Thursday, November 20, 2014

If the best defense against atrocity is memorbea*, how can I forget? [TRIGGER WARNING]

Today is Thursday, November 20th, 2014.

Ukrainians might remember today as the anniversary of becoming a republic in 1917, whereas their neighbors might remember it for the death of famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy in 1910. The Vietnamese might remember it as an annual opportunity to honor their teachers; cinephiles for Estelle Parsons, who was born eighty-seven years ago today; Bill Gates for releasing Microsoft Windows 1.0 in 1985, revolutionizing the coming world.  Many of you might remember it as the day you realize you should probably go shopping for Thanksgiving dinner.  I do not remember today for any of these reasons (although they sure seem like good ones).  No, I remember today as a day to remember, as the day to remember, to commemorate, to release into the everlasting ether, to remind myself of my own resilience. I remember today as the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

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Rita Hester

Gwendolyn Ann Smith, activist, started TDoR in 1999, one year after the brutal murder of fellow transwoman Rita Hester on November 28th, 1998 in Allston, MA (just 47 days after the death of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man whose murder became an international headline and unstoppable engine for the gay rights movement).  Around 250 people attended her candlelight vigil and march that December 4th, and the following year's vigil held in San Francisco is considered to be the first annual TDoR.  Now, the day has grown to international recognition.  As of 2010, it was observed in more than 185 cities in over 20 countries.

Rita Hester's killer(s), like many of those who have murdered transgender people, has (have) not been found.  Police found her body in her apartment on November 28th, where she had been stabbed more than 20 times in her chest.  There was neither any sign of breaking in nor of theft, which lead many to the conclusion that it was, in fact, a hate crime, although this cannot be conclusively known.  According to her sister, Diana Hester, two men—one of whom Rita knew—followed her home from a bar that night.  Some speculate that perhaps one (or more) of her clients killed her, for she worked, as many transwomen must, as a sex worker, but no evidence supporting this claim has been made public.

One article describes Rita as “a popular, outgoing transwoman with ties to Boston’s transgender and rock-n-roll communities.” An acquaintance of hers, Charito Suarez, who knew her from several trans-friendly bars in Boston, said, “She was a very smart, bright young lady, and she was a shining star... Whenever she arrived at Jacques her presence would be noticed by anyone.  She was so elegant...and as beautiful as she was, she would not try to make anyone else look less.” Suarez went on to serve as the emcee for the Boston TDoR several years later, explaining, “It was personal.  I’m not talking just about another transgender person. I’m talking about a person I actually knew.  I knew her character and I knew her heart.  I’m doing it for her.  We must speak for her.”

* * *

A spreadsheet on the official TDoR website compiles a comprehensive list of all known people who have died on account of anti-transgender violence from March 7, 1970 to November 17, 2012.  The list does not include those who died on account of suicide or domestic violence.

Scroll through, and you soon discover a catalog of hatred: “shot,” “strangled,” “beaten,” “slashed,” “stabbed,” “raped,” “mutilated,” “machete wounds,” “decapitated,” “stoned,” “burned,” “tortured,” “thrown off roof,” “thrown out of moving vehicle,” “thrown in a ditch,” “thrown in a dumpster,” “dragged two blocks by a car.”

Some were murdered by strangers, others by their families, others by their partners.

There are seven hundred and seventeen people listed, and not all with names.

* * *

At the federal level, in October 2009, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (also known as the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act) added provisions for protection on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability, although many states still lack such provisions in their own right.  If you are a victim of a hate crime, you have the right to directly contact the FBI to take advantage of the federal law, but, as you might imagine, the process would probably go quicker if you could just call your local police instead—only, however, if the basis of the hate crime (gender identity, for example) is covered by state law. Thankfully, gender identity is covered in Illinois, even if problematically as a subset of sexual orientation.

Of course, even if every state did have hate crimes legislation that protected people on the basis of gender identity, it would not protect them from the hate crimes themselves.  TDoR thus becomes an exercise in much needed visibility, in reminding us of those we have all lost in order to better protect those who are still with us.

* * *

Until embarking on this blog post, I had never heard of Rita Hester.  I could not have told you who she was, what she was like, or why she was important.  The systematic silencing of transgender experiences is most violently manifested in transwomen of color, who face disproportionate percentages of violence in comparison to the rest of the LGBTQ community. One study found that in 2012, of the 25 LGBTQ people murdered in the United States, 73% were people of color, and 53% were transwomen.

Given the chronological proximity of Rita Hester's murder to Matthew Shepard's, and the enormous gap in the respective amounts of media attention afforded to each, it is painfully evident that this country, this world, more fervently values white people over black people, men over women, cisgender people over transgender people.  I in no way wish to belittle either what happened to Matthew or the amazing gay rights advances that followed in the aftermath of his murder, but I do wish to highlight the utter silence that hung around Rita in comparison and the comparative lack of trans rights advances.

As a translady myself, it is difficult to review so many statistics stacked against me.  Even now, as I write this blogpost from my best friend's couch, I look more butch than I would prefer, for safety: before leaving for his apartment on my bike, I first removed my bra and earrings, because I didn't want to travel at night too femmed up, for fear of misogyny, or worse (in my opinion, having encountered both), transphobia.  Both are awful, and more so at night, and so I have to balance my personal identity against practical measures of physical safety.  I fully recognize that other people—people of color or trans people who have physically transitioned to any extent, for instance—cannot so easily shed their minority as I can and sometimes do, but it can be an infuriating and demeaning ability to possess.  Just yesterday, even, at the gym, I went swimming, and had to use the men's locker room because they don't make spaces for my kinds of people, and so we have to subject ourselves to emotional violation if we just want to jump in a pool.

I am sick of constantly keeping an eye and ear out for potential harassers.  I am sick of fingering the pepper spray in my pocket when I am sitting on the train alone.  I am sick of the target on the back of my transgender head.  I am sick of inheriting trauma. I am sick of wondering when someone will finally strike.

* * *

So on this Transgender Day of Remembrance, on this November 20th that many of you out there might know as other, more relevant days to the lives that you lead, I am pleading, urging, demanding all of us to remember those who have died, and to hold ourselves personally accountable for not letting it happen anymore. Because although they may be a small percentage of the entire, increasingly visible population, their deaths are the terrible materializations of a culture that is pitted against us. Every boy and man who we tease for expressions of femininity, regardless of his sexuality, every girl and woman who we ridicule for being too tough, regardless of her sexuality, every time we assume another person’s pronouns without asking them (her? him? hir?) first—these are acts of violence, these are reminders that people like me do not exist, these are permissions to murder us.

The spreadsheet will just keep getting longer and more graphic unless we do something about it. Change has happened to some extent on the legislative level, but that’s not good enough. We have to change ourselves, we have to create the culture that we want to live in, that we can live in, if were going to live without a constancy of fear. And it isnt up to the trans community alone. We cannot bear the burden of others ignorance and still live healthy and live safe. It is up to all of us, to the human community, to protect, support, and love ourselves, the human community.

By next year I want to abolish the Transgender Day of Remembrance, and I want a Transgender Day of Resilience in its place.

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