What is Transgender Day of Remembrance?
Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) was founded by Gwendolyn Ann Smith in 1999, in response to the death of Rita Hester. She intended it as a way to draw attention to the global scale of hate crime and everyday violence against trans people, as well as providing a space for collective mourning. An online list is collated of all the recorded murders of trans people across the world that year. A name, a date, a place, and the way they were killed. The list is harrowing; the brevity of each entry makes it feel impossible to comprehend. Transgender people and allies gather in vigils, demonstrations, and remembrance services around the world, read the list of names, and share poems and songs. TDOR is rarely recognised outside trans communities, which only serves to further underscore the silence around the issue. For many people, TDOR can only be accessed in online spaces. Community healing is hard when even the dynamics of the Day of Remembrance serve to demonstrate a wider social apathy.
In the USA, black and Latina trans women murdered by men known to them make up the majority of those whose lives have been lost. Trans people who are sex workers are among the most at risk. Police are the most common assailants of trans sex workers, and of the reported murders of trans and gender-diverse people whose profession was known, 62% were sex workers. While sex work offers community and a means of survival to many trans people across the world, criminalisation and discrimination against sex workers can leave them extremely vulnerable. In Europe, this is often compounded by a precarious immigration status. Gendered oppression, racist oppression, class oppression, and the oppression of migrants are all interconnected, and it is essential that we see this when building solidarity against injustice.
The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.
A disturbingly literal illustration of this comes in the form of newspaper reports on transphobic homicides. In transmitting the news of these deaths, reporters frequently misgender transgender victims, report their birth name, and give insensitive personal details. The same violent paradigms which are the conditions of transphobic murder are re-inscribed on the public memory of the victim, and their dehumanisation is completed. TDoR is an attempt to wrest the dead, their memory or spirit, from the forces of our oppression. We read the list of names, asserting their selfhood and identity in the here-and-now, as an act of solidarity with each other. In doing so, each of us knows that we have a community who will assert our humanity and fight for its recognition even after we die. There are places and times when even this small act is impossible, and it must not be overlooked for the radical act that it is, but we must go further wherever and whenever we can.
In humanising the dead we humanise ourselves temporarily. Each vigil, service, or march becomes a space of communal solidarity and safety, enough to enable part of the mourning to take place, but when it finishes and that gathering disperses the wider conditions of our existence become apparent once more, and we are renewed in sensitivity to them not only for the knowledge of the deaths of our sisters and brothers, but also for having tasted a space which existed in spite of and against the conditions of transphobic oppression.
This day differs from most “remembrance” practices because it concerns not only something which happened and is over, it commemorates violence which is continuous and ongoing around the world. The most basic human rights protections for transgender people in the UK are continually threatened by bad-faith discourses which spread misinformation and bigotry, while being actively eroded by right wing politicians in the US. Meanwhile, transgender people are actively criminalised in most countries, particularly in the global south. Like many forms of oppression, the violence of western patriarchy is expressed most strongly in the most exploited parts of the world. This means that while the trans community is global, borders still divide us. They are an obstacle to fully international trans solidarity which must be critically opposed. For that reason, this day is not only a remembrance of past lives but a remembrance of the urgent need for present action.
Community Mourning is different to personal mourning. For those who have lost someone a day like this can do many things. It can connect that deep personal pain to a global community of people who share this same struggle; it can provide spaces of solidarity and support; and it can create a sense of deep despair and disconnection. That a pain so great as losing a loved one to violence could be replicated so many times around the world can feel shattering. This despair is the narrative which is picked up and replicated most in public media.
The public narrative of “transgender tragedy” must be resisted. By only committing to memory the violence inflicted on transgender people, we risk inscribing the same violence onto our future in a fatalistic trick of the light. “Transgender tragedy” dominates and overshadows the narrative of trans struggle, trans solidarity, trans victory. By depicting the conditions of transphobic violence separately from their proper contexts of misogyny, racism, and class oppression, this false remembrance obscures both proper mourning and the liberating vision of things as they actually are, and how they must be improved.
They are remembered but unmourned because they are unmournable. Mourning the legacies of the dead, the spectres they leave behind, would require that they leave the material world. This cannot happen while the violence of gendered, racialised and transphobic oppression continues to kill our siblings, and while their deaths remain a site of contestation and misrepresentation.
Time will not save us.
We must reject empathy and build solidarities. Empathy is a curtailed response to injustice. It is a recognition of oppression that holds back from entering into solidarity with the oppressed. As Paulo Freire said, “to affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce.” Recent waves of pinkwashing in the global North are an example of this. Finance corporations and hedge funds sponsoring LGBTQ recruitment divides our communities and stands to alienate individuals from the material conditions of their oppression. Liberal democracy is to see a damned soul in hell given the opportunity to become a demon, and call that a step towards equality.
There is no social or historical progress which leads to a world free from transphobia. This view of history imagines humanity as a prisoner moving through time, reforming and refining until her wrists are so slim as to simply slip out of the cuffs which bound them. It has no room for transgender realities because it is a worldview which sees humanity and human society as infinitely perfectible. In it, a trans person cannot be, they can only be like. They are less than fully human because their material existence is only that likeness. It is this worldview which still structures the medicalisation of trans experience, which still dominates our perceptions of ourselves, and which will continue to facilitate our oppression until it is disrupted. This is the position of all class struggle – we must break the oppressive paradigm or break against it.
Action as remembrance
Transgender identities threaten the basis of western patriarchy. That gendered experience could be mutable, a product of the relationship between internal personhood and external social relations rather than something which can be inscribed and read on the surface of a body, is a fundamental challenge to the capacity of people to be commodified, categorised, and controlled. This threat is the reason for most of the violence done to us. It leaves us with a choice between assimilation and resistance. We must carry the threat into action.
Reflection, communal grief and remembrance are the vital first step. This reflection leads us communally towards a full understanding of injustice as it is, and what must be done to change it. The candles lit around the world tonight are the first flames of change for tomorrow.
Solidarity and love to the living, may the dead rest in power.