Trans Activism and Mourning

Today, the 20th of November, marks the 5th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. Founded in honor of Rita Hester, who was murdered in her Allston apartment on November 28, 1998, the day is meant to commemorate the trans people who have lost their lives to hate violence. The day exhorts us to “remember our dead”—to engage in rites of public mourning for those whose deaths would otherwise go unmarked. It is difficult to communicate the degree of danger to which trans and gender-variant people are subject every day. The average person stands a one in 18,000 chance of being murdered; for trans people, the likelihood is one in 12.

The brutality of such violence is only intensified by the profound indifference and contempt with which it is met. Apathy on the part of both the public and the police means that the vast majority of these murders go unsolved. When these deaths are covered by the media at all, it is with a sensationalism that is by turns prurient and repulsed. The Trans Day of Remembrance is an attempt to counteract the dehumanization of trans people, and the brutal devaluation of trans lives, through a collective display of mourning that marks these lives as valuable, significant, and terrible in their loss.   

What we must recall, however, is that such collective mourning only truly honors its dead when it gives rise to political militancy. It is all too easy to stand in solidarity with the dead—the demands made by the living are so much more difficult to meet. How can we begin to confront the virulent transphobia that keeps trans people from finding jobs, housing, or health care that makes them so vulnerable to violence in the first place?  Though gay and lesbian activists have made significant social and legislative inroads in the last two decades, progress for gender-variant people has been glacial by comparison. Only four states—California, New Mexico, Minnesota, and Rhode Island—explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity.       

Recent lobbying for non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), has conspicuously ignored transgendered people. The mainstreaming of the gay and lesbian movement has meant that trans issues have been consistently excluded as politically inexpedient; while gays and lesbians have fought valiantly for the right to have a spouse, a home, and a two-car garage (as well as the option of adopting the requisite children), the dangers of homelessness and poverty confronted by trans people remain unaddressed. At the same time, activists in more traditional social justice movements never consider taking trans people into account in their noble quests to eradicate homelessness, indigence, and disease.

Trans activists have done vital and significant work in recent years, albeit with little help from progressive, feminist, and queer communities. Transphobia is as grave a problem there as everywhere, and the relevance of trans concerns to other movements is under constant attack. The inclusion of trans concerns in extant movements—in a manner neither fetishistic nor tokenizing—is necessary if such movements are to avoid a self-negating hypocrisy. Transsexuality, transgender, and gender variance—though each denotes a distinct and specific identity—are often regarded as willful choices that could or ought be abandoned, or diagnosed as dangerous mental ailments to be treated with drugs or psychotherapy. Gender Identity Disorder—the diagnosis with which transsexual and transgendered children and adults are classified—remains a psychiatric condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; homosexuality, by contrast, was declassified as a mental illness in 1973.

As Sylvia Rivera, founder of the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries, has said, “After all these years, the trans community is still at the back of the bus.”  Queer and progressive activists need to acknowledge and work through their own transphobia, if they are to avoid a silent complicity with the violence that the Trans Day of Remembrance is meant to mark.

Nico Carbellano ’04, Yumi Lee ’04 and Jessica M. Rosenberg ’04 are the board of the Queer Resistance Front. They are literature concentrators in Dudley, Cabot and Adams Houses, respectively.

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