What is Transgender Day of Remembrance, and why does it matter?

Charlie Powell and Taisie Tsikas write on the significance of Transgender Day of Remembrance in the ongoing struggle against the oppression of transgender people.

A memorial at a Trans Day of Remembrance event in Washington, D.C. | WikiCommons/Ted Eytan

This year, Transgender Day of Remembrance – 20 November – comes at a particularly bleak time. The upcoming possibility of reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 has triggered a reactionary and cynical backlash from trans-exclusionary radical feminists as well as the conservative right. A moral panic over ‘transing children‘ and the supposed threat to women-only spaces is currently taking up huge amounts of column space, and transphobic groups are organising to lobby MPs. While large swathes of the British media, conservative and liberal alike, swarm over talking points with little or no relation to reality, the only possible outcome of which is to undermine transgender people’s experiences and struggles, trans people and supporters (usually in queer communities) create spaces for remembrance.

Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) was founded by Gwendolyn Ann Smith in 1999, in response to the death of Rita Hester. She intended it as a way to draw attention to the global scale of hate crime and everyday violence against trans people, as well as providing a space for collective mourning. An online list is collated of all the recorded murders of trans people across the world that year. A name, a date, a place, and the way they were killed. The list is harrowing; the brevity of each entry makes it feel impossible to comprehend. TDOR is rarely recognised outside trans communities, which only serves to further underscore the silence around the issue. For many people, TDOR can only be accessed in online spaces. Community healing is hard when even the dynamics of the Day of Remembrance serve to demonstrate a wider social apathy.

Trans women of colour, especially black women, are at especially high risk of violence; their names dominate the list. Trans people, of course, exist at intersections of race, class, sexuality and gender. Transphobia cannot be understood as monolothic: transmisogyny, racism and imperialism are also at play. Juliet Jacques writes, on the gaze of transmisogyny: “to them I’m a broken man, so they don’t fear a violent response, but not a ‘real’ woman so they won’t treat me with even the tiny modicum of respect that they might – might – reserve for other women, and all bets are off.” In the USA, black and Latina trans women murdered by men known to them make up the majority of those whose lives were lost.

Trans people who are sex workers are among the most at risk. Police are the most common assailants of trans sex workers, and of the reported murders of trans and gender-diverse people whose profession was known, 62% were sex workers. While sex work offers community and a means of survival to many trans people across the world, criminalisation and discrimination against sex workers can leave them extremely vulnerable. In Europe, this is often compounded by a precarious immigration status.

While TDOR is specifically dedicated to memorialising trans people who were the victims of murders motivated by transphobia, their deaths do not account for the entirety of the deadly impact of transphobia. Research has found that trans people attempt suicide at a rate of 32-50% across different countries. Almost half of trans students in UK schools have attempted suicide. In India, almost a third of trans people die by suicide.

Faced with these sobering figures, it is essential that we collectively refuse to see them as coincidental or accidental. In much the same way that Engels identified the high death rates of working class people in 19th century England as social murder, we must recognise that high suicide rates among trans people are not an inevitability, but the outcome of political decisions and prevailing societal transphobia. In 1845, Engels wrote: “when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet … and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder”. The same can and must be said of society’s treatment of transgender people. As the above-linked report from the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine states: “Gender-based victimization, discrimination, bullying, violence, being rejected by the family, friends, and community; harassment by intimate partner, family members, police and public; discrimination and ill treatment at health-care system are the major risk factors that influence the suicidal behavior among transgender persons.” Transphobia kills in many ways.

The pathos of Remembrance Sunday is epitomised for many in Laurence Binyon’s famous lines: “They shall grow not old, as we who are left grow old…” Transgender Day of Remembrance is different. It is not a response to events situated largely in the past. The list is refreshed every year; this is an ongoing struggle and the lists are getting longer. The act of remembrance is a vital act of mourning that can provide a space in which this violence is taken seriously, but many trans people are unable to take part in it. For some it is only a reminder of the abuse they stand to face if they live their lives freely. In its core, though, the day is radical. It is an expression of trans subjectivity and momentary control over the way transgender lives are narrativised, even if that is sometimes only to express grief and hopelessness. Candles are lit for the dead, but they burn in the realm of the living.

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