tdor2013

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Quiet Reflections: Why I Chose Silence on Trans Day of Remembrance

I made the decision to be silent on Trans Day of Remembrance to take care of myself and gather thoughts about the framing of trans womanhood in relation to violence, death and tragedy. Here’s the essay I wrote during that time of personal solitude and reflection.

“This year, Transgender Day of Remembrance comes on the heels of Islan Nettles’ death and the halt to the trial of her alleged murderer. You think about the Pacific Justice Institute and their lobbying against transgender law reform, the smear campaign they’ve fabricated around transgender kids - how can we spend so much time debating the ethics or politics of transgender - while so many are dying for it? Look at who is dying, and perhaps the dots connect.”  - Diana Tourjee

Read Diana’s entire piece for Trans Day of Remembrance here.

Why might trans women be offended by cis men who do drag for humor? (trigger warning: transmisogyny, slurs, transphobic violence)

Inspired by Dan Savage’s recent condescending non-answer to a question here: http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/SavageLove?oid=18203115#comment-18225866

And also inspired by this: http://fuckyeahrupaulsdragrace.tumblr.com/post/49948381517

Why would some trans women be offended by cis men who do drag for humor? I consulted with a bi trans woman I know and did some online investigating in order to venture an answer.

In part, the widening cultural exposure to drag through RuPaul’s Drag Race may explain the offense. RuPaul has been blatantly dismissive of trans women and contributed to cultural ignorance that makes their lives more difficult that it already was.

RuPaul supports the use of the common and hurtful slur “tranny,” and what’s worse, when hearing that Lance Bass had apologized for using the word publicly, RuPaul’s response was, “I love the word ‘tranny’… and I hate the fact that Bass has apologized. I wish he would have said, ‘F-you, you tranny jerk!’” (http://lgbtweekly.com/2013/02/14/rupaul-both-trans-positive-and-trans-negative/)

Let’s break this down: RuPaul is not personally reclaiming the word in this statement, but encouraging a famous rich white cis man to say something dismissive and degrading to a trans person.

Debate does exist in the trans community about the reclamation of the word. Eg, prominent trans / “gender outlaw” advocate Kate Bornstein posits that it was originally used to create common ground between trans women and drag queens in Australia, and so is available for positive reclamation (http://katebornstein.typepad.com/kate_bornsteins_blog/2009/07/who-you-calling-a-tranny.html) Trans feminist blogger Quinnae Moongazer writes an articulate and heartfelt rejoinder, saying in part, “You are telling me, Kate, that I am not real, good enough, or even welcome because of my gender, and you condescendingly tell me and many of my sisters that our feelings about the word “tranny”- which are very complex- are invalid.” (http://quinnae.com/2010/11/17/an-open-letter-to-kate-bornstein/).

However, the message that cis people like me really need to hear is this one:
“If you aren’t trans, whatever your intentions, “tranny” will always sound like a hate word coming from your lips. […] This word belongs to trans female folks who want it and to nobody else. Since trans misogyny is still rampant in the world I’d like to suggest that the rest of us back off of “tranny” for a little while. Let those who have been victimized have some time and space to heal from this word, to interact with it, pick it up, play with it, drop it again, save it for later, or tattoo it on their god damn foreheads if they want. After all, it’s none of my business. ” (http://carnalnation.com/content/58040/1067/t-word-taking-transphobic-slur)

Let me share a real-life example of what RuPaul’s Drag Race did in the life of one trans woman:”i hate how American culture assumes trans women are drag queens. i hate when people who know or learn i am trans compare me to RuPaul, ask if I love his Drag Race show, or want to know where i perform.” (http://i-am-river.tumblr.com/post/66218034884/i-hate-how-american-culture-assumes-trans-women)

I’ve seen RuPaul’s callousness towards trans women spread and cause damage first-hand. A cis friend of mine, a huge fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, thought her fandom made her some sort of expert on gender and sexual minorities; and so, she referred to actress Laverne Cox as a “lady-man” directly in front of a woman she knew was trans; when I told her the word was offensive, she accused me of “gay soapboxing”.  She apparently felt that being asked to try to understand why terms like “lady-man” and “tranny” are hurtful to trans women is a huge imposition (larger than the oppression that trans people face, I guess?), and appeared to think that transsexuality was some sort of club from which she was being unfairly barred.

Can I remind everybody that yesterday, November 20th, was the Transgender Day of Awareness — that sixteen trans people, mostly women, were brutally murdered in the US this year just for existing; worldwide, the number reported is 238. (http://www.transgenderdor.org/memorializing-2013 ; http://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/238-trans-people-murdered-worldwide-in-the-past-year ; http://www.transrespect-transphobia.org/uploads/downloads/2013/TMM-english/TvT-TMM-Tables-2008-12_EN.pdf) These lists are incomplete; for one thing, they don’t count people who survived attacks, like the trans woman in DC who was stabbed 40 times this past July (http://www.washingtonblade.com/2013/06/23/transgender-woman-stabbed-repeatedly-in-d-c-attack/).

Yes, drag queens are also victims of violence. (http://www.washingtonblade.com/2013/06/25/bystanders-cheer-as-two-women-attack-beat-dc-drag-performer/)
And my point in this post is not that drag is inherently bad, or even mostly bad. I simply don’t have enough experience or exposure to make a call. Also, it’s certainly possible to enjoy problematic things. Just don’t claim RuPaul is some sort of champion of trans rights.

The thing about the cavalier attitude of RuPaul and too many cis male crossdressers is that cis male drag queens can take off their costumes and go back to being cis men, and RuPaul can retreat to the safety of money and fame, and the trans women have to live 24/7 with whatever attitudes they’ve engendered in US pop culture consciousness.

The debate over word use and the needs of disenfranchised groups takes a modicum of compassion and humility. And RuPaul’s attitude towards a slur that is constantly used to degrade and attack trans women — who transition not for glamor, uniqueness, or to be a superstar, but because it is medically necessary for them — shows none of that. Neither does Dan Savage’s answer, as he glibly implies that “freedom for everyone” means making trans women put up and shut up, instead of understanding that “freedom for everyone” is impossible while cis straight men and trans women have astronomically unequal freedom from fear, poverty, and the ability to express opinions, or simply exist, without facing mockery, degradation, and threats of violence.

For anyone that cares, today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance, something that means a lot to me. Today, we honor all of those who have lost or taken their life due to transphobic hatred or due to the unbearable living conditions that come with being transgender. It breaks my heart to see people struggle so much and would do anything to help those going through the same situation or one similar. I am proud of those who have the courage to continue to fight on through each and every day, and I grieve for those who weren’t as fortunate. Hopefully, one day, we will be able to live in a world that accepts others differences and understands them. RIP to those we’ve lost. And, for the ones still fighting, keep fighting. It will get better.

My TDOR speech tonight in Ithaca

Hey all! Long time, no see. It seemed to get a really good response, so I’m posting this here until I can maybe submit it somewhere better? Hope you enjoy!

Hello, everyone, and thank you so much for coming to this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony. 

I would like to talk to you all about Dora Özer.  Perhaps one of you will have the opportunity to speak her name aloud later this evening.  Her name, if called, will be just one of many we will hear this evening.  We will all pause.  Some of us will cry.  Few of us will ever know anything more about her than those very specific reasons that anyone comes to our attention this evening – she was transgender, her life was violently taken away from her this year, and, what’s more, people heard about it. In the midst of the deafening uproar that had only just begun sweeping through Turkey, protesetors rallied around Dora’s memory, which grew into a wave of solidarity demonstrations across the world in July, which is how her story fully came to my attention.  As a Turkish trans woman, the unchecked violence Dora and her sisters have faced and continue to face everyday resonates particularly strongly for me.

But I’m not them; none of us are. I have many transgender friends across the country who face so many hardships in their lives – including rampant harassment, discrimination, and the everpresent specter of suicide – but I can very thankfully say that I do not live with a daily expectation that a dear friend or comrade I care about has been beaten or killed.  Being transgender alone does not mark one as a target for these most malicious of abuses.  Those of us who live here in Ithaca, and especially those of us associated with Cornell, cannot do these people justice by thinking that because we are members of a broader queer and trans community that we share equally in the burdens of our kind.  We make appeals to statistics that make us feel our lives are constantly at risk when, in fact, we have incredible privileges that in many ways shelter us from the worst excesses of others.

Coming out as trans is something that will almost assuredly have its attending troubles and dangers for anyone, even if for many of us in certain parts of the world there has never been a better time to be transgender.  How are we to make sense of this contradiction, that so much violence can fall on the heels of acceptance? The transgender activist and writer Julia Serano described trans women as “whipping girls” of our society – a group of people who occupy those particular margins where the corrosive byproducts of our collective mythmaking around gender and normality are dumped such that the vast majority can safely ignore them while enjoying the rewards of stability.  This concept of being a “whipping girl” or “whipping boy” is just as relevant regarding our other shared social myths, such as around race or economic inequality.  And once we recognize this, it is an obvious enough truth, then, that the more of these social dumping sites one occupies, the higher their chance of being poisoned.  The people we commemorate here were not killed simply for being transgender – they were killed because they were transgender and a woman, or transgender and a racial minority, or transgender and poor, or transgender and an immigrant, or transgender and a sex worker.  Dora was exposed to the danger she was and denied the means to protect herself from that danger because she was a trans woman engaged in sex work, not because she was a random trans woman walking down the street.  Trans women of color in the United States, like Brandi Martell and Islan Nettles, are long denied the justice to which they are supposedly entitled not just because they are transgender, but because they are people of color in an unequivocally racist legal system.

We cannot call these women victims, They lived their lives knowing full well their destinies as objects in our collective psychodramas.  The stares and snickers in the street and invisibility everywhere else.  The taunts that are simply empty threats until they’re not. The vague assurances that it wasn’t the way you look that lost you that job. The man who decides to kill a trans sex worker in a fit of confused rage brought on by trying to resolve his honest desires with who knows what kind of a lifetime of social education to see her at once as a threat to vital aspects of his being and an expendable non-person. It does neither them nor us any justice to think of them only in these broad experiences.  Every trans person lives like they do, with whatever obstacles that entails, because at some point it is something that could make their lives livable, something that at its best can bring heights of personal joy surpassing the potential depths of abuse. 

No matter how we feel about ceremonealizing death, we have to recognize that for many transgender people and queer people more broadly, commemorating those we have lost is more often than not a luxury we cannot afford to take for granted.  For every Dora Özer, there is at least one Jane Doe, someone too brutalized or too insignificant to identify.  Even when we do recognize some precious person whose life was taken away, it is tragically common for ertain aspects of their lived experiences to remain as unspoken in death as they were in life.  As with the death of Islan Nettles, it is often up to those who shared love and solidarity with the departed – fellow trans and queer people, fellow immigrants, fellow sex workers – to fight families or communities who, whether out of prejudice, propriety, or estrangement, refuse to acknowledge the deceased as they wanted to be acknowledged.

Commemoration is but one part of remembering, though.  This is not a Trans Day of “Remembrance” when most of us can’t place any kind of a human face to the names we read.  This is not a Trans Day of “Remembrance” if it gives us license to forget every other day of the year.  And, hypothetically, even if we were to take our acts of remembering as seriously as we should, remembrance is not and will never be the same as justice. Dora’s death is meaningless if it prompts us to think about some homogenous set of “transgender experiences” while we remain stubbornly silent when our legal systems perpetuate and expand the backwards laws and indiscriminate police tactics that leave sex workers most at risk and most vulnerable.  Islan Nettles’ death is meaningless if we focus on the senselessness of her attack – which occurred in clear sight of a police station – and fail to recognize just how normal it was.  Remembering gives us a chance to acknowledge, and acknowledging gives us a chance to learn.  But what we choose to learn and what we choose to do with that is entirely up to each and every one of us. Violence against trans people around the world will not be abated by any number of days of remembrance, pride marches, or characters on TV.  What will make a difference for trans people is the commitment and the hard work to engage those systems that produce the “whipping girls” and “whipping boys”, even if it means chipping away at the sources of our own comforts and safety.

To all of you gathered here tonight, I will end my remarks by challenging each of you who will participate in the reading of names to take that name home with you and put it in a place you will see it repeatedly.  Remember that name whenever you can.  Go online and learn as much as you can about that person.  Do whatever you can to turn that name into a person.  Imagine that person not in death, but as a vital being in the world.  To borrow from the transgender legal scholar and activist, Dean Spade, try to imagine them as they might have looked through the eyes of someone who truly loved them, who saw them as a whole person, and not as either an anonymous data point or an abstract martyr.  Once you have known them and loved them and truly embraced their humanity, let them go. Meet a trans person in your community.  Make a friend. Better yet, make a few. Listen to them. Because the dead need no one to fight for them, but the living will always need others to fight with them.

And finally, to those beautiful people to whom this night is dedicated, I and many others will not bid you to rest in peace.  There should be no peace for anyone as long as this violence continues as it does.  No, we bid you to rest in power; the power that you showed in life and the power that you give us to stop this violence wherever we might see it.  Thank you.

Free CeCe McDonald, Free Chelsea Manning

Transgender Day of Remembrance 2013

(written for the Kansas City Star, Midwest Voices blog)


It was already dark as we walked down the jogging trail to the J. C. Nichols Fountain. Volunteers had been setting up, lining the fountain with luminaria bags and getting the candles together. Somewhere, a guitar was being tuned. I took a deep breath, and pushed myself forward. Another year.

This Wednesday marked the fifteenth observance of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, the tenth for me. Started by Gwendolyn Ann Smith in reaction to the 1998 murder of Rita Hester, the day is set aside to memorialize transgender people killed by violence over the past year. Every year we gather and read the names. Every year the candles are lit. I remember when we used to have one for each person, all arranged on the coffee table at the gay & lesbian center where we met. Now, there are just too many names.

About sixty or seventy people crowded around the fountain as it began. There were the usual words: the never-ending wish that, perhaps, next year we will not need to do this. The eulogizing of the departed. And then the reading of the names.

There were two hundred and thirty-eight of them this year. Down slightly from last year, but still nearly twenty a month. The readers came, one by one, and read out the litany of lives cut short by violence.

Valeria, 30, beaten to death. Rosa, 36, stabbed. Dalvalei and Camila, beheaded in their own home. Melony, 28, beaten to death. Evon, 22: beaten, choked, shot, body burnt and tossed into a dumpster. Unknown, strangled. Unknown, stabbed. Unknown, stoned, shot and beaten. Unknown, 13, hanged.

Thirteen.

Around us, the city had gotten quiet. The names…they just kept coming. Young ones, old ones, people with families and those whose families had rejected them a long time ago. And the unknowns, so many of them this year, so many every year. After a while in this world, you instinctively know the story: thrown out of their home by a family that decided it was easier to discard their own child, they are sent out into the streets: essentially, a death sentence. Not right away, of course. First comes hunger, and cold, no work available, no schooling except that gleaned from the street. Religion-based shelters turn them away, as a matter of course, and the few welcoming ones are full. The soul is worn away bit by bit until one day there is nothing left but a body and another statistic. Shot, stabbed, beaten. No name given.

Cupping my hand around my candle, I look around at the others: sisters and brothers, allies and friends. Family, in fact. How many of us are here that won’t be next year? Inevitably, my eyes fall on the luminaria placed front and center. Her name was DeeDee, she lived in this town, and two years ago she became another statistic. We remember still, and always will.

After a while, the names ended and we went our separate ways. I handed my candle back, the closing words of Natalie Sharp ringing in my ears: that these people had died for a beauty that would not, could not be destroyed. We spend years wearing these facades forced on us at birth, playing a part we never asked for and can never truly be. And when we finally pull off the mask–especially if we are nonwhite and poor–the world shunts us off to the side, leaves us behind to die forgotten.

And so we gather. Once a year, to make sure that lives are remembered, that deaths do not go unmourned, And we go back out into the world, hoping against hope to, in a small way, cleanse the world of that peculiar rage against those who refuse to conform their souls to the bodies they came in.

We started the long trek back to the car, talking quietly amongst ourselves. And behind us, the candles were collected and, one by one, blown out.


it’s Transgender Day of Awareness and i can’t stop crying at the fact that hundreds of people were BRUTALLY murdered this year because of their gender identities and expressions. I am so incredibly privileged to be a trans* boy and to be white and to have moved as far as possible from DC, where trans* people are violently attacked and killed ALL THE FUCKING TIME.

I’m crying because it hurts to know I can die at any moment because of someone else’s hate. I’m crying because people who already deal with so much animosity and marginalization are most frequently killed (and by this I mean trans* women and POC). I’m crying because being a human is hard and it’s been such a long struggle to just be myself.

My heart goes out to all the friends and families that have lost someone special because of their gender identity. I hope all my trans* brothers and sisters and gender non-comforming folk can always find safety and comfort. 

Todays outfit for TDOR 2013, I’m trying to get some pics of me actually doing something relevant.
But atleast I held the memorial part!
It was very heavy, talking about how 238 people were murdered in one year just because they defined or expressed themselves as another gender than the one they were assigned at birth.
End hatecrime and “phobias”

The lectures, memorial and debate is hosted by Queer Youth Norway, Amnesty, and Queer Students.

heart heavy

I have never felt like trans* fits with me. I think it is because the English language does not move me. It aches me - it makes my stomach churn as I search for words in broken Kutchi and broken Hindi for how I feel I am . I think about my ancestors, what did they call themselves in their mother tongues? I want to tattoo these words on my body so I never lose them again. Do you know what these words are? could you please tell me so I can find home in a place that my heart can feel familiar with?

I think of my trancestors all of the time, not only today. I am specifically talking about the intersectionality of sexism, racism and class (just to name a few); where transmisogyny comes from. I am specifically talking about trans* women of colour, my sisters who fought in order to protect themselves and are in jail at this very moment because the INjustice system is run by power hungry fools who care more about money than about women’s lives. It is these positions of power that uphold violence against women on systemic levels. And this is unacceptable. These are the lives of my sisters. These are the lives of my gender bending beautiful families. These are LIVES we are talking about. As a man I want to continuously work & learn how to be a better ally to trans* women of colour because it is this cycle of violence that needs to come to an end.

I met up with my brother today and we lit agarbatti in the community garden. we shared silence. and i could feel rage and sadness and heart heavy. it was a needed silence. I think about all of my people who were murdered at the hands of a system which upholds and supports such oppressive and sexist violence. I emphasize that this is violence (NOT “bullying”). And i think about my people who committed suicide or self harmed. And i think of my people who have been hurting and continue to hurt and carry scars. 

I reflected on the movements that continue to carry on - for example,  the climate justice movement and I also find myself asking - WHERE are my people? Are they here? And if they are not, how come? Maybe because we need to rest our bodies or maybe because we don’t feel safe or maybe because we are scared or because we don’t have the energy & so many other reasons. I want us to reflect on this because when we are working towards building a movement with an anti - oppressive lens, we need to recognize what is missing and we need to tackle why. Today. We need to do this starting now. and we need to commit to do this everyday