By Joseph Jones
November is National Transgender Awareness Month and November 20th was National Transgender Remembrance Day; an annual observance of those transgender persons whose lives were taken from them in violence spurred from hate and bigotry. Startied in 1999 by trans advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith to honor the memory of a transgender woman, Rita Hester, who was murdered the year before; this year’s commemoration is needed more than ever.
At least 25 trans people have been killed in 2017 so far, the deadliest year on record to date for anti-trans murders. According to a report released by the Human Rights Campaign, 84 percent of the victims were people of color, 80 percent were trans women, and more than 75 percent were under the age of 35. One of the youngest, 17-year-old Ally Steinfeld was found with her eyes gouged out, her genitals stabbed, her bones in a bag, and the remains burned by her killers.
Including Steinfeld, the other victims of 2017 documented by the HRC are: Mesha Caldwell, Sean Hake, Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, JoJo Striker, Tiara Richmond aka Keke Collier, Chyna Gibson, Clara McElveen, Jaquarrius Holland, Alphonza Watson, Chay Reed, Kenneth Bostick, Sherrel Faulkner, Kenne McFadden, Kendra Marie Adams, Ava Le’Ray Barrin, Ebony Morgan, TeeTee Dangerfield, Gwynevere River Song, Kiwi Herring, Kashmire Nazier Redd, Derricka Banner, Scout Schultz, Stephanie Montez, Candace Towns, and Jaylow McGlory.
In a shocking turn of events, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement recognizing this year's Transgender Remembrance:
“On Transgender Day of Remembrance, the United States honors the memory of the many transgender individuals who have lost their lives to acts of violence. Transgender individuals and their advocates, along with lesbian, gay, bisexual and intersex persons, are facing increasing physical attacks and arbitrary arrests in many parts of the world. Often these attacks are perpetrated by government officials, undermining the rule of law.
Transgender persons should not be subjected to violence or discrimination, and the human rights they share with all persons should be respected. On this Transgender Day of Remembrance, the United States remains committed to advancing the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all persons. These principles are inherent in our own Constitution and drive the diplomacy of the United States.”
Due to recent policy decisions from the Trump administration directed against the trans community, this statement feels hollow and hypocritical. Pushing for a reinstatement of a ban on transgender service members in the military, revoking a provision binding schools to recognize transgender students preferred gender, name, and pronouns, and the Justice Department choosing to no longer interpret Title VII as banning discrimination against gender identity, hardly seems like an administration dedicated to respecting transgender persons and protecting them from violence and discrimination and “attacks perpetrated by government officials, undermining the rule of law”. Perhaps Tillerson’s statements represent the turning over of a new leaf for the Trump presidency and will usher in a new wave of progressive reform but, if they are going to talk-the-talk of supporting the transgender community, they also must walk-the-walk in forms of action and policy,
And it is the amelioration of inadequate protection by the law and systematic inequality afflicting the trans community which need to be addressed in order to begin the much-needed process of healing a wounded community. According to the Movement Advancement Project, just 17 states and Washington D.C have hate crime laws covering sexual orientation and gender identity, one-third of transgender people live in poverty, and 50% will experience violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
The “2015 U.S Trans Survey” uncovered even more disturbing statistics detailing just how marginalized, disenfranchised, and alienated this vulnerable community really is. The report from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 30% of those surveyed had been homeless at some point in their lives, with 12% said it was within the past 12 months. 30% reported being fired from their job, denied a promotion, or suffering other forms of mistreatment in the workforce in the past 12 months, simply for being transgender. As a result, transgender people experience unemployment three times of the general population, with the number being four times the average of transgender people of color.
31% of those surveyed also reported being discriminated against in a place of public accommodation; 14% were denied service, 24% were verbally harassed, and 2% were physically assaulted. Currently only 18 states and Washington D.C have laws which specifically prohibit refusal of service on the basis of gender identity.
A country which creates a political climate toxic to transgender people and fails to enforce harsh penalties on those who carry out violence on the basis of hate lends credence to those who feel justified in their fear and paranoia of and hostility towards a community which is often dehumanized, and referred to as “freaks”, “it”, and frequently misgendered. It is this fear which is the basis of the gay and trans panic defense which is still a legal murder defense in 48 states.
Although Transgender Day of Remembrance honors those who have lost their lives at the hands of others, we must not forget transgender people also take their lives at disturbing prevalence. According to a study conducted by the Williams Institute of UCLA, transgender adults are 14 times more likely to contemplate suicide and 22 times more likely to attempt suicide than members of the general population.
Losing a loved one to suicide or to murder is just as painful regardless of what gender the victim identifies with. They are left with a void in their heart which never can be filled, leaving them to live the rest of their life longing for that person to be returned to them and feeling guilt over not doing more to protect them from a cruel and hateful world. I know many transgender people who I accept completely and to look past how they present themselves on the outside to love the light and beauty which shines so brightly on the inside deep in their soul.
My world, and so many others, would be torn apart if these people were to be ripped away from us because of a person incapable of dissociating a person from their physical body and attempt to understand who that person is, what their passions are, and even what they share in common. Through the understanding and embracing of our transgender sisters and brothers, we can dissipate the years of pain, trauma, and oppression that have gone unchecked for far too long.
As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” We must be the ally’s and guardians for those who cannot fight for themselves. We must be the one’s to come to their defense when someone makes a transphobic joke, makes a hateful comment, or when a politician advocates against them. We must correct those which misgender, provide information to educate the misinformed, and to frame the transgender struggle in a context which they can understand the consequences of allowing this minority community to continue to be victimized. This must be our mission and commitment until one day transgender people can feel comfortable in their own skin without fear of being murdered simply for being true to themselves.