BY GWENDOLYN ANN SMITH
The 20th of November is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. This year will be the 18th observance. It was my work with the Remembering Our Dead project that helped create the event way back when.
When I started the event, I was very specific in some definitions. Rather than simply being an event to honor dead transgender people, I was specifically addressing people — transgender-identified or otherwise — who were killed due to anti-transgender violence. I’ve long held that this is an important distinction.
At the same time, this distinction does cause some confusion as the Transgender Day of Remembrance comes around, and you start seeing any number of, well, numbers thrown at you as to how many we’ve lost in a given year.
Not all anti-trans murders are of trans people. Consider Roy A. Jones, who was 17 months old at the time of their death in 2010. Jones was killed because their babysitter, Pedro Jones (no relation), thought the infant was “acting like a girl.” Jones was way too young to self-identify as trans, but the murder surely fits as an anti-transgender murder.
The same can be said about the 2001 murder of Willie Houston, who was neither trans nor gay identified. At the time of his death, Houston was holding his wife’s purse while she went to the restroom, and escorting a blind friend by walking with him arm in arm. His killers perceived Houston as being non-gender conforming, and presumably gay or transgender — regardless of his chosen identity.
This same discrepancy has come up this year, surrounding the death of Imer Alvarado. Alvarado was killed on the 17th of May in Fresno, CA. Alvarado did not identify as transgender, but as a gay man — but at the time of his death, according to the local ABC affiliate, Alvarado was dressed in drag. It is likely what caused the altercation that led to his death.
By the same token, the September murder of San Francisco DJ, artist, and activist Anthony Torres in the Tenderloin is similarly complicated. Torres also did not identify as transgender — but created a female persona some 20 years ago. As Bubbles, he was a flamboyant figure in the local scene. When he was killed, the initial reports called him a transgender woman.
I would, of course, not call either Alvarado or Torres transgender. They did not choose to identify with the term, and I think it wise to respect that. But we can look at their murders as being, at least potentially, anti-transgender murders. Their appearance at the time of their deaths may indeed have been a contributing factor in their murder.
There are others that one can question from another angle. For one, I’d suggest the murder of Ava Le’Ray Barrin. Barrin was a 17-year-old trans woman shot and killed allegedly by Jalen Breon Brown on the 25th of June in Athens, Georgia. Barrin and Brown were both acquaintances, and both were trans-identified — but it does not appear to have been an anti-transgender murder, but some other form of personal dispute.
Others become even more unclear. The death of Kiwi Herring was at the hands of the St. Louis Police. Herring, an African-American transgender woman, had a dispute with a neighbor that turned into an altercation. The police were called to the scene, where they say Herring brandished a knife and cut one of the officers. They then shot her to death.
I have to admit having a wariness of adopting police narratives as of late, particularly out of the St. Louis area, and even more when it involves a black victim. With all the research I’ve done on this particular case, I find I am simply unsure — but I am more than liable to err on Herring’s side, at least until I might learn more.
Another officer-involved shooting, that of nonbinary identified Scout Shultz, I am less inclined to include in such a count. The case certainly leaves me questioning the actions of the police, and why scout ended up being shot while holding no more than the miniature blade of their multi-tool. It seems their death was more a case of police malfeasance than anti-transgender animus.
This is where things get complicated: when you comb through every case, especially, I think, as a transperson, it’s all very personal. Nevertheless, one ends up forced to be methodical, and tease out the details, and see if they fit. Sometimes they do not.
I think, though, it is important to bear this one fact in mind: regardless of the specifics of any given case, when one looks at the data collected and sorted over the last couple decades, one discovers that a person is killed due to anti-transgender violence every two weeks in the United States of America. Also, when one expands this to a worldwide sample, you see such a murder, on average, every day and a half. We are still at appalling levels of violence. Let’s not forget this, particularly in an era where the rights of transgender people are threatened more than they have been since the 1930s.
Oh, and one final thing: even though I have laid out my rationale above, if you feel it important to include Schultz or any others when you are honoring those we’ve lost, please do not let me stand in your way. It is not my place to tell you who or how you should grieve.
What I do ask you to do is what I’ve asked since 1999: Remember.