Transgender Day of Remembrance: To honor the dead in our community, we have to protect the living
Updated: Apr 15, 2019
Because many trans people die young from suicide, complications of HIV or lack of healthcare, and many young trans women of color and gender nonconforming femmes of color are murdered — the Human Rights Campaign counts 22 anti-trans murders already this year, mostly of women of color — many transgender and non-conforming people learn a set of skills that people outside our communities might only learn much later in life, if at all.
We learn how to organize and participate in memorials and vigils. We learn the etiquette for a range of different funeral and mourning traditions. We learn how to discern information from news stories that misgender, dead-name (use a trans person’s former name) and malign our loved ones but not their killers. We learn how to claim the bodies of our beloveds — often a challenge when we are not related by blood or marriage, when no will exists and when no relative is willing to acknowledge the one who has died. We learn to interact with, confront or avoid law enforcement officers who may or may not investigate the death. We learn to build connections with families of origin we might never have met before, negotiate the name under which our loved one will be buried and grieve together. We learn how to get by — traumatized and bereaved as we are — with causes of death unknown, murders unsolved and cruel indifference from those around us. We learn how to support each other, organize, advocate, educate, make art and raise hell to help each other survive and thrive.
Of course, mourning as a political practice is far from unique to trans communities, and almost all the communities targeted by the Trump administration have already experienced premature death for a long time. But some of what we have learned and built can be observed every November 20, on the Trans Day of Remembrance.
This day was created to honor trans people — mostly trans women of color — who have been murdered. The organization BreakOUT! in New Orleans has expanded TDOR into the Trans Day of Resilience, a shift in tradition many community members have embraced. This shift highlights that TDOR is not only about honoring those who have died, but also about honoring trans women of color while they are still alive, and celebrating the survival and resistance of trans communities over time.
People who don’t match white gender norms have lived, died, built community, and fought injustice for a long time on this land. In 1513, for instance, Spanish conquistador Vasco Nunez Balboa had his dogs rip apart 40 indigenous people because he perceived them to be men who lived as women. That was only one of his many atrocities, and resistance to his acts has continued through today. As recently as 2018, a park committee in San Diego considered erecting a statue of Balboa and one of his dogs, which is non-ceded Kumeyaay Nation territory. Indigenous leaders like Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) organized to prevent the statue from going up.
While it is traditional to only name out loud the trans people killed in the last year during TDOR ceremonies, online TDOR lists often start with 1970, the year after the Stonewall Rebellion. One of the first people listed is Laverne Turner, a Black person murdered by Los Angeles police when she was wearing feminine attire and reportedly resisting arrest.
Trans scholars AJ Lewis and Tourmaline have uncovered that, to protest the killing of Turner and two others, the Gay Liberation Front gathered for a “tin can demonstration” outside the police station. Their goal was to prevent the police from harming anyone else in their community for at least a short period of time, either through magically levitating the police station off the ground or through force of numbers. Tourmaline urges us to bring this spirit of accountability and levity to current resistance tactics.
This year, one of the trans women of color we have lost is Roxana Hernández, a transgender woman living with HIV from Honduras, she traveled with a caravan to seek asylum in the United States. As a result of Trump’s policy toward asylum seekers, she spent around two weeks in ICE detention before her death — time that included multiple transfers and incarceration in extreme cold with inadequate food.
Since she died, her sisters, friends, and trans community have mourned her and demanded change. For example, trans people of color and allies took over an intersection in front of a New Mexico courthouse, stopping traffic, calling for justice for Roxana and demanding the release of all transgender immigrant detainees.
And Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement — one of the groups that led the action — contributed to an art project with Forward Together in honor of this year’s TDOR. In a piece by Art Twink called “Butterflies and Dandelions,” three trans Latinx people appear with butterflies floating above their heads and broken handcuffs laying at their feet. Large letters read: “Dismantle Prisons” and “Abolish ICE.” Jennicet Gutiérrez, a community organizer for Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, explains, “Our familia have always been at the forefront of many movements though we are constantly erased, and this piece puts activists right in the center.”
We are at a time when the Trump administration and others want to pretend that transgender people are a new phenomenon without whom the world would be better. They want to write us out of discrimination laws, keep us out of public spaces and create a right to harass us. Transgender people are a part of every community that Trump administration policy harms, including the people of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria, Muslim and Latinx migrants and refugees, survivors of sexual violence and Afghan civilians.
Now, more than ever, to preserve trans futures, we must remember trans pasts, and to honor the dead, we must love and protect the living.