Written by Maren Tergesen, peer-edited by SASC Volunteers and Staff.
In November of 1998, Rita Hester lost her life to anti-trans violence. Remembered by all who knew her as glamorous, brilliant, and driven, Rita’s life was taken while in her own home in Boston just two days before her 35th birthday. Aggrieved by the injustice of her death and the lack of media coverage, the local black and LGBTQ+ communities, joined by trans folks across America, held vigils to mourn a life lost too young.
When digital activist Gwendolyn Ann Smith learned of what happened to Rita, she was reminded of high-spirited Chanelle Pickett, another trans woman of colour who was killed in Boston a few years prior. Smith was driven to ensure that the memory of Rita and Chanelle be carried on and that they be remembered as the vibrant women they were; alongside activist Penni Ashe Matz, they held vigils in their cities on November 20th one year after Rita’s death. Smith also launched the website “Remembering our Dead” to record information about the deaths of trans folks and to provide the kinds of narration of trans lives that mainstream media outlets have failed to provide.
Now twenty years later, this day of remembrance is observed in 29 countries across the globe. While Rita rests at the heart of this day, Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR) urges us to commemorate all of those who have died at the hands of anti-trans violence or who have taken their own lives, and to shed light on the discrimination and hate crimes the trans and gender diverse community faces. From October 2018 to September 2019, there were a total of 331 reported trans and gender diverse lives lost, the majority of whom were specifically BIPOC trans women and/or sex workers. Though it only captures the deaths which have been reported in 2019, a list of those to be remembered is available. Transgender Murder Monitoring project who compiled the current list, cautions that it is nearly impossible to estimate the deaths for most countries because the data is simply not recorded. While some of those who are remembered on this day did not self-identify as trans, they were nonetheless victims of violence based on bias against trans people.
In addition to TDOR, the week leading up to November 20th, which is known as Trans Week of Awareness or Resilience, is a time for folks to give full attention to the issues which affect the trans and gender-diverse community, as well as to celebrate and show our allyship with the living trans community.
In an article published in 2018, TDOR founder Smith reminds us that despite the strides North American society has made over the last two decades, Trans Day of Remembrance remains as important as ever. Although the trans community has gained more visibility in Western popular media since the time of Rita and Chanelle, trans folks- and specifically trans women of colour, continue to lose their lives to fatal violence. A recent report published by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation determined that anti-trans stigma, denial of opportunity, and increased risk factors (such as poverty and homelessness) interlock to maintain a culture of violence against trans and gender diverse folks. Thus, the scant social changes realized over the past twenty years have done little in the way of extending the safety, opportunities, and privilege which cisgender folks are generally afforded.
One institution that continues to do wrong by the trans community is the mainstream media. In 2017 and 2018, 75% of the known victims of anti-transgender violence in the United States were misgendered in initial police or media reports surrounding their deaths. Not only are trans folks often misgendered in reports, they are also often “dead named,” or referred to by their birth or legal names and not their chosen name. Smith’s website, “Remembering Our Dead,” was established to combat this exact issue, because in order to honour their lives, trans folks must be remembered for who they truly were.
Similar to mainstream media outlets in the United States, Canadian news sources often fail to represent trans folks as their true selves. In Canada, there is also an absence of data on violence and hate crimes committed against trans folks. This is in part attributable to the fact that reports of anti-trans hate crimes get collapsed into the broader category of “sex-based” hate crimes, which leads to the erasure of anti-trans experiences. This ignorant framing of information is also linked to ongoing distrust of police and other authorities in queer communities.
Addressing anti-trans violence is complex and would involve changes at all levels of society. That said, everyone can be an ally to trans folk. Being an ally involves listening to, empowering, elevating, advocating with and resisting alongside trans folks in the fight for justice. On November 20th, whether you are a member of the trans community or an ally, take a moment to honour the lives lost to anti-trans violence and to stand in solidarity with those who continue to fight for a more just society.
To learn more about TDoR, visit vancouvertdor.com/