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A Conversation on Shifting the Narrative of Trans Day of Remembrance

People gathered on a street at night, holding candles, listening to a person speaking
Marissa Miller, Chief Executive Officer of Trans Solutions Research & Resource Center, Indianapolis, IN, speaks to a crowd for Transgender Day of Remembrance, 2021; photographs by: Kiara St James (left photo), Todd Fuqua (right photo)

Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is an annual observance on November 20 that honors the memory of the transgender people whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence.” Read more about the history and founding of TDOR.

“Transgender Day of Remembrance seeks to highlight the losses we face due to anti-transgender bigotry and violence. I am no stranger to the need to fight for our rights, and the right to simply exist is first and foremost. With so many seeking to erase transgender people -- sometimes in the most brutal ways possible -- it is vitally important that those we lose are remembered, and that we continue to fight for justice."

- Transgender Day of Remembrance founder Gwendolyn Ann Smith1

In 2021 the United States reached a tragic milestone. This year marked “the deadliest year on record for transgender people.”2 Transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people in the United States and around the world are currently facing epidemic levels of violence and discrimination. At least 45 transgender people have lost their lives to preventable violence in the U.S. this year, and hundreds more have died around the world.3

Grimly, systemic limitations in the collection of hate crimes data makes it virtually impossible to verify accuracy. Too often, persistent posthumous misgendering of trans people contributes to an undercounting of violence targeted against transgender people.4 Yet, despite data limitations, evidence shows that anti-transgender violence disproportionately harms and kills women and girls who are Black and/or Latina.5 Frighteningly, violence toward the trans community continues to grow.6

Kiara St. James, Founder and current Executive Director of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG), has been a community organizer and public speaker for over 20 years and was instrumental in the passage of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) in 2019.

Bali: This last TDOR was very hard on the community. I have heard many trans women, particularly Black trans women, speak about how attending TDOR events— reflecting on the violence against the community, remembering the loss of dear friends, even personally recalling one’s own violent moments—can be very challenging. Have you experienced this?

Kiara: Many years ago, I opted out of attending any TDOR events that I was invited to. I found myself being triggered and feeling fatalistic for many days after attending events due to the violence-centered lens that permeates the observance. One of the last TDOR events I attended had a Christmas tree on display decorated with ornaments; upon closer inspection, it became clear that the ornaments depicted images of violent and brutal deaths of community members (some of whom were people I knew).

For several minutes I read the stories of many transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) community members from around the world who were killed in various gruesome scenarios; being left to die by EMT workers, being shot in the back of the head while running away, having their throat slit and stumbling across the street while onlookers stood and watched, being battered to death with a hammer, or stabbed over 50 times in the face, neck, and lower torso. I was left numb, asking myself the questions I believe other Black Trans women likely relate to after attending these sorts of events—why even bother living? What hope is there for me as a Black Trans woman? What hope is there when, at any moment, a smile or an innocent glance toward a man steeped in toxic masculinity or an insecure cisgender woman can lead to a violent conclusion?

Bali: How have you come to feel about commemorating TDOR in the years since?

Kiara: Since that day, I removed myself from TDOR spaces for many years. Then I heard about the violent death of Ms. Islan Nettles, a young African American woman of transgender experience who was killed right across the street from a police precinct in Harlem, NY.7 Her death galvanized me and so many others into action. I attended a rally in her honor which was also attended by many elected officials, and I talked with many of my sisters about the need to meet and discuss how we can address violence toward our fragile, battered community. Among these amazing women attending one of the very first rallies, were Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, who joined in the conversation as we developed strategies for our survival. We were invited to many events, especially around TDOR, and I accepted many speaking engagements—with a caveat.

While it is important to highlight the global violence being waged daily against TGNC folks both nationally and across the globe (to be intentional in honoring those of us who have fallen), we also must give as much energy to uplift, affirm, and empower those living. We have a responsibility to gather in our work to uplift and protect our community as those who came before us, like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, did. We must tap into our spirit of resilience and be intentional in how we honor our dead and uplift our living. We must fight for policies that are affirming and inclusive to the trans community. Most importantly, we must let our community know through intentional actions that their lives have purpose and value and are worth fighting for and protecting.

Bali: What do you think is needed to change the violence trans people face daily? From our communities and allies?

Kiara: We should move away from TDOR being a performative day of chants and tears and use the opportunity instead as a call to action, especially to our allies, to do more to create tangible outcomes that improve the lives of trans women, because that’s what's really needed.

We must fight for governmental policies that are affirming and inclusive to the trans community to end the crisis of anti-transgender violence, especially for those of us at the intersection of gender and racial justice. Most importantly, we must let our community know through intentional actions that their lives have purpose and value and are worth fighting for and protecting.



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