On November 20 every year for the last fifteen years, transgender people gather for vigil ceremonies to acknowledge and name those who have lost their lives to anti-transgender violence in an event known as the International Transgender Day of Remembrance.
The Day of Remembrance (TDOR for short) began with a “Remembering Our Dead” movement inspired by the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was murdered in November 1998 in Boston, where she was an activist and educator on transgender issues. The vigils and speakouts held around the country are a moving and stark reminder that for millions of transgender people worldwide, the fight for survival goes on.
Trans* people experience hate crimes at alarming rates. According to GLAAD’s fact sheets citing the 2011 Hate Violence Report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects, of the increasing number of anti-LGBT hate crime murders from 2010 to 2011, 40 percent were transgender women. Transgender people of color were also 28 percent more likely to experience physical violence than people who were not transgender people of color.
Madison-based realtor and trans activist Vivienne Andersen describes TDOR as “a day of trans solidarity and visibility, a day where we come together as a community to mourn our dead, and to call out the larger cis community, our oppressors, and the conditions they have created that have taken our sisters and brothers from us.” (The term cisgender––"cis" for short––refers to people whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth.)
“Transgender Day of Remembrance to me is a time to honor those of us who paid the ultimate price for just being who we are,” explains Dina Martinez, a transgender stand-up comedian and writer.
“It also reminds me that it's not over. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) reported that 45 percent of reported hate murders were transgender women,” she adds. “This doesn't account for those deemed non-hate murders, nor does it account for the violence against trans people on a daily basis. It's all exacerbated if one is a trans person of color. It's shocking to think about.”
Transphobic violence starts at a young age. Reports from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) indicate that 16.8 percent of transgender students report being physically assaulted as a result of gender expression, while 32.1 percent experience physical harassment.
A fundamental lack of public understanding of what it means to be transgender, Martinez and Andersen agree, fuels transphobia, and the resulting bigotry is even more severe when combined with misogyny and racism.
“Transphobia is generally not very subtle. I have people who always ask me questions about my genitals and ask if I'm a boy or a girl,” Martinez explains. “It's crazy. How would you feel if someone asked you about your body?”
She adds, “I think people just want to find a way to wrap their minds around it, and sometimes that inability to put someone in a category leads them to harsher actions. It's easy to mistreat and harm a person when one thinks of them as ‘less than,’ a ‘freak,’ or almost ‘non-human.’”
Martinez and Andersen both cite the wider recognition of trans issues as a major success this year. “The visibility of positive role models” like author Janet Mock and actress Laverne Cox has been a boon, says Martinez. It helps to see more people “articulating the struggle and successes of those of us who are transgender. We are also seeing more trans-positive portrayals within the media and as someone who is in the entertainment industry, it makes me very excited and proud.”
Visibility can also be a double-edged sword. “Trans people have become so much more visible that you see people become more tolerant, because they’re more aware of trans issues––more aware that when you see a trans woman in a bathroom she’s not going to molest your children,” Andersen points out. “The other side of that is that I used to be able to fly under the radar. We’re treated better in places where we were already treated better, and in other places there’s been more of a pushback. It’s like that Gandhi quote––‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.’ We’ve been ignored, then mocked, now we’re starting to see more organized opposition.”
In addition to hate crime, workplace discrimination and economic disparities still plague the trans community. “What can people do to help trans women? Hire them!” Andersen asserts. Transgender people report unemployment at twice the rate of the general population, and an estimated 44 percent are underemployed, according to a recent Center for American Progress poll.
“We need everyone to fight for us, to speak up on our behalf,” says Martinez. “We want the opportunity to participate in the American dream, but can only do that when our law enforcement branches stop targeting us; when public accommodations aren't denied to us based on our appearances; when discrimination based on gender identity is removed from employment and housing opportunities; when we feel safe walking outside of our doors and neighborhoods. Then, and only then, will you allow a vibrant and functional part of society to flourish and grow.”
TDOR events will take place today all over the world; see this official list to find an event near you.