by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
While I consider myself to be involved in many different aspects of transgender life, there is one issue that drives me, and one thing I always come back to: anti-transgender violence. It is what drove me to create the Remembering Our Dead project and the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
I started the project out of anger, furious that we were being erased from existence and enraged that our own community seemed to be unable to maintain a memory of these deaths. I will admit, too, that I felt my effort would be wasted: few seemed interested in looking at the issue, wanting instead to focus on simpler, less difficult topics – parties, for example.
In 1998, as I was first chronicling instances of anti-transgender murders for what would become the Remembering Our Dead Web site, I was able to uncover data on roughly 30 cases stretching back over 10 years. At the time, it was groundbreaking to see a repository of cases of such violence, much of it forgotten by the transgender community within months of it occurring.
I knew then that I had nothing, relatively speaking.
That there were 30 cases I could find in a time when Google was a not yet a household name, and without access to many of the larger newspaper and legal databases, then surely there were a great many more that had not received widespread coverage.
I scoured the archives of the GLBT Historical Society, got access to Lexis/Nexis and did all I could to dig up more. I cast a wide net within the community, and stories began to trickle in. By the time of the first Day of Remembrance, I had a bit over 100 cases on the site, enough that nearly each person in attendance was able to hold a sign with a name on it in the rain outside the Castro Theater in San Francisco.
More and more cases began to trickle in, though few were part of the historical record. They were new cases, reported in newspapers and on the Internet. People began to alert me when a story would break, and a process of investigation would begin as I hunted down news articles, called police stations, and did what I could to get a full story.
Each case became more than just some name, but a person. In many cases, I heard from people who knew the victim, or talked with friends at local vigils and events for the deceased. When a case would happen near me, too, I would be there – perhaps most notably in the murder of Gwen Araujo, which put me at her funeral and countless days in court with her family and friends, seeking justice.
I also lost three friends due to this sort of violence and prejudice.
By 2005, the number of cases on the site was around 350. Cases of anti-transgender violence leading to death were being reported every two weeks. All the while, I knew that this still wasn’t the whole story. You see, most of the cases I was hearing about were in the United States, Canada and some parts of Europe. Reporting out of the rest of the world was spotty at best, and there were a great many indications that there were murders occurring that we simply were not hearing about.
Now to today: This Friday, Nov. 20, will mark the 11th Transgender Day of Remembrance. This year, Carsten Balzer, representing Transgender Europe and Liminalis: The Journal for Sex/Gender Emancipation and Resistance, began to report anti-transgender murders in Central and South America. The data was staggering, with 83 cases reported between January and June of this year alone. As a result, over 100 people will be honored at this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance – as many as were even known about on the first TDOR, and somewhere in the neighborhood of two a week.
Can you imagine that? Two people a week killed due to anti-transgender violence. While this pales in comparison to the 7,000 or so who have died due to the H1N1 virus in recent months, it is nevertheless an epidemic.
Think of how many people you interact with regularly. Your family, your friends, and event your supermarket clerk. How many people did you think of? If you took 100 of them away, how many would be left? If they were dying at a rate of two a week, what would that look like? Can you even imagine that level of horror?
Even knowing how many were lost in the last year, and how much more we know now than we did before, I can’t help but know that there are that many more we have not heard of. We still don’t have complete numbers from Asia, India, Africa, or the Middle East. There are still cases that are misreported. Many more go unreported due to a victims status as a sex worker or otherwise being viewed as “undesirable” by their local media. We simply may never know how bad this is.
Yet in spite of this, no matter how many are lost, there are some of us willing to give our voice to those we’ve lost, and able to stand up and shout, “No more!”
The Transgender Day of Remembrance will be honored this week around the world, in hundreds of locations, and by thousands of people unwilling to let our deaths be in vain. Why? Because there are also more of us than those who seek to erase us may know – and in the end we will prevail.