November 20th is Transgender Day of Remembrance
“Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”
On November 28th, 1998 Rita Hester was murdered in Allston, Massachusetts. Her death was not deemed important enough to garner the attention of local media or law enforcement. In response, Rita’s friend Gwendolyn Ann Smith organized a vigil in her memory and created the Remembering Our Dead web project to collect the names of those who have died due to anti-transgender violence. The next year the Transgender Day of Remembrance was born, marking the one year anniversary of Rita Hester’s death and starting a tradition of lighting candles and reading the names of those lost to violence. Over the last several years TDOR has gained momentum in the light of increased trans visibility and activism, and attendance by cisgender persons of faith and in houses of worship is on the rise. As people of faith who are planning on attending your first or even your tenth TDOR this year I hope you will reflect on the importance of mourning and celebrating the lives of trans and gender nonconforming persons during the ritual of TDOR, but I also hope that you will reflect on how you and your community of faith can enact your mourning and celebration of trans and gender nonconforming lives in the upcoming year.
(To find a local TDOR event and see the list of names internationally visit the International Transgender Day of Remembrance website. For those who are unable to attend a public TDOR event consider lighting a candle and reading the names of the dead at home or at your church.)
Stabbed, shot, beaten, run over repeatedly, buried in a field… More transgender and gender nonconforming people were killed in the first six months of this year than all of 2014. In the first ten months of this year at least 21 people—nearly all of them transgender women of color—have lost their lives to violence in the United States according to a report put out by the Trans People of Color Coalition and the Human Rights Campaign. According to Kylar Broadus of TPCC, “While there are numerous policy solutions to address some of these issues, we also need allies to help us change hearts and minds. We need you to listen to our voices, hear us when we talk about our experiences and make spaces for us to lead on issues that affect us. We need you to challenge transphobia wherever you see it — even seemingly harmless jokes serve to devalue transgender people’s lives and trivialize our identities.” Being an ally starts with attending and giving resources to events like TDOR, but it does not end there and should not be limited to traditional political advocacy.
Given the vast majority of those on the list continue to be lower income trans/gender nonconforming persons of color, we must ask ourselves if the politics we have been putting our time, energy and money toward is truly serving to transform our society and address the barriers faced by the “least of these.” In a year when we celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, we must ask ourselves if we have put too much emphasis on recognition by the state and participation in neo-liberal capitalism as markers of justice and not enough emphasis on transforming society from the ground up so that fellow children of God not only survive but thrive. As the trans Asian performance duo DarkMatter point out, “What you forgot to mention is that it only gets better if it gets bourgie.” That is not beloved community.
The church is more than simply a collection of voters. Yes, we have a responsibility as citizens to vote our faith, and write our congressperson and work on ballot initiatives to end gender discrimination or oppose Victorian bathroom laws, however, if we stop there then we are simply extensions of the state. Isn’t the church called to do more? Aren’t human beings more than the recognition and regulation that the state gives? We are creatures of interdependence and relationship not only with God but with one another. Doesn’t that mean our lives are worth something beyond what the state grants us? We must learn to recognize humanity in one another and respond to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” because our own humanity is at stake and not simply because the state offers penalties after the fact.
When I contemplate the names and faces of those lost this year I find myself reflecting on the seemingly endless cycle of violence, absence of mourning/ability to mourn, absence of ethical relation, stunted political and social reform, and more violence. We have an inability to truly mourn these dead, to see them as more than flesh no longer animated, to see them as a piece of ourselves, violated and now missing. To interrupt this cycle of violence we need to see folks like Kristina Gomez Reinwald, Keyshia Blige and London Kiki Chanel as human beings who demand ethical and not simply political relation, and that means that we must publically mourn and celebrate but also call forth mourning and celebration in others through action in the upcoming year.
So now what? You have attended a TDOR event or performed your own ritual of mourning and celebration at home. You have shed tears and exchanges hugs and prayed for a better world, a kinder world, a safer world. Rituals like TDOR set aside sacred time and space where past (death and violence), present (mourning and celebration) and future (hope and change) overlap. When TDOR has passed, however, we should not sit around waiting for next year’s list to build again. TDOR calls us to mourn and to celebrate but also to act and to bring about a world where trans and gender nonconforming persons can not only survive but thrive. Here are some ways we can act.
1) Donate to the Audre Lorde Project’s Trans Organizing Group: TransJustice
TransJustice is a political group created by and for Trans and Gender Non-conforming people of color. TransJustice works to mobilize its communities and allies into action on the pressing political issues they face, including gaining access to jobs, housing, and education; the need for Trans-sensitive healthcare, HIV-related services, and job-training programs; resisting police, government and anti-immigrant violence.
(Poster by Micah Bazant. Proceeds go to TransJustice.)
2) Strategize ways of making our communities safer for trans and gender non-conforming persons NOW. That might mean working with shelters to ensure trans women and youth have safe access to housing and other resources—Check out Denver’s Dolores Project and San Antonio’s Thrive Center at Haven for Hope. It might mean educating yourself and others on microaggressions that lead to dehumanizing trans and gender nonconforming persons. It might mean advocating for gender neutral restrooms, or (in the meantime) staging bathroom sit-ins across genders. For those who are a part of the LGBT community, take Anok Vaid-Menon advice and don’t just dance and take pictures with the fabulous trans folks at the club or party, ask them how they are getting home.
3) Publically celebrate the lives and contributions of trans and gender nonconforming persons in your church, school, organization, government, artistic community and your history. As a society we cannot truly mourn those we have not celebrated. And we cannot achieve political and social change for those we are unable to mourn. Trans100
4) While recognition and protection by the state should not be our only or even our primary goal, we also should not be silent when it comes to advocating for transgender rights. Employment and house discrimination legislation, hate crimes legislation, immigration and prison reform, decriminalization of sex work and healthcare legislation are all crucial to reducing the vulnerability of trans and gender nonconforming persons, particularly those of color. See the National Center for Transgender Equality’s take action page for more information.
May you rest in power.
Yazmin Vash Payne
Taja Gabrielle DeJesus
Kristina Gomez Reinwald
London Kiki Chanel