by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
Fifteen years ago, in an apartment in Alston, Massachusetts, a transwoman of color named Rita Hester was stabbed to death. It was her death – as well as the death of Chanelle Pickett three years earlier – that led to the Transgender Day of Remembrance. In those 15 years, what was born out of a rainy night in front of the Castro Theater in San Francisco has led to an International event. I’m plenty biased, having founded the Transgender Day of Remembrance, but I think it might be fair to say that TDOR has helped pave the way for modern transgender advocacy around the world.
After so long, you might question the relevance of the event, and wonder why we need to still have such a potentially depressing event as one of the biggest annual transgender-related observances. As Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker is known for stating, “why so serious?”
In many cases, TDOR has expanded into a transgender awareness week, or even a month’s trans-related activities. Some have attempted to “lighten” the event, attempting to turn it into an affirmation of life, rather than a memorial for those we’ve lost and a call for action. Some have even gone so far as to try to turn TDOR events into “beer busts” and similar parties. These are the rare cases, as most know how to treat a memorial like a memorial.
In the early 1970s, in the wake of the Stonewall Uprising and an extended series of gains for gay and lesbian rights, many celebrated, oblivious to a rising backlash. In 1977, success turned to defeat as Anita Bryant and other anti-homosexual crusaders fought back in St. Paul, Minnesota, Dade County, Florida, Eugene, Oregon, and Wichita, Kansas. It was only after the Briggs Initiative – which would have prevented educators from advocating on behalf of gay and lesbians – was defeated in California that the tide started to again turn.
One could argue that the transgender community – which has had a number of successes in rights gains over the last few years – is now facing its own backlash. The passage of AB1266, which has secured rights for transgender students in California, had led to a seemingly successful petition drive to repeal the bill. It will likely be on the ballot in 2014, and there is, in my opinion, a better than average chance it will succeed. This is exactly what our foes want, given some recent stinging defeats for them around same-sex marriage. They view us as easy prey. So do those who murder us.
One of the main proponents against AB1266 is the Pacific Justice Institute. They’ve spent a lot of time and money discussing a transgender youth in Florence, Colorado. They want to claim that she is “harassing” other students in her high school simply by lawfully using the women’s restroom. They’ve helped turn this story into the lightning rod for AB1266 repeal. They have also helped cause the young woman in question to end up suicidal and depressed. I fear we’ll see more of this in the next year, as the AB1266 fight goes to the voters.
Meanwhile, in Oakland, California, Sasha Fleishman fell asleep on an AC transit bus. She identified as neutrois, and gender-neutral. As Fleishman slept, a high school student set fire to the skirt Fleishman was wearing. I want to applaud those who have since raised more than $20,000 to aid in the skin grafts and other care Fleishman will require, as well as those students and teachers who wore skirts in support of their classmate at Maybeck High School. At the same time, I want to note that the 16-year-old who committed this crime – according to their mother – was simply “joking,” and “didn’t know it would go that far.” Fleishman could have been killed by this “joke.”
This year, the Transgender Day of Remembrance will once again have far too many names on the list of those to honor in their passing. There will still be many more we may never hear about. We’ll talk about Ashley Sinclair, Kelly Young, Domonique Newburn, Islan Nettles, Cemia “CeCe” Dove, Eyricka Morgan, Evon Young, Artegus Konyale Madden, and all the rest of those listed at http://transgenderdor.org. How many more will we lose?
While there are still people trying to beat back our liberties, still so willing to try to tar our needs for public accommodation rights as a gateway for pedophiles and rapists, still eager to cause us harm in the eyes of the general public, then we will continue to be attacked and killed. We will continue to be vulnerable to harm from the homo and transphobic as well as those who think that setting fire to our clothes equates with a “joke.”
This is why it still matters, why it is still relevant: because we are still dying. We are still being killed at a more than alarming rate. Our deaths are reported in the United States alone roughly every two weeks – and far higher around the world.
We should not be hearing of transgender youth moved to suicide because right-wing bullies have opted to use her story as a way to fundraise against other young transgender women like her. We should not be seeing people of any gender identity set on fire as some sort of sick attempt at a laugh. We should not be seeing so many people murdered simply for being perceived as transgender by their killers.
On Transgender Day of Remembrance, we honor those we’ve lost – and we continue to fight for all.