Who are we remembering? What is it for? #TDoR 2020

This article is largely addressed to those of my trans siblings and allies who are less likely to face lethal violence as a result of transphobia

Transgender Day of remembrance was founded in the late 90s in response to the murder of African American trans woman Rita Hester in Allston, Massachusetts, as an initially online and later worldwide memorial event for those trans and gender diverse people who have been killed. It has served the purpose of raising the issue of anti trans violence, and as an annual point of memorial and contemplation for those of us who have lost trans loved ones. Over the years it became a significant international memorial event for the trans community and the list of the frequently unnamed dead have grown larger and larger, partly as a result of improvements in data collection, but also likely in some cases as a result of increased levels of violence. However the broader patterns have been largely the same. It has also as it gains significance become the focus of wider trans campaign work which is part of what I’m going to be discussing in this article.

Who is dying?

So far as we know from the figures we have available, 98% of those killed were trans women or transfeminine gender diverse people (this broad language is used partly because we often know little about the dead other than that they were killed and transgressed gender norms, and partly because in many parts of the world, those affected may not identify as “trans women” but instead as travesti or some other classification which doesn’t neatly map to Anglo-American models of gender.

62% of those murdered were sex workers making that a vastly overrepresented occupation, even given the very high levels of sex work among trans women.

In the Americas, the vast majority of those killed were black trans women and trans women of colour.

In Europe, where the murder rate is much lower than the rest of the world almost half of those killed were migrants.

The majority of murders recorded happened in South and Central America, particularly in Brazil.

TransRespect (a project run by TGEU) warn regarding the total figures that “these figures are not complete. Due to data not being systematically collected in most countries, added to the constant misgendering by families, authorities, and media, it is not possible to estimate the number of unreported cases”.

Why focus on murder?

There has been an ongoing discussion in the online trans community about other forms of violence leading to death, particularly for example bullying, discrimination or domestic abuse leading to suicide. It’s completely understandable that people want to remember their trans loved ones, family and friends who have been lost in this way (and I’m privately remembering friends I’ve lost too).

However, many of the campaigning organisations that have made this event a feature of the annual calendar are run primarily by white, middle class people living in conditions where murder is not a significant threat to their (our) lives. Thinking more critically about how this operates with respect to campaigns, it seems that rather than reflecting on what this means and how to make our efforts at memorial and campaigning connect with those most at risk, there is an effort to draw upon the attention the event receives and open up the personal relevance factor to wider populations facing less terminal violence.

There are doubtless many many more trans people around the world who die by suicide in conditions of despair and neglect than are murdered but to identify them we must first know them, and the thing is people from particular demographics among the global trans population keep ending up killed having had no part in it making that happen. The loss of loved ones to suicide is always tragic, the impact of social and healthcare policies against our mental health is substantial, but it is a qualitatively different thing to be addressing which we can and should address at a different time and not let it distract us from the issue of trans killings.

This is not to say (as some try to) that trans activists in the UK have no real problems to worry about, but that this particular memorial event was established around a particular extreme of violence and that those of us who mark it must commit to focusing our energies not on what we can extract from grieving the murdered in terms of campaign visibility or expanding it as a way to talk about ourselves, but instead must take this moment as an opportunity to reflect on how it came to be that these over 350 trans women in the last year were rendered disposable, vulnerable to murder and later memorialising. We must look at how our organisations reflect (or more accurately fail to reflect) the needs of sex workers, of migrants, of trans of colour people. We must consider (as trans theorists of colour have called out to us for many years) the ways that campaigns for trans citizenship can often reinforce the systems of oppression which marginalised those who are put to death. We have to commit to recognising that many of us are not innocent of complicity in these systems and work to make sure our organisations integrate the struggle for the liberation of sex workers and migrants and people of colour in meaningful non tokenising ways.

While doing this we should also remain skeptical of the lip service paid by government bodies and officials to the day and the function it serves of establishing their innocence as mourners alongside us while the border system, welfare and health care cuts and increasing hostility regarding documentation, the criminal justice system and policing of sex work that they administrate all conspire to help foster the conditions that make trans murders possible.

This thread by Avery Rose contains further links which I’m grateful for.

is a trans woman, sometime activist and researcher of cis studies.

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