Day of Remembrance reminds that everyone deserves respect
November 15, 2006
Rita Hester was stabbed multiple times on Nov. 28, 1998.
Rita Hester was transgender. In all likelihood, she was murdered because she was born biologically a man but identified and lived as a woman. The murder -- like many involving transgender victims -- remains unsolved.
Nov. 20 marks the eighth-annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, an international day of action inspired by Rita's death and similar stories of transgender people who have suffered at the hands of intolerance.
This intolerance often flourishes in schools. So this Nov. 20, many students across the country will bring attention to the need for tolerance, respect and understanding regarding transgender issues.
Harassment, bullying and assault are far too often the norm for transgender people in schools.
More than nine out of 10 (93 percent) transgender students reported verbal harassment based on their sexual orientation, gender or gender identity/expression, according to a 2005 survey conducted by my organization. More than half (56 percent) reported verbal harassment based on all three.
Schools are not a safe place for transgender students and educators. Regardless of personal feelings about gender identity/expression, we all can agree that students have a right to feel safe in school and learn free of bullying and harassment.
The first step is understanding.
Transgender loosely refers to people who do not identify with the gender assigned to them by society based on their biological sex. It is also an umbrella term for all those who do not conform to traditional notions of gender expression and includes people who identify as transsexual, two-spirit or drag queen/king.
Gender expression refers to ways in which people externally communicate their gender identity, but is not necessarily an indicator of sexual orientation.
Gender identity refers to a person's innermost sense of self as male/masculine, female/feminine, somewhere in between or somewhere outside of those designations.Sometimes this innermost self does not correspond with anatomy.
For some people, true happiness is found outside the biological sex with which they were born.
Rita Hester was one of those people. For 10 years, she lived an external freedom based on her internal self. By all accounts, it was a beautiful 10 years. She was happy.
Was that the reason she was so mercilessly stabbed eight years ago? We may never know. But we do know Rita had a right to be happy. For her, that meant living as a woman.
We do not have to understand the things that make us different, but respect is something everyone deserves. As a society, we must value teaching respect.
I encourage you to support safe schools policies that protect students based on gender identity/expression from bullying and harassment. Currently, only four states -- California, Maine, Minnesota and New Jersey -- offer such protections.
We may not be able to end the prejudices and phobias that lead to violence and harassment against transgender people on this Transgender Day of Remembrance. But I hope some day soon there will be no new victims.
Eliza Byard is deputy executive director of GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (www.glsen.org), which is a sponsor and supporter of Transgender Day of Remembrance, a project of Gender Education and Advocacy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.