November 20 is Transgender Day of Remembrance. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this date and its significance, I urge you to check out the Remembering Our Dead website.
Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) was first held to honor Rita Hester, who was murdered on November 28th, 1998. This marks the 9th year of international vigils and the 6th year of vigils in Ann Arbor. TDOR publicly mourns and honors the lives of those who might otherwise be forgotten. It allows us to connect again to those who are gone and raises public awareness of violence against people who transgress the normative boundaries of gender identity or expression.
This past Sunday, at the University of Michigan, I had the privilege of coordinating and hosting this year's ritual of memory. I called it "Connections" in an attempt to remind us that we are all connected and even death does not end that. You may download the program (in PDF form) here. Download TDOR2007Program.pdf Approximately 50 people turned out for the memorial service. It was an extremely moving evening. Rainbow Law Center was very proud to join the Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project (WRAP) and the University's office of LGBT Affairs in co-sponsoring the evening.
During the evening, we were privileged to hear from many voices. It would do them no justice for me to here try and recreate the beauty and eloquence of their words and emotions. Instead, I offer only my own meager musings.
Nakia Ladelle Baker died in January in Tennessee as a result of blunt force trauma to the head. Keittirat Longnawa was beaten by nine youths in Thailand, who then slit her throat. In March, Moira Donaire was stabbed five times by a street vendor in Chile. The body of Michelle Carrasco was discovered in a pit in Chile, her face unrecognisable.
Ruby Rodriguez was found naked and strangled to death in the street in San Francisco. Erica Keel was repeatedly run over by a car in Pennsylvania. Bret T. Turner died from multiple stab wounds in Wisconsin. Victoria Arellano was refused HIV related medications in California. Oscar Mosqueda from Florida was shot. Maribelle Reyes from Texas was turned away from HIV treatment centres because she was transgender. In July an unidentified cross dressing male was found dead with gunshot wounds to the chest and lower back.
Once again, we gather to remember. Once again, our hearts and eyes fill as we read the names of those who didn’t survive the year. Once again it is time to mourn.
But my good friend, Andre, reminded me that it is much more than that. It is also a time to reconnect with these souls. And, in that connection, find our own inner strength to again recommit ourselves to the end of this madness.
And, perhaps, just perhaps, it is time to reflect on how far we’ve come.
I’ve long believed that it is easier to draw strength for what lies ahead not by looking at the enormity of that task, but rather by looking at the distance one has already traveled. I have traveled this road for many years now, and I’d like to offer my perspective on that journey.
In 1995, I was among a small group of out transgender people who lobbied on Capitol Hill in Washington DC for transgender inclusion in two bills that were then under consideration in Congress: the Hate Crimes Act, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. It was the first national Transgender Lobby Day and we had to educate our legislators about what the word “transgender” even meant.
Although all of us are, I’m sure, enormously disappointed with the failure of ENDA to get passed in the House with transgender inclusion, I think we should – especially on this day – not overlook the other major legislation that passed and did include gender identity.
This year, the Hate Crimes Act, renamed the Matthew Sheppard Act passed both the House of Representatives and the United States Senate. This bill included gender identity as one of the affected classes. And, I don’t know about you, but I have to tell you that I was deeply moved to hear the respectful tones by which our inclusion in these bills were debated on the floor of the House of Representatives, from people who, a dozen years ago could not even tell you the meaning of the word 'transgender'.
When I began this work, when Gwen Smith first started documenting the horror, we were losing two people a month to anti-transgender violence in this country alone. That rate continued unabated for many years. This year, we remember 11 victims of hate here in the US. That’s 11 too many. But, it’s a dramatic reduction from where we started. Perhaps our voices have help to reduce the carnage. We have come far. We still have so far to go.
I would like to end with a reminder of the work yet to do. I have to say how profoundly saddened I was to read about Ian Guarr Benson’s suicide this month. We have at least two known victims of suicide this year. Of course, we know there are many more that we never hear about. It is a rare transperson who has not considered suicide at least once in her or his life. All of us in this room understand that the suicide of a trans person arises from the same societal-based fear and hatred that led to the murders of those we remember tonight. But, there is one important distinction. The desire to live is the single strongest motivator in the human animal. To overcome that desire to take one’s own life bespeaks a pain no one should have to bear. And so, in closing, I offer a poem to this year’s victims of suicide:
Unlike some, to me death was a gift:
No longer to live pointlessly in pain.
Choosing death, I might have on my own
Let loose the darkness gathered in my heart
Except that luck has seen the matter through.
How simple, then, to let one's fortunes drift
Away from one, nor care for loss or gain
Remember me as one who, not alone
Relinquished well my moorings, to depart
Yet not without a backward glance towards you.
As a part of our "Ritual of Remembrance" we all stood, walked past a table containing one white rose for every name on this year's list, a stack of papers with each person's story -- to the best of our ability to retrieve -- and a box of stones.
Ritual of Remembrance
Ask the audience members to line up, single file and walk past the table, picking up a stone, a flower, and a sheet of paper with a name on it. Repeat until all sheets of paper are gone.
“The Stones we take away with us today continue a tradition started last year. They are intended to represent the diversity of people that we are and to remind us that, like them, none of us is permanent. These stones are different shapes, sizes, and colors, just like us. The smoothness of them remind us of our fragility and the weight and the roughness of them remind us of our strength. I encourage you to each take a stone and carry it with you for one week and each time you see it or feel it, remember again that we are all connected – those of us in this room, those whose memory we are here today to celebrate and, indeed, those who would see us murdered.
After we return to our seats we will go in clockwise fashion around the room reading each person’s story until we are finished. After the reading of each person’s name, I would ask that we say, in unison, ‘We remember and connect again with you’."
At the end of our reading of the names, we all stood, joined hands for a moment of silence and we closed with a poem:
Be patient with life, despite its cruelty.
Often it seems careless of our pain,
But just as often brings us hope again.
Remember, I wanted happiness for you.
Under every foolish word this still was true.
Be happy, then, without, as you would with me.
In your life many sweet events remain.
Not in anguish, but in joy remember me.