Preserving Our Stories: Today and the Future of the International Transgender Day of Remembrance

By Lynnea Urania Stuart

Of all transgender events, none has brought us together more and none has been more commonly held sacred than this one.  It’s easy to see how the International Transgender Day of Remembrance has made such an impact:  an appeal to conscience, a sense that each of us could be next to be murdered, and now in the age of Trump, a furthering of resolve to survive against a social order that calls for our erasure.

Those who want us to not be remembered regard our blood as cheap.  After all, we’re stereotypically hypersexualized fiends, profligate sinners, and every one a filthy prostitute (despite the fact that only 19%, fewer than 1 out of 5 of us, have had any part in the sex industry whether for money, food, or shelter,1 and most transpeople really do hold positions of responsibility).  It’s a cheapening in the public mind on the basis of stigma, fueling panic defenses in the courts, and leading to reduced sentences upon those who kill us.  But our blood must not be cheapened.  We need the truth to be told.  The Day of Remembrance, for all of what it has lacked, has brought out more of that truth than has been available to previous generations.  Now, we need to take new steps to advance its message.

 

A VOICE AT UNITED NATIONS SQUARE

This writer, in response to an invitation received through correspondence from the Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force and Transgender San Francisco, stood at United Nations Square near San Francisco City Hall on a cold and windy night, November 20, 2000.  This event wasn’t the first Day of Remembrance.  One had been held previously at the Castro District on a drippy night.  That Day of Remembrance was much like any street protest.2

This one at United Nations Square offered the same outrage, but with added dimensions.

Rita Hester and those for whom she stood vicariously in 1999 weren’t the focus of this Day of Remembrance.3 We had a list for a reading of the names and a bell to ring in a public memorial, months before similar traditions of remembrance after the Attacks of 9-11.  That evening we had barely a dozen names to remember.  Today’s global networking for the collection of victims to be remembered didn’t exist then.  Gwendolyn Ann Smith, the event Founder, told that evening’s that the Day of Remembrance will be held every year for as long as our people continue to be murdered in hate crimes.

With those words, we knew something special was happening.  The wind blew fiercely through the urban canyons, blowing out candles, but everyone was eager to offer a relight.  The cold wind threatened our lights like the societal winds of hate threaten us.  Defiance was in our hearts even while we shivered.  We could hear those laughing in mockery as they passed by.  But we didn’t care.  We were witnessing history and affirmed the goodness of the message.

Those of us who went to our homes that night took the event with us.  The Transgender Day of Remembrance spread throughout the country the following year, and thereafter, the world.

 

THE CURRENT YEAR OF BLOOD

This year we’ve seen various news sources speak of 2017 as the deadliest year on record for transpeople.  However, news sources in the United States don’t usually offer the worldwide picture.  They specifically focus upon the United States.  Yes. We have 25 murdered in the United States in 2017 including some you may have known yourself on Facebook or your local support group.

The advantage the U.S. media offers consists of a greater interest in how the victims lived.  The real legacies of the victims emerge in those stories.  Some great societal contributors have been killed including Alejandro Polanco Botero of, Risaralda, Colombia, a known attorney, shot 4 times by a hit man.  Most of us haven’t risen to his status.4

Have we seen sex workers murdered?  Certainly.  But others had higher level jobs.  Sex workers typically have higher aspirations than sex work too.  We include them because they shouldn’t have had to live as sex workers.

Have we seen drug addicts and alcoholics murdered?  Certainly.  But most weren’t addicts.  Most addicts would prefer a better life too.  We include them because they deserved help and often found exploitation and rejection instead.

Have we seen transgender homeless murdered?  Certainly.  But most weren’t homeless.  Those who were didn’t necessarily have addictions or were mentally ill.  More and more of today’s homeless have degrees, even Masters degrees.  This writer has seen evidence of this who also suffered 2 years of homelessness.  More of us have fitfully slept on cold concrete in the presence of rats and vermin than admit.  Anyone, trans or not, who thinks he’s immune from this may well experience a rude awakening.

Too many of us feel compelled to work in the underground economy because of rampant and now legally sanctioned discrimination, often in the name of religion.  Sometimes the same kinds of religionists are clients.  That compulsion doesn’t cheapen their blood, even if others self-righteously think that their non-involvement in the underground economy somehow makes their blood better.  It doesn’t.  Given similar conditions, most of us would probably find ourselves in similar occupations.

What we demand of society instead is to change the status quo that excludes us from opportunities to live in peace, a status quo that heaves us down again and again and again.  It’s a status quo that delights to impose an impenetrable stigma, relying upon lies such as “they’re sick and self-destructive because they’re transgender, therefore they can’t be trusted but should be summarily incarcerated or otherwise destroyed.”

How many have we seen murdered worldwide this year?  Transgender Europe (TGEU) has for many years now compiled lists through the Trans Murder Monitoring Project (TMM) and earlier this week released its list for the 2017 Day of Remembrance.  The number murdered this time:  325, up from 295 in the 2015-2016 cycle.5

Some of the murders are especially outrageous, even gruesome.  Some, including some whose identities remain concealed, had faces ripped off their heads or otherwise disfigured.  Others, like Amna and Meena were tortured in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, “packed in sacks and thrashed with sticks” after police arrested them.  Some like Sherlyn Montoya of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, went missing.  Sherlyn’s body was found in a sack with signs of torture.  Vanessa Valenzuela of Nina del Mar, Chile was attacked by 5 people with hammers and sticks while yelling, “kill the fag!”  Kenneth Bostick of New York City was living in a homeless shelter when beaten into a coma with a metal pipe, dying more than a week later at Bellevue Hospital.  Some, like J.R.P. Mangalili of Bulacan, Philippines were disrespected in death, buried in a manner inconsistent with their gender identities.  The body of Rubi Guerrero of La Altagracia, Dominican Republic was found dismembered.   Gwenevere River Song of Waxahachie, Iowa, was non-binary, but shot and killed by their own father.  Others were shot, stabbed, stoned, burned, beaten, decapitated, or some combination thereof.6

 

FILLING IN THE GAPS

325 is an astonishing number.  The number includes those killed from October 1, 2016 to September 20, 2017.  For the official list from TMM, click here.

TGEU has been unexcelled in this kind of service and to them we owe a great debt of gratitude.  Of course, there are some natural limitations to its lists, even apart from reports arriving with little information, sometimes not even a name.  TGEU has in the past published a list a couple of weeks in advance of the Day of Remembrance followed by an update a few days before observances.  More recently they simply published a list.  We’re entering the Day of Remembrance with a month and a half gap which would have to be filled the following year and with little for event organizers to assimilate in barely a week’s time.

Likewise we haven’t regular updates of those being remembered in the International Transgender Day of Remembrance website like we’ve seen in previous years, though it was recently updated for the 2017 event.7  Nor can we reasonably expect it.  It may be that these and other sites dedicated to remembering our dead need a broader base of support and we haven’t given them these sites the support they really need.  That need goes beyond site maintenance.  If you can contribute to site maintenance, by all means, contact the owners.

But with regard to reporting and distribution of information, we should look at what has worked and what still needs to be done.

Transgender Europe doesn’t do the Trans Murder Monitoring Project on its own. It partners with other networking organizations, most notably in Latin America.  Among these are:

  • APTN, Covering Southeast Asia, most specifically the Philippines
  • Centro de Apoyo a las Identidades Trans, covering Latin America, primarily Spanish-speaking regions
  • Rede Trans Brasil, covering the Portugese-speaking regions of the Americas
  • Wajood covering the Subcontinent8

Though these networks have provided excellent service year after year, we obviously show gaps with respect to coverage.  We have nothing from the Russian Federation, Central Asia, China and Mongolia, the Middle East, or Africa except meager press reports.  We can expect that the 325 would be a much higher number if we had better, sympathetic coverage.  The Day of Remembrance website has relied upon the press, and so naturally has produced a smaller number to be remembered than what has come through TGEU and its partner organizations.

We need more regional partnerships like them to fill in these gaps, whether connected to TGEU or some other organization with similar service.  Up till 2015 we had a U.S. based site for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) doing work parallel to that of TGEU and purported to open case numbers for follow-up.  When it ran, any subscriber could obtain an update only days old.  However, that site has closed and nothing in the United States has replaced it.

We need to expand the role of support organizations in a way that might not have previously been considered.  They can provide its members a repository for their stories available to others, even if they must be embodied by alternate names in those parts of the world particularly known for religious and political oppression and whose identities must be guarded carefully. By doing so they would gain greater incentive for people to take memberships.  Every officer of a support group could potentially become a liaison to a larger network who could not only report cases of murders, but also tell us how those people lived, what they can teach the rest of us, and possibly to draw patterns as to how to prevent murders in the future.

It is, in a way, a repository of souls.

 

HOW IT MAY WORK

For that matter, murders committed as hate crimes only represent part of the general milieu of calamity that can befall transpeople, each of whose stories could be easily overlooked or expunged. Some of us go missing.  Some become exploited in the underground economy.  Some face incarceration in which a person may or may not be able to communicate with the outside world.  Some cases should become known to law enforcement providing those authorities will not be inclined to inflict harm upon transpeople in the first place.

Part of the responsibility of remembrance rests upon the individual.  Some of us already have written our stories and distributed them to trusted individuals.  Some of us even put them on personal websites and Facebook pages.  These same profiles can be registered with a member of a support organization entrusted with secretarial duties, either to a paper file or to a laptop that could be secured separate from personal computers, especially in politically hostile areas.

Larger support organizations typically register members with 2 naming criteria:  the name to be used for mail and the name the individual prefers to be known in that group.  The reason for this is a matter of security with respect to confidentiality and expediting mail service.  If we know a person as “Sarah” and the post office knows that person as “Thomas”, a post office may at times reject mail as undeliverable because mail to person under a different name would technically be considered a form of mail fraud.  If everyone knows what the deal really is, it hurts nobody and a local postmaster may be sympathetic.  Others demand an ID in the preferred name.  But no support organization can count on postmaster sympathy.  Neither will a support organization want to expose a transperson to a hostile household member unwittingly.  That would go against their mission and ethics.9

An individual needs to make such profiles a part of a system of notifications that can be updated periodically in the same way other vital notifications need periodic updating as part of emergency packages.  They include:

  1. A Last Will and Testament: This document does more than list executors and property to be dispensed. It also addresses the dispensation of other accounts.  Mine, for example, is set up in such a way that updating information is done with attachments clipped to the Will.  These attachments pertain to lists of people to be notified and how to notify them.  They include the most current information on intellectual property with  copyrights and other publishing codes including job numbers, organizations being used in publishing and marketing, usernames, passwords, and current representatives.  They also include Internet accounts with current usernames and passwords that change from time to time, changing frequently after a cyber attack.  By using attachments for this purpose with the Will referencing those attachments, there’s no need to change the Will itself.  That way I don’t have to go through the pain of rounding up a new set of witnesses every time I change a password or marketing service.10
  2. A Living Will: This document directs any medical facility concerning who can make medical decisions for the maker in case the maker becomes incapacitated but remains alive. It does this through a Durable Power of Attorney.  It also provides Advance Directives to that facility concerning life-sustaining treatment and other preferences for medical treatment.  It addresses extreme conditions like coma or extreme brain damage.  It addresses issues of feeding, hydration, experimental treatments, mental illness, transfusions, RFID implants, and harvesting of organs for transplant as well as how closely these directives must be followed.  These advance directives become part of the patient’s Chart and may be the only thing that stands between a decision for no heroic measures in medical treatment and possibly being kept alive for years against the patient’s wishes while draining the patient’s estate.  Some facilities want a notarized Living Will.  Others accept any signed Living Will with 2 witnesses.  Some, like medical centers run by the Veterans Administration, have a particular form for Living Wills.  But even a VA facility may regard a Living Will using a different format as authoritative so long as it addresses the same set of concerns.  Consult your local facility or facilities concerning their requirements, noting that the range of ambulance services for your area might not reach your preferred facility.11

Accompanying these documents I also propose adding a postcard notifying a support organization.  It would work best if the support organization uses a post office box with the card addressed to the “Post Office Box Holder” or “Occupant” if addressed to an office other than that of, say, a physician or attorney.  The card would be marked with a Profile Number connected to a profile previously registered with the secretary and may be the same as a Membership Number.  The card information would be titled, “Vital Notification” or something to that effect.  It might have a brief checklist that includes:

  1. “Deceased”
  2. “Missing”
  3. “Incarcerated”
  4. “Date Deceased, Missing, or Incarcerated”
  5. “Communications Allowed If Incarcerated?” (yes or no)
  6. “New Address of Incarcerated” to be filled in by household representative.
  7. “Does the personal or household representative wish to be contacted?”
  8. “Representative Contact Information (optional)”

A Profile Number not only would be indexed to a registered profile telling the story as a transperson, it would be indexed to other existing information of a member including a legal name and possibly other names used.  It would also be indexed to a document not all support organizations include in their membership rolls:  Advance Notification Directives, a statement on how further notifications may be carried out by that organization.  This would also need to be referenced in a group’s Privacy Statement that should accompany an Application.  In a sense, Advance Notification Directives function much like Advance Directives do to medical facilities to assure confidentiality and follow-up.  If a member is in trouble, how can the trans community help?  Who in the trans community needs to be notified?  Will a liaison need to work alongside law enforcement?  To what extent should information be released to the press?  Do pre-existing threats exist?

You can see how this elevates the purpose of a support organization.  It becomes more than just a group one attends once a month for psychological warm fuzzies.  It takes the proportion of genuinely contributing to the safety or its members, and potentially, society at large.

Specifics concerning these documents need to be addressed by the officers of the support organization in their meetings because they have practical and possibly legal ramifications.  There should also be a designated liaison to communicate with the household representative, law enforcement, or any other interested agency and who understands how to exercise discretion.  That may include investigating circumstances of incarceration, whether justly applied for a crime or unjustly due to abuse of psychiatry.   That may include investigating circumstances behind murder and cooperation with law enforcement helps in advancing good relations with cities and counties.

The information obtained at the local support group level should become linked to any existing report in the local press which may or may not actually identify a victim as transgender.  It may reveal that a transperson not being respected after death through internment as a member of an imposed sex inconsistent with gender identity.  The local liaison notifies a regional networking organization with monitoring of murders in its mission.  The regional network communicates with organizations including TGEU who compile worldwide lists of deceased transpeople.  This can also be expanded to include lists of those being exploited or unjustly incarcerated.  It may even be used to address issues behind suicide, most specifically bullying and doxxing.

 

WORKING AROUND LIMITATIONS

Of course, not all places in the world can operate like this.  While this may suffice for transpeople in more enlightened areas like Johannesburg, Beirut, Shanghai, or Ho Chi Minh City, it may be too dangerous a practice for places like Kampala, Tripoli, Basra, or Bishkek.  Personal information may be too sensitive to entrust to one person and profiles may not be linked to any address in any way at all.  They may not even contain images that can potentially identify an individual not yet deceased.  Wherever transpeople manage to form associations, they need to address how to best preserve safety for one another and exercise discretion; and nobody knows better how to do this in a particular locale than its own residents.

It’s part of what makes a community a community.  Remembering our dead and the lessons of their lives is part of our honoring one another.  When we remember on the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, we must also honor those intrepid gatherings of transpeople whose voices have been squelched by intolerance but still persist:  in counties like Egypt, Turkey, and the Russian Federation who continue to face state-sanctioned oppression.  Their resilience is a lesson to us all, and future networking partnerships may indeed arise from such groups.  We may yet find new ways to communicate instead of standard channels monitored by local or state officials and need to be watchful for networking opportunities with transpeople struggling in those countries and beyond.

It may test our patience, but patient we must be.  While we evolve in response to world conditions we realize afresh with the Day of Remembrance that there are some things that do not change for as long as humans exist:  people are born, they suffer, and they die.  For as long as our people die because of meanness, we remember, with faith in prospects to come of alleviating suffering, and giving greater meaning to the dead.

______________________________

REFERENCES:

Featured Image:  A month of a list of murdered transgender individuals in the current TDoR cycle, sourced from The TvT research project (2017), hereafter cited.

  1. James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality, p. 158.
  2. Theresa Sparks “1st Transgender Day of Remembrance” YouTube (November 8, 2008, accessed November 18, 2017) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-lTsu9SQXM.
  3. (n.a.) “About TDOR” International Transgender Day of Remembrance Website (accessed November 18, 2017) https://tdor.info/about-2/.
  4. TvT research project (2017) “Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) TDoR 2017 Update”, Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide. TvT project website: http://transrespect.org/en/trans-murder-monitoring/tmm-resources/
  5. The site also includes past lists.
  6. Ibid.
  7. International Transgender Day of Remembrance Website (accessed November 18, 2017) https://tdor.info/.
  8. Op. cit.
  9. The author relies upon her experience with the post office and firms that sell post office boxes. She also relies upon her experience with support organizations.
  10. The author speaks from experience. For specifics concerning a Last Will and Testament, plenty of examples can be found on Internet for simple Wills.  For Wills involving complicated estates and other issues, consult an attorney familiar with probate.
  11. The author speaks from experience.  For specifics concerning a Living Will, plenty of examples can be found in Internet.  For help, contact the social worker or chaplain at your local medical facility or an attorney
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