Transgender Day of Remembrance: Anatomy of a Memorial

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

--Mary Oliver, "The Summer Day" (1992)

This is the anatomy of remembering in the context of November. The date for the Transgender Day

of Remembrance was chosen because Rita Hester was murdered in November. In a sense, it is an arbitrary date, but it occurs in a month when death and dying are so visible in nature, when

darkness comes too early. It occurs in a month full of and surrounded by relevant observances

and seasons: All Saints and All Souls, when we remember the dead; Thanksgiving, when we

express gratitude; Advent, when some of us anticipate Word-made-flesh.

Every year we gather on or near Nov. 20 and honor our siblings whose lives have been

taken by anti-trans violence. When we meet on this occasion, we remember our dead taken not by disease or natural causes, not by accident or age, but by

violence. We name our dead, and we

name the hate that killed them. Even though we despise this service and our need to hold it, we

come. We come to say their names and talk about why they died, and how. We try to touch

both our grief and our anger. We try to resist fatigue -- so many names, so much hate -- to resist

apathy and shutting down in the face of the horror.

We remember because we have to remember, because, as Dorothy Allison writes, if we cannot

name our own, we are cut off at the root. But in remembering we know that as surely as

Gandhi's and Dr. King's choices led to the gunshot, as surely as Jesus' choices led to the cross,

our choices too make us vulnerable to violence and death. Our deliberate act of remembering

causes us to know this certainly and irreversibly. And so remembering our dead brings us to a


Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

We begin this month remembering our saints, the days of the dead. In some ways our flowers

and our visits to the graves are the same. Our candles also push back the darkness, illuminate our

fear and our hope, and invoke the love and justice that appears across faiths as sacred fire. We

remember our martyrs: We are witnesses to the freedom of self-determination, to the choice to

live a life and a gendered life in keeping with no biological or social rule, no external, imposed

rule, but guided from within by self-knowledge and true spirit. We are witnesses to the brutality

meted out by a violent and punishing world that hates and fears difference.

We are all at risk. Violence and hatred are not very focused. Transphobia hates everything trans,

and it hates everything that looks trans and everything standing next to trans and anything

talking to trans. Not all the people we will name today knew what we know. Not all of them

made the choices we must now make by remembering our dead. Willie Houston was guiding

a blind friend and holding his girlfriend's purse when he was shot. Michael Hunt and Private

First Class Barry Winchell were lovers of trans women. Lisa Lambert and Philip DeVine were

living with Brandon, a trans man. Like the Sucuzhanay victims, brothers walking home arm in arm after a church party, who were killed because they

were thought to be gay, some of those

savagely martyred as gender traitors were unaware of the vicious lessons of our lives.

Remembering our saints is brutal. It is knowing that this year the International Transgender Day

of Remembrance project added 63 names. It is knowing that more than half of those died in

Brazil alone. It is knowing that we were stabbed in the street, shot in our apartment, tortured

and beaten, raped and thrown from cars, strangled, hit in the head, decapitated and dismembered.

What is different, perhaps, about remembering our saints is that we cannot remember them

without learning the vicious lessons -- and without making our inevitable choices about how, then, to


Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

This month we celebrate Thanksgiving. It seems odd and incongruent, perhaps, but in the end

it is not impossible to give thanks in light of our memorial. Even as we tally cruelty, we have

much to be thankful for. Because still we rise (to paraphrase Maya Angelou). Because we are facing mortality

and naming hate and still choosing to live bent, allied, vulnerable lives. Because we are claiming

our own names and power, recognizing the extraordinary gifts and freedom that we bring to the

world and its broken and rigid and pathetically limited ways of expressing gender. Because

we can still laugh; still see our strange, freckled beauty (to paraphrase Gerard Manley Hopkins); still love

ourselves and one another. Because we have a choice to use our voices, to not disappear, to not

give up, to not go back.

We can be grateful today for the lives of the dead, for people they touched and loved and made

smile. We can be grateful for their willingness to go first, like the Stonewall veterans. We can

be grateful not that we are dying, never that, but, yes, that someone is noticing and counting and

naming us.

And we know that it's not just death that we face. We know the daily indignities, the smaller

punishments that crowd us toward compliance. Our lives are litanies of imposed and inscribed

and enforced gender. Doctors and nurses who use old names and old pronouns. Clerks and

servers who insist on adding "sir" and "ma'am" to every sentence. Forms that recognize nothing

outside the gender binary. People who give primacy to sexual organs and secondary sex characteristics,

who turn ties and hair length and balding patterns and shoe size and breasts and hips and muscles

into inflexible rules and gender checklists. People who police clothing racks, who police

bathrooms, who police voice modulation. The messages are clear: "You aren't real. You don't

count. You don't get to choose. You don't get to be."

But we do. And we are. And we can give thanks that the power of love and the source of love

are greater than the forces of death, an idea that is the root of many faith systems and spiritual practices.

Finally, Advent, a season of anticipation of

divine spirit-made-flesh, arrives just at the end of the month for some of us. And our bodies are the site of the world's violence, where their hate

meets our lives. Our bodies are the site where bathrooms and clothes and gender signifiers are

made into indignities. But our bodies are also the site of the choice that we must make when we

remember our dead: to hide or to live as who we are, to turn away or to act in solidarity with

others, to not get involved or to protest injustice.

Bodies are the terrain upon which we live our convictions. Bodies are the points at which our

divine spirit is realized. Advent is the time of expecting and realizing the transformative and

transcendent power of creation to walk among us. And so Advent is holy breath become flesh in

our bodies through our choices to live for truth and justice, for good and right relationship. This

is what we await and prepare for. This is what we cannot unknow.

And this is the anatomy of a memorial. This is the November of remembering: naming and

celebrating our saints, giving thanks for spirit and saving grace, anticipating the realization of

holy bodies. And so, now:

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?


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