their speech pattern. What the teens at this LGBTQ specific group home found when they moved in, was a place that didn’t bat an eye when they painted their nails or cut their hair short. What mattered was that each youth felt safe, cared for, and respected for who they are.
Tonight we gather to honor and remember the 238 transgender people who were brutally killed in the past year. Some of there people we lift up did identify as transgender, others on this list were murdered because something about their body, voice, manner, or affect was deemed so threatening, or so transgressive their attackers believed they had to cease to exist.
On November 6, Sasha Fleishman, a 18 year old student at a high school in Berkeley CA was riding a city bus home when another rider lit Sasha’s skirt on fire. Sasha isn’t included in this year’s list thank God because they were fortunate enough to be admitted to a hospital and treated for severe burns to the legs. Sasha also doesn’t identify as transgender, but rather as ‘a gender’ which means without gender. Sasha was visibly transgressing gender norms such that their attacker deemed Sasha inhuman, something to burn with detachment and later wonder how the fire got so out of control.
On Transgender Day of Remembrance, I want to honor and hold in my heart those who were killed for living openly and visibly, but I also want us to remember those every day acts of transgression. Whether we who are gathered identify as transgender, or not, we all make choices everyday that go against the grain of the extreme gender expectations of our cultures. As we hear the list of names read who were killed, let us commit ourselves to claiming our own transgressions in the hopes that by doing so we can make space for all the Sasha’s who feel best in skirts, the queer teens who crave a place where their gender and sexuality isn’t a recipe for abuse, where transgender folks can live into our gender callings without fear, where all humans are freed from the shame associated with shifting the gender script.
Perhaps then, next time I enthusiastically greet my customer service representative the person on the other end of the line can just say “hi” and that be that.
Today we remember all those killed in the past year but we have no idea how many transgressive people died due to lack of housing, healthcare coverage, supportive families, in prison or in the military.