Transgender, Dead, and Forgotten

Transgender Day of Remembrance is a time to commemorate past victims of violence — and rededicate ourselves to ending it.

Judy Sisneros / LA Beat

I am haunted today by the names of our dead. Every November, the Trans Murder Monitoring Project gathers whatever information they can about the transgender people that we have lost over the past year to horrific acts of violence. As I read them aloud, I fall into a Portuguese prosody — Domingues, Galisteu, Pereira — that is punctuated by a handful of angular North American surnames: Nettles, Morgan, Madden.

Any murder is grisly, but the murders of transgender people are usually particularly gruesome. Palmira Garcia of Las Marvales, Venezuela, was scalped. Camil from Brazil was burned with her partner in her own home. Dwayne Jones of Jamaica was beaten, stabbed, and shot. Evon Young of Milwaukee was tied up, suffocated, shot, set on fire, and thrown in the garbage. His body was never found.

The garbage. My throat catches at the word because it reminds me that transgender people of color are treated as the literal refuse of the world — the abject of humanity itself.

Even within the queer community, they are erased. Stonewall is insistently whitewashed and gaywashed by the mainstream gay rights movement; in reality, transgender women of color were at the center of the 1969 rebellion.

For transgender folks, it often does not get better. We refuse the liberalizing projects of the mainstream gay rights movement not as a political choice but as a lived necessity. While the Human Rights Campaign continues to place the privileges of marriage on a pedestal, many of us are suffering from severe privation: poverty, unemployment, homelessness, suicide.

Transgender women continue to bear the brunt of anti-LGBT violence in the United States. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 53.8 percent of anti-LGBT homicide victims in 2012 were transgender women, the majority of whom were people of color. In 2011, the percentage of transgender women in this statistic was substantially lower: 40 percent. For transgender women, it doesn’t get better, apparently. We experience most of the violence with none of the visibility. We are the dead and we are the forgotten.

In the face of a world that erases us, remembering this violence is more than just an obligation — it is an act of resistance. When we speak the names of our dead, we are asserting the importance of lives that have been undervalued, discarded, misreported. Transgender Day of Remembrance is not a day to light a candle, shed a tear, and return to your business; it is a day to ask yourself why you are not on that long list and a day to imagine a politics that might shorten it.

Why am I not on the list? I’m white, which exempts me from many forms of violence and discrimination. I’m employed full-time in a safe profession, so I can afford housing. I have trans-inclusive health insurance, which allows me to pay the medical expenses associated with my transition. I pass, which means that most people can’t tell that I’m transgender by sight. In a group of people who feel perpetually unsafe, I’m as safe as  I can possibly be.

But I am reminded every year that so many of my sisters do not survive. How could we shorten this list of the dead? What kind of politics would that goal require?

Because most people on the list lack basic economic security, it must be socialist; because the list is primarily made up of women, it must be feminist; because most of those women are people of color, it must be anti-racist. Because so many of these transgender women of color are sex workers, it must adopt a nuanced approach to sex work that respects its economic and personal necessity without ignoring its dangers. And because so many of these sex workers are in countries like Brazil and Mexico, it must be internationalist. If this politics seems impossible, consider that the safety of transgender people is impossible in its absence.

Practicing radical politics requires us to work from the bottom up, to start from the intersection of multiple oppressions. In 1977, a group of black lesbian socialist feminists known as the Combahee River Collective wrote: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” According to this same principle, transgender women of color need to be at the center of our politics and not consigned to its margins.

For every white transgender beauty queen, for every inspiring story of transition on Huffington Post, for every 20/20 special, for every Lana Wachowski, there are a dozen names on the list of dead transgender women of color. In the year of Chelsea Manning, we need to remember that CeCe McDonald was found guilty while George Zimmerman walked free.

On November 20, we cannot mourn the past without interrogating our present. It’s easy to grieve the dead; it’s harder to come to terms with our complicity in their oppression, with the parts of ourselves that would still regard a transgender woman of color in Brazil as the bridge too far. As Audre Lorde wrote, “I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears.”

If transgender people remain stubbornly in the shadows of progressive politics, it is because we are still the terror inside the liberal imaginary, we are still the wearers of those loathed faces. Today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Light a candle today. Shine it on yourself.