November 20th is also International Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s a day that’s been set aside since 1998, to honor and remember trans* victims of hate crimes, and frankly, it bothers me. It bothers me that we need to have such a day. It’s chilling to read the list of names of trans* people murdered in 2012, to look at the more than 700 dead memorialized in previous years, and know they aren’t the only ones. It’s heartbreaking to realize that for every trans* person whose murder was recorded as a hate crime, there were dozens who died in anonymity, and hundreds who were assaulted or harassed but escaped with their lives.
It makes me angry to the core to see how badly skewed those lists are towards the feminine, too. To see one after another after another transwoman listed as dead from gunshots, knife wounds, strangulation, blunt trauma to the head, and full-body burns. Women whose murderers weren’t satisfied with simply killing them, but had such hatred for their trans* victims that they mutilated their victims’ genitals and breasts, that they didn’t just stab, they eviscerated, that they set their victims on fire and burned them alive. That’s not merely transphobia at work, that’s misogyny. It’s hating women for being women, with a heightened animosity because those women were born male.
Transmen and gender-queer people are targets, too, though there are fewer of them listed. If you saw the 1999 movie Boys Don’t Cry you know the story of Brandon Teena’s murder; he was just one of far too many. And the Remembrance Lists don’t count the trans* people dead by their own hands. Studies show that up to two-thirds of all trans* people have contemplated taking their own lives, and that transphobic bullying and harassment greatly increase the likelihood that a trans* person will attempt suicide.
Even in the safe cradle of the San Francisco Bay Area, I don’t know any trans* people who aren’t at least a little apprehensive for their own safety every time they use a public restroom. Transphobic violence and harassment are such problems that we even have a website, Safe2Pee.org, and an app, TranSquat, to help us find gender-neutral bathrooms where we can pee in peace.
All in all, that’s a lot to be upset about. But there’s another aspect of Transgender Day of Remembrance that bothers me, and it’s this: why is the only day set aside specifically for trans* people a day of mourning? Yes, it’s important—in fact, essential—to make public the appalling damage that transphobic violence does to our community, but couldn’t we also find a day to celebrate the positive things about being trans*?
R’s mom, who to the best of my knowledge doesn’t know any other trans* people, will be seeing her transman son for the first time in five years (and meeting me) on Tuesday night. The last time she saw him, R was still going by his birth-name and using female pronouns. Seeing her child face-to-face as a son for the first time is going to be an adjustment for her. She’s been as supportive of his transition as a parent who lives a few thousand miles away can be, but she’s also been really worried for his health and safety, and there’s only so much reassurance one can offer from such a distance. We’re going to be taking her to our LGBTQI-friendly and supportive church on Sunday, and I already know this Sunday’s sermon will be about Transgender Day of Remembrance. There is nothing about Transgender Day of Remembrance to put an apprehensive mother’s mind at ease.
You might argue that timing is the only problem here. If only R’s mom had come in June, she would have been here for Pride instead of Remembrance. It’s true June’s Gay Pride Events have turned the whole month into Pride Month, with San Francisco’s Trans*March taking place the Friday before the big Sunday Pride Parade, but as much as we trans* folks like to celebrate with everyone else, we know we’re not the main event.
What does it say about trans* people that the only day we have on the calendar as our own is a day of grief? Does being transgender mean we’re all depressed, conflicted, targeted for violence and discrimination, and facing premature death? Is that what our allies (and enemies) hear? It’s certainly not the message I want them to hear.
Being trans* comes with unique risks and challenges, to be sure, but it’s also a joy. It has transformed me body and soul, and given me an insight into what it means to be male, female, both, and neither, that I would never have had as a cisgender person. It’s led me to dear friends I would otherwise never have known, pushed me to know and trust myself, and to grow in ways I never imagined I could, and can only really appreciate from the other side. I’m proud to be trans*, and I know I have something to contribute that comes from that experience.
As painful as those lists of names are to read, they are also a testament to the change that is slowly taking place in the world. They exist. There are trans* people, hundreds and thousands of them, and while some of them suffer unspeakable violence, many of them, like R, like me, are living happy, comfortable lives, supported and nurtured by our communities.
So today, November 20, I will mourn for my trans* siblings who have been victims of violence, but I will also celebrate that they lived. I hope someday Transgender Day of Remembrance won’t be necessary, and we can have Transgender Day of Celebration instead. (by Zach McCallum)