Today marks the 16th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. People across the world will be holding various events and vigils, remembering those people who have been lost due to transgender violence. It is a powerful day that is a part of a larger month long awareness campaign.
Transgender Day of Remembrance is held every November, marking the death of Rita Hester, who was murdered in her Boston apartment in 1998. A year after that death, which still remains unsolved, writer Gwendolyn Ann Smith held a vigil in San Francisco to honor Hester’s life and bring awareness to the issues faced by Transgender people. The 1999 vigil became the first Transgender Day of Remembrance, which also launched the website “Remembering Our Dead” and several other awareness campaigns and movements.
Now, every November, a growing number of activities are held during the month, culminating in the Day of Remembrance. The main site for the campaign lists activities across the globe.
[From Allies&Angels; used for a vigil being held in Syracuse, NY]
We reached out to several Transgender Pagans for their thoughts. Asking only a very few questions, we allowed them to have the stage, so to speak, and tell us more about living transgender and what this specific day means to them. Our interviewees included, Luke Babb
, Elain Corrine Moria and Rev. Katharine A. Jones. Babb is a transmasculine Pagan living in Chicago with an English degree from Truman State University. Pagan Elain Corrine Moria is a transgender woman living in Washtington State. Rev. Katharine A. Jones is a transgender woman of mixed racial heritage living in Florida. She is a Neo-Hellenic Priestess, minster of Fire Dance Church of Wicca and transgender activist.
We welcome our speakers.
The first question asked was whether they have seen or felt any noticeable change in awareness in the mainstream public’s understanding of transgender struggles or issues. Last June saw the very publicized “Caitlyn Jenner” story, which brought very mixed reviews from the transgender community. Has there been a growth in awareness and, if so, has it been positive?
Babb: I haven’t really been out in the community long enough to see any real societal shifts. Right now, people have access to information about trans issues. They’re able to see trans folks- real live people- living and talking and being regular folks. I was lucky enough to come out at a time and in a place where many of the people I know had already been exposed to the idea of trans identity. I’m profoundly grateful for that, and the relative comfort I live in because of it.
But I know that a lot of my experience is a byproduct of my privilege. I work in a large, fairly progressive city, and I surround myself with educated people who both have access to all of this information and the impetus to go and find it. The fact that at least sixteen trans people have been murdered in the US this year means that we cannot make any sort of claim about our society as a whole having a trend toward trans acceptance. Trans Day of Remembrance is not a time for us to talk about how far we’ve come- if anything, that’s the Trans Day of Visibility, on March 31st. Today is about recognizing how far we have to go, how many people we have lost along the way, and how hard we must work to fight against losing any more of our brothers and sisters to hatred and bigotry.
Morria: In just the last few months I have seen a change within certain areas of society. Some good, and some not so good. Within society in general there has been a marked improvement in tolerance, acceptance and understanding for and toward transgender people. However, in some other segments of society, the hatred for us has grown and become more rabid. They use lies and demonstrable falsehoods to defeat LGBT protections, in particular, to defeat protections for transgender people. Their hatred, malice and rage all too frequently gives some of them an excuse to murder us simply for trying to be true to ourselves.
Jones: Particularly in the last year, there has been an increase in transgender visibility. This has made it easier to educate those who are willing to learn. Many who once regarded trans people with confusion and discomfort now understand who we are, and that being transgender is perfectly normal. Our number of supporters has increased, but so has the hatred we face. Some of the people who once paid us no attention now seek to attack us. This year sets the record for homicide and hate crimes against the transgender community. This year we have seen a number of attempts by bigoted politicians to pass legislation specifically against us.
In 2013, Jones organized the first Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil in Pensacola. The following year, she setup the transgender advocacy group STRIVE of which she is currently the Vice President. This year, along with Debra Dubose of Safe Port Counseling Center, she is hosting a two day remembrance event, during which they expect over 50 people.
For the next discussion, we wondered what the biggest threat to the community’s safety was. This is a difficult question, but we asked our interviewees, if they could wave a wand to change one thing that would make the biggest impact, what would that one thing be?
Babb: I strongly believe that the single biggest threat to acceptance is ignorance – and I don’t know how to explain that in a way that doesn’t sound cliched. I have a lot of conflicted feelings about Harvey Milk’s call to come out of the closet. I don’t like the way it can be used to vilify people for keeping themselves safe in often dangerous environments. But I think the idea behind it is solid. Society will only really change when people realize that their loved ones, friends, and coworkers are trans.
If I could wave a hand and change one thing, I would make everyone realize that trans issues are not an academic interest – they affect the people you know and love. And it’s true – the current best guess is that 0.3% of the population is transgender, and the data is so hard to get that the real number is probably much higher. The odds are excellent that someone you know identifies on the trans spectrum. It’s easy to vilify a population if you think they are different from you- we see this all the time. But I have seen such change, and such love, from people who educate themselves because they know someone who is trans.The only thing I can think to wish is that more people start down that road.
Morria: I believe the single greatest threat to acceptance is conservative religious ideology, regardless of the religion it is from. We suffer from it within the Pagan community as well. A community formed on and growing around the idea of acceptance and inclusiveness. Sadly, this hatred seems to be growing and too many people who should know better, have fallen under the spell of conservative hatred.
Jones: It is very difficult to say specifically what is the single greatest obstacle we face. I find myself struggling with this question in large part because I’m sure if you asked a hundred trans people this question you would get a hundred different answers. … In a general sense ignorance is the root of all our problems. If accurate, well-articulated information was made available to the general public, and became common knowledge, most of our problems would be solved.
More specifically, the lack of knowledge in the medical community is a problem. If I had a magic wand that could change just one aspect of the world, I’d probably make a complete education on transgender healthcare (provided by a transgender teacher) a prerequisite for a medical degree. Too often I talk to doctors and mental health specialists who won’t take transgender patients because they don’t know how to treat us. I feel like if the medical community was educated, their influence would also effect politicians and employers. Conversely, it is my personal opinion (though some disagree with me) that employment discrimination is the biggest problem we face. Many trans people can’t get to a doctor (or even find a place to live) to begin with because they have no job and therefore no money.
With that in mind, the third question asked was how can non-trans people can be the best allies? What should cisgender people do or not do to help raise awareness, support their friends and eliminate the barriers discussed above?
Babb: Educate yourself. I can’t emphasize this enough. Educate yourself. Struggle with your internalized transphobia- seek it out, own up to it, struggle to overcome it. Speak up when your privilege gives you an opportunity to defend trans lives, but let trans people speak for themselves, with their own voices, whenever possible. There are a million articles on the internet that answer this question in depth, with examples. Read them.
And accept the responsibility for your own allyship. Trans people do not owe you anything. They do not owe you their thanks for being a decent person. They do not owe you the time or effort that it would take to educate you. Trans people are incredibly busy trying to exist in a society that tells them that they can’t, or shouldn’t. If you are going to help them, it is going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to be work. But it’s not going to approach the level of discomfort and work they go through, every day.
This is what I tell myself in my efforts to be an ally. It’s a hard thing to accept, a harder thing to internalize, and I have to keep reminding myself that the times I feel classist, ageist, racist- those are the times when I’m challenging my comfort zones, and growing. It is not up to my friends to make me a better person, or reward me for becoming one. It is up to me to make their lives better, any way I can.
Morria: Cisgender people can be awesome allies if they do three things … 1. Educate themselves about what being transgender IS … 2. Be polite, but firm in not allowing [other] people to misgender us, paint us as child molesters or deviants. Refuse to allow [the] mistreatment of us stand without a (legal) fight. 3. Promote and support legislation that protects our rights. Fight legislation that tries to deny us basic human dignity and rights (bathroom laws come to mind, we after all, #OnlyWantToPee).
Jones: Without a doubt the best thing you can do as an ally to the transgender community, is listen. If there is someone in your life who is transgender, whether they are family, friend, co-worker, or anything else, ask them what you can do to make their life easier, and do that. What each person needs will be different, so I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all answer.
As to how you can make a real difference on the larger scale, give trans people the stage. People don’t listen to us. Whether it’s because they think we’re mentally or spiritually ill, or just make them uncomfortable, most people want us to be quiet. The ones who do want to help often try to speak for us, which is almost as bad. If you have a microphone in your hand, pass it to someone who’s transgender. If you have an audience for a TV show, a blog, a newspaper, or an event, ask them to listen and let them hear a transgender voice. We are here, we are just like you, and we are already speaking, but many don’t hear us.
Transgender people are speaking out. This is a 2013 video by Pagan activist, author and artist Elena Rose. The video is from Girl Talk, “a critically acclaimed multi-media performance show promoting dialogue about relationships of all kinds between queer transgender women, queer cisgender women, and genderqueer people.”
For our fourth question, we asked for words of hope. Often when talking about marginalized, oppressed, and silenced populations, we focus on the struggle, violence and pain. So, we asked them to take a moment to share something beautiful about the transgender community or about being transgender: a story or even a moment
Elena Rose [Still from Girl Talk Video.]
Babb: The problem with talking about the joy of oppressed peoples is that you’re talking about the joy of living, for a group of people who have that basic level of existence threatened every day. The stories of joy that I have are the quiet moments of being myself, and being seen as myself, being surrounded by people who love me. They don’t lend themselves well to my method of storytelling – there’s nothing exciting about them, no build up to a climax of realization. They’re the moments when I look in the mirror and recognize the person looking back. When my partner puts her arm around me and calls me by my name, holding me in myself on a level so basic that most people don’t question it. When I meet someone, and we talk together, and what we say is Yes, and Me too, and it feels vanishingly rare and extraordinarily valuable.
Then I talk to other trans people, we share stories that are painful – moments when we were threatened, moments when we were scared, moments when someone threatened the truth of who and what we are. We share those stories and we laugh, because for a moment we are in a place where everyone knows the truth, and anyone who would argue with it is wrong to the point of being absurd. The best thing I can compare it to is the joy of ritual – being surrounded by people who are joined with you on sending out positive energy against a negative world. That sort of community, wherever it is found, is beautiful. I’m very lucky to have found other gender rebels to share it with.
The joy of being trans is the joy of being yourself, and valued, and happy. It’s no more unusual or special than the joy of being anyone else. What makes it hard to talk about, what makes it seem so strange, is that it is a joy we are told we aren’t qualified to have, and don’t deserve. When we dare to have it anyway, it is a joy that is taken from us by force.
Morria: On May 5 of this year, I felt terribly alone, terribly isolated and felt myself to be a pariah. I attempted and very nearly succeeded in commiting suicide … Three communities stood by my side. The Pagan community, who threw out a lot of energy to help me stay here. The Transgender community, who were terrified that they had lost yet another sister. And the Christian community who also prayed very hard for me and did everything they could to help me through it. All three communities, disparate as they are, rallied around one goal. Making sure I felt loved and accepted, and making sure there was a lifeline for me to find my way back.
To me this is beautiful because it shows that when we want to, we can ALL get along and work for a mutual goal. Since those 10 days I was in the hospital, all my friends, be they Pagan, Christian, Transgender, etc have shown me an amazing amount of love and support. I don’t feel nearly as alone and isolated as I did, and though I still feel somewhat like a pariah … I find that I care more about being who I am, as best I can, than the opinions or thoughts of people who have never walked a fraction of my journey …
Jones: Mostly, the pain, violence, and struggle is what needs to be talked about, but there is beauty too, and there is love. I like to say, family is the people who love the real you and are there when you need them, everything else is relatives. Most trans people have, to varying degrees, lost family because of who they are. I come from a big family. My childhood memories are punctuated by the presence of twenty to a hundred people who I saw two to three times a year on special occasions. Out of all those people, I only talk to five now. Some of us have no one at all, so we make new families– families of the heart, people who know us and love us as we are.
My transgender family is closer, more loving, and more devoted than I think any other could be, because we picked each other. When one of us needs something, we all pitch in to make it happen. When one of us couldn’t afford a medical bill a few months ago, the rest of us raised the money in less than a day. When some of us had nowhere to go for the holidays, several different people opened their homes and held potluck parties for ANYONE who wanted to come. We throw parties just because every couple of months, so we’ll have an excuse to gather and enjoy each other’s company.
Living with my blood family, I could go a day and a half without seeing people who lived in the same house with me. Now, I rarely go that long without an impromptu visit from someone who “just happened to be in the area”. I call them my people, because we are like a tribe. We take care of each other, because no one else is doing so.
As Babb mentioned earlier, Transgender Day of Remebrance (TDOR) “is not a time for us to talk about how far we’ve come” … It is “about recognizing how far we have to go.” Every year, the TDOR website includes a list of names of those people known “to have died because of anti-transgender violence.” To end our interviews, we asked our interviewees what the day means to them.
Babb: Transgender Day of Remembrance is important because it’s our opportunity to mourn the ones we’ve lost. So many trans people are cast out of their birth families- we say their names so that someone will, because they are valuable, because they are our family and we have to mourn them
Morria: Trans Remembrance day is exceedingly important for me because it reminds me of all my transgender brothers and sisters whose lives were ended for no other reason than they were trying to live true to themselves. It reminds me that to some groups of people, my life is utterly worthless and killing me in their minds, is a service to whatever it is they believe in. It also reminds me that, while we have managed to come a long way quickly where Transgender rights and equality is concerned, we have a long way to go, and each life it costs, is a price too great and too painful to have to pay.
It makes me ask the question every time I am out. “Will I be the next statistic? The next victim? The next one whose loss is mourned by my family, loved ones and transgender brothers and sisters?” It also reminds me that our murderers are rarely ever apprehended, because our lives don’t seem to matter to investigators, and our murderers when caught, are rarely ever given sentences that match the crime. We are maligned. Hated. Lied about and treated as fifth class humans unworthy of the same protections others have and take as a given. It reminds me that society, while imroving, still sees my life as less valuable because I am Transgender … It reminds me that the fight MUST continue.
Jones: Since 1998, the Transgender Day of Remembrance has honored the victims of transphobic violence. We light candles, and we say their names, to show that they have not been forgotten or ignored. The vigil is usually followed by advocacy and activism discussions geared toward reducing violence against the trans community and moving media and law enforcement toward handling the murders correctly. They often go unreported, and law enforcement fails to investigate fully more often than not.
The Day of Remembrance gives trans people a chance to express the heavy emotions which come from living our lives in this kind of danger and oppression, and it reminds us of what we are fighting to change. It also increases our visibility and encourages others to educate themselves, or even join our fight for equality. Last year, one of the names we read was an eight year old girl named Alex Medeiros beaten to death by her own father, for refusing to cut her hair, liking women’s clothes, and dancing. The moment I read that aloud was the last time there was a dry eye in the gathering until we came to the end.
This year it’s more important than ever, because we’ve had more violence than ever. There are approximately 27 victims right now, but different sources give different numbers because the deaths are not correctly reported and because there are no government statistics. The average homicide rate of trans people is about 1 in 12, as opposed to roughly 4.7 in 100,000 for the general population. That’s higher than any other demographic except sufferers of certain life threatening illnesses. I am currently running a petition to have the TDoR declared a national holiday … We need this event to raise awareness of these terrifying statistics. I’m more likely to die going to the grocery store than you are in a plane crash. I want this to be the last year that my identity is life threatening.
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For those people who are attending organized vigils today or would like to participate in their own way privately or with their own groups, we have attached here the TDoR list of 2015 victims of anti-transgender violence. There are many resources on the issues discussed above, as well as resources for both trans people and allies. GLAAD provides a short list of legal resources and other support. Now celebrating its first anniversary, the Trans Lifeline is available nationally. It helps “empower Trans people to help other Trans people in the darkest moments of their lives.”
The Wild Hunt thanks all three of our interviewees for their time and willingness to share their thoughts.