Transgender Day of Remembrance 2011: Remembering Our Dead, Seeking Justice for Our Living

Jan. 21, 2011, was a bitterly cold night, and the snow was crunchy under our feet as 300 members of our community walked in silent candlelight through the outskirts of downtown Minneapolis. Our destination was the steps of the apartment building where Krissy Bates, a transgender woman, lived and died at the hands of an assailant only two weeks earlier.

Krissy's home was in an older brick brownstone building that stood alone, as if other buildings had run away to avoid standing nearby. The building was a stark metaphor for the desolation that many members of the transgender community experience, isolated from family, from spouses and partners, from old friends, even sometimes from our very selves.

We were young and old, diverse in race and ethnicity, class and ability; we were transgender, intersex, bisexual, lesbian, and gay; we were straight (and gender-conforming) allies. Standing in front of Krissy's apartment building, each of us silently confronted our own fears, and many of us confronted our own internalized transphobia. We were there to celebrate the life and identity of Krissy and to acknowledge our grief. But most of all, we were there to stand together against the irrational fear and dehumanization that leads people to murder those of us whose gender identities or gender expressions do not conform to their expectations, or to the expectations of society.

Sunday, Nov. 20 is the 13th annual International Transgender Day of Remembrance. On this day we grieve the deaths and memorialize and celebrate the lives of persons who have died at the hands of those whose hatred and prejudice toward transgender people has led to acts of unspeakable violence against an oppressed community. On this day we also call attention to the ongoing oppression and violence against transgender persons.

It was just a matter of time until death would come to our doorstep in Minneapolis. According to statistics summarized in a 2010 report by the Transgender Europe (TGEU) Trans Murder Monitoring Project, "every second day a homicide of a trans person is being reported."

The report of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs released this past July represents data from 17 anti-violence programs in 15 states across the U.S.A. In 2010 there were 27 reported hate murder victims of LGBT and HIV-affected people in 2010, representing a 23-percent increase over 2009. A disproportionate number (70 percent) were people of color, and nearly half of the victims (44 percent) were transgender women.

Transgender people live at the intersections of systemic oppressions. Our gender identities don't conform to the expectations of society. And if we are transwomen of color, we are subject to additional stigmatization and harassment. Transmisogyny is at the root of much of the violence against transwomen, and racism plays a large part in this violence.

Murders of transgender persons are often characterized by extreme violence committed by persons filled with deep-seated hatred. This hatred is often born of the language of marginalization that characterizes much of the everyday rhetoric against transgender people and communities. According to Clarence Patton, former Acting Executive Director of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, "individual victims of bias crimes suffer tremendously. Hate-motivated assaults generally involve more brutality than other assaults." He also writes, "Besides being an assault against an individual, a bias crime is an assault against a community, and sends a clear message of fear to that entire community."

Much of this extreme violence against transgender people begins in the violence of language that represents what is all too often an acceptable prejudice in our society. This in turn leads to stigmatization of our community and feeds the dehumanization and transphobia that can ultimately erupt in physical violence. What can we do to end this vicious cycle of murders of transgender people that brings us together every Nov. 20? We need gender-conforming allies to interrupt the language and actions that feed the fear of transgender people. We need transgender and gender-conforming people who are willing and able to educate others about the lives of transgender people and the oppression that we experience. We need allies who will work for passage of legislation that will give true justice to trans people. We need allies from secular and faith communities who are willing to fight for justice for all people and to work to end systemic oppression.

The landmark 2011 report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey of 6,450 participants across the United States reveals the systemic oppression faced by the transgender community. The report reveals that anti-transgender bias interlaced with systemic racism is particularly devastating to the transgender community. Many respondents to the survey live in extreme poverty. And an almost unbelievable 41 percent of respondents report having made a suicide attempt, compared to 1.6 percent of the general population.

Transgender people experience significant harassment and discrimination in education, employment discrimination and economic insecurity, housing discrimination and homelessness, discrimination in public accommodations, barriers to receiving updated identification documents, abuse by police and in prison, and discrimination in health care and poor health outcomes. We have a long way to go until our transgender community can stand shoulder to shoulder with gender-conforming people and proclaim that we have equal access to the fruits of justice.

And yet a 2011 Public Religion Research Institute report based on two random telephone surveys of 2,019 respondents claims that "overwhelming majorities of Americans agree that transgender people should have the same general rights and legal protections as others." The report was based on questions that emphasized equality under the law, and the respondents include all major religious groups and people of various political affiliations.

This report is certainly encouraging, but it doesn't reflect the reality of life for many transgender people in the U.S. Often when legislation is proposed that would provide protection for transgender people at the federal level (e.g., an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act) and in many state legislatures, we are turned away. Perhaps our elected officials don't represent the opinions of their constituents? Perhaps there are very strong currents preventing public opinion from becoming law? Perhaps the people in the survey claim to understand transgender people but in reality have little knowledge of the issues that we face in everyday life?

And so we continue to gather as a community every Nov. 20, the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, to celebrate the lives of those among us who are killed each year by those who continue to harbor fear and hatred of transgender persons. Let us work together to educate and help others understand transgender identities so that someday we may bring an end to ignorance and fear at the root of transphobia. Let us work together to open our hearts so that all people are respected, accepted and welcomed at the table where each of us is fed and nourished without regard to gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, social class or economic situation, ability, or age.