To most people, November 20 is a day of no particular significance.
But to a community which has been at the receiving end of discrimination at best, hate in general, and annihilation at worst, it is a day of remembrance.
The Transgender Day of Remembrance began in 1999, to memorialise the murder of American transwoman Rita Hester. It has turned into an annual day of mourning, for all the transpeople who were killed, either by homicide or suicide, each year.
It is more than a reading of names; it is more than a march; it is more than a candlelight vigil. The existence of the day is an assertion by transpeople, to be remembered, to be counted. And the reactions it receives are testimony to why it is so important.
For as long as there have been victims, there has been the politics of victimhood. Whose suffering is greater, we ask, and we feel the constant need to compare male victims of sexual abuse to female victims of sexual abuse, ciswomen victims of patriarchy to transwomen victims of patriarchy, transwomen to transmen, cismen victims of bigotry to transmen, gay men to lesbian women, and so on. And these distinctions have solely to do with gender. Further distinctions and subcategories of those distinctions may be made on the basis of race, religion, caste, and class.
Recently, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie infamously spoke of the privilege of “transwomen” as compared to “women”. The point she made was that “growing up as a male” gave one a natural privilege, even if one felt the compulsion to transition to female. There were so many things wrong with the sentence that transpeople and allies did not quite know where to begin dissecting its erroneousness.
Perhaps the first point of contention ought to be that “transwomen” are not different from “women” – the correct term would be “ciswomen”; trans- and ciswomen are subcategories of “woman”.
One does not feel compelled to transition to another gender; one sees oneself as belonging to a gender that is not of his or her assigned one, not in sync with his or her body.
And one does not “grow up as a male” when one is trans; one grows up in a gender that is ill-fitting, to expectations that are designed by societal notions of heteronormativity and cisnormativity.
What greater privilege can there be than being born into a body which contains the organs one wants in oneself? And what greater non-privilege can there be than being born into a body which lacks these organs and has others in their stead, a reminder every single day, a reminder in the mirror, a reminder in voice, a reminder in clothes, a reminder while carrying out the most mundane tasks, that one is not a man, that one is not a woman?
And those of us who are privileged to have been born into a body which is not in contradiction to our notions of gender, can we truly begin to contemplate the dysphoria associated with the opposite?
And do those of us who cannot understand the dysphoria have a right to speak about it?
To me, this is not a question of who has the right to speak about it. The narrative may not be ours. But it is important to stand up and say that we stand with our transbrothers and transsisters. We cannot experience their everyday problems, but we can imagine them; and we should acknowledge them.
The day is in memory of Rita Hester, a black transwoman who was murdered on November 28, 1998. She was murdered in her own apartment in Massachusetts. She was murdered with such venom that forensic reports said she had been stabbed at least twenty times. Her assailant remains unidentified and at large. His or her motive remains a mystery. Since there was no theft, it is assumed to be hate.
What greater violation can there be for anyone than being murdered in one’s own home, one’s most trusted refuge?
What greater anguish can there be than not even knowing why one was most hated – for the colour of one’s skin, for the gender of one’s expression, for the vocation of one’s choosing?
Rita Hester was not the first transgender victim of murder. She was not the last.
The transpeople who are no longer with us are not always victims of murder. There is another form of unnatural death, one arguably worse for the trauma that precedes it – suicide. I have not spoken to a single transperson who has not contemplated suicide at some point in life. Was it the family’s unwillingness to accept one? Was it the bullying at school? Was it one’s own unwillingness to accept one’s body? Was it the constant reminders from one’s body that one’s gender identity could not be truly expressed without external intervention?
I read recently on a transgender friend’s Facebook wall that he was tired of LGBTQIA organisations calling up to ask for lists of transpeople who died that year. Not long before, I had received an email forward from a trans-activist friend, who said “Offered without comment” as the text accompaniment to a Google spreadsheet attached to the email. The spreadsheet had been started by a sexuality minorities’ rights organisation, urging everyone on its list to add the names of transpeople they knew who had died that year.
At a time when lists on Google documents are rather popular, as a form of name-and-shame, this came as a shock.
It felt like a final insult to the memory of a transperson – s/he would be remembered, through scattered tributes on a commonly accessible document. S/he was not newsworthy enough for his or her murder to be reported in the press. And s/he was not important enough for even rights organisations to keep track, without asking for a crowd-sourced list.
In a documentary I once made on transgender rights, an interviewee told me how she had been born into what was considered the most privileged group in British society – white, middle-class, male – but had never had the opportunity to enjoy the privilege. She had had bricks thrown through the glass window of her kitchen. She had been called names on the street. She could deal with all that, she said, but her greatest fear was that no one would find her body if she was killed in her apartment – her family was not on talking terms with her, she did not have a partner, and her body may decompose before the next time a trans collective noticed she had not been attending meetings.
Victims ought not to be compared to each other. Victims must be acknowledged.
The media needs to stop writing headlines like “Man who became a woman weds woman who became a man.” The media needs to stop putting in videos with before-and-after pictures, and suggesting that people undergo transition simply to marry in a way that would be acceptable to society.
Every joke we make about transpeople, every instance of voyeurism, every earnest misinterpretation, is not just an insult, but a crime. A crime with victims, a crime that asserts why the International Transgender Day of Remembrance is needed, and why we need to go beyond holding candles to negating the need for this day – to finding a solution to the othering, to putting an end to the unnatural deaths. The names recited on this day are not components of a list; they were people, beloved of many, hated by some, and it was the hate that won. The hate cannot win.