Trans Day of Remembrance
Updated: Feb 26, 2021
On November 20th, as every year, many people will be marking the annual Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR). At New Normal, we will be doing the same, and we thought it would be helpful to explain how TDOR came to be, and what it means to the global trans community.
The story begins in 1998 when Rita Hester was murdered in Allston, Massachusetts. Rita was a black trans woman, and her death sparked an outpouring of grief in her local community. A remembrance ceremony was held for her which attracted around 250 people. By the following year, however, Rita’s memory was beginning to fade.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a trans woman called Gwendolyn Ann Smith was thinking about how trans people are frequently mocked and insulted by the media when their murders are reported. In 1999 she decided to make use of the internet to help the trans community have their own space to mourn. She created a website to memorialize those trans people murdered in the past year. Rita was on her first list. Slowly but surely, this has morphed into an international day of remembrance.
At the time I was still going through my own transition process, and too preoccupied with that to pay much attention to trans community issues. But by 2002 I had a good job in Berkeley, California, and was living with my boyfriend in the East Bay. As well-educated white folks, we seemingly had little to fear from violence. Then the news broke that a local teenager had been brutally murdered. Her name was Gwen Araujo, and she had lived only a few miles away from us. It didn’t take the police long to catch the men who killed her, and ordinarily the courts would have thrown the book at them, but for trans girls like Gwen the usual rules of justice did not apply.
Lawyers for the defendants attempted to employ the “trans panic” defence. Basically this means discovering that a woman you have been intimate with is trans is sufficient excuse for murdering her. Thankfully this didn’t prevent convictions, but it was a stark reminder for me of how precarious my life was.
Having been disturbed the trial, the California Attorney General determined to do something about such defence tactics. It took a while, but in 2014 California became the first state in the USA to ban gay and trans “panic” from courts. That AG was Kamala Harris. Her record on trans rights is not perfect, but as a senator, she has tried to bring in similar laws at a federal level. Most states in the USA still allow trans panic as a defence. Perhaps being Vice President will finally give Harris the influence she needs to push this through.
Eventually, I got to attend a TDOR event myself, at an LGBT centre in San Francisco. It was a very moving experience. Most of the trans people there were women of colour. That’s hardly surprising. Each year the vast majority of the trans people whose deaths we remember on TDOR are women of colour. Some years later, back in the UK, I was honoured to be able to help start a TDOR event in Bristol, and I have been helping read the names of the departed each year since.
Murders of trans people are rare in the UK, and you will see some people argue that spending time on TDOR is an insult to women when roughly two cisgender women are murdered every week. However, we need to bear in mind the differences in population size. Most estimates put the trans population at between 0.5% and 1% of the population, so if around 100 cis women are murdered each year, we might expect between 0.5 and 1 murders of trans women, which is roughly what we do see.
More importantly, however, TDOR is not really for us. The UK is, thankfully, still a relatively safe country. There are few guns on the streets, and trans people do have legal protection against discrimination. TDOR is there mainly for the 300 or so trans people, mainly women of colour, who die each year in countries that are less safe. The list, prepared each year by Transgender Europe’s Murder Monitoring Project always includes some women murdered by police officers. Some of the murders are extremely violent, with the victim being disfigured, beheaded or dismembered. Every so often we will hear of a young trans girl murdered by her father. And always there is the spectre of the victim being mocked and insulted by the media after her death.
These are the people whom TDOR is for. They are the ones who need to be remembered because in many cases there is no one else to remember them. For us in the UK, it is a reminder of how lucky we are, and how we need to be vigilant. Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the number of murders of trans women rose significantly. They are still nowhere near the level we see in Brazil, and hopefully the trend will now be reversed. But the feeling in the trans community is that if we don’t draw attention to these murders, then no one will. Which is why TDOR exists.
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