By Connor Maddocks
Every year on Nov. 20, the transgender community worldwide memorializes those we have lost to hate and violence. Every day it seems, somewhere in the world another trans life is taken.
Day of Remembrance began when a black trans woman named Rita Hester was murdered in Allston, Massachusetts on Nov. 28, 1998. There were so many people grieving and angry, a candlelight vigil was held and nearly 250 people showed up. Some fought to make sure Rita’s identity was respected in the Boston newspapers.
Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a transwoman, was so inspired by the death of Rita that she created the web project Remember Our Dead and founded the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) the next year on Nov. 20, 1999. TDOR quickly spread across the country and then the world. Today it is called the International Day of Remembrance. This later inspired the Transgender Day of Action and then Transgender Awareness week, which runs Nov. 13-19 to help raise awareness of the trans community and educate the greater community.
As TDOR started to spread, organizers came up with unique ways to remember those who had passed. Some, like San Diego, have indoor memorial services, others have outdoor ceremonies; there are vigils and marches, rooms decorated with butterflies, pictures of victims, PowerPoint presentations with photos — each one is beautiful in its own way. Some celebrations are happy and have party-like atmospheres, while others are very solemn.
This year, as of Nov. 15, in the United States, we have lost 30 beautiful transgender souls, gone now because of hate, prejudice, racism and violence. These souls — almost all trans women of color, most of them black women — did not deserve to die. Most were so young, a waste of beautiful people, a waste of our future. Many are tortured, their bodies mutilated and then often burned beyond recognition. Leaving us to yell, “Stop the madness!” This has to end.
I sit here feeling powerless, I can scream all day, I can cry all night. I can try to make sense of something that makes no sense until I am blue. That won’t bring anyone back. There is nothing I can do, no one is listening. But I can, and I will, hold on to hope. Hope that our communities can find ways to keep our trans folks, especially our trans women of color, safe. We are all beautiful people, we just want to live our lives in peace. We don’t want to hurt anybody, we are just looking for a safe place to be who we are, to be free. Ways to stop hating each other, some want ways to have more allies, and ways to just be our true selves. To walk out of our houses and not be afraid, not have to be on guard every single day, all day and all night, never letting our guard down.
Imagine living like that.
Our trans women, especially our trans women of color and black trans women, do live like that. So do many of our trans men and our gender-nonconforming and nonbinary folks.
As I researched the international deaths, I found something I wasn’t prepared for. There were trans men who had also died. Almost all, died of suicide. Trans men in our communities are mostly quiet and go unnoticed, but we exist, and it is self-violence that is usually our enemy.
Here is where we can help them. We can check on those we haven’t seen for a while or call them when we see a Facebook post that sounds ominous. I took a suicide prevention training so I know what to look for. Anyone can take it from a reputable mental health agency. These helpful suggestions go for our youth and trans women, nonbinary and gender nonconforming as well.
In places where there is no support or mental health care is lacking, we need to do better. I think perhaps, in the United States, we should add those who died from suicide to the list. Violence, whether from another person or against ourselves, is still violence. According to The National Center for Transgender Equality, the suicide rate for transgender adults is 40% and for youths it is very close to the same number.
So why, you may ask, do we even have TDOR? First to honor, show our respect, and promise to never forget the victims of the year’s hate. Even when we don’t know the people, they are part of us, part of our community where we are all connected. We are siblings and losing them is as hurtful as losing anyone close to you. It’s an attack on all of us and we need a time and a place to come together to remember and memorialize.
It is also a time when our allies can join us to strengthen our bond, our partnership of holding each other up when the sadness hits. The strength it gives us prepares for the fight that lays ahead where we join together for battle.
It is a time of education. We invite everyone in, all are welcome. This way we can educate the larger community about what is happening to us. It is starting to feel like genocide. What we know, as it’s been said out loud, is that all of the deaths are not counted. There are so many that go unreported, or not listed as a hate crime. Often, police list the person as male because that’s what the family wants, or the person hasn’t legally changed their ID yet, or because they haven’t had their SRS (surgical reassignment surgery). And officials don’t care what they were wearing, or how they lived, or the name they used. And the deceased have no one to speak for them. So I will speak for them. I will call out their names loud and clear. I need to know what my friends need, what they want and help them get that. What will you do?
Here in California, we are so fortunate to have so many legislators who are true allies and forward thinkers. The Respect After Death Act authored by state Sen. Toni Atkins (Assembly speaker at this time) and Equality California, which requires any official responsible for completing the person’s death certificate to ensure it represents the deceased person’s gender expression as documented by legal documents or confirmation by medical procedures.
This is the 17th year of this solemn day of remembrance here in San Diego. Our community will always come together to mourn and remember our lost siblings. Although we have not lost anyone in San Diego to anti-transgender, gender-nonconforming or non-binary violence, we will remember those from our community who did pass away. This year in the U.S., 30 transgender people were murdered, and their names were read at The San Diego LGBT Community Center’s 17th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, also lowering the transgender flag at half-mast.