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Activists differ over Transgender Day of Remembrance’s tone

by Joseph Erbentraut
Contributor
Wednesday Nov 17, 2010
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Activists around the world will commemorate those killed as a result of anti-transgender prejudice or bias on the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance on Saturday, Nov. 20. And while vigils and other events are scheduled to take place, not everyone agrees with the day’s somber tone.

The list of victims being remembered in accordance with the 12th annual TDOR, a day author and activist Gwendolyn Ann Smith created to honor Rita Hester after her 1998 murder in her Boston apartment, includes 14 people from the United States and Puerto Rico.

Despite increasingly widespread acceptance of LGBT people in the United States, activists say these statistics serve a chilling reminder trans and gender variant people often remain the most vulnerable to the backlash against increased LGBT visibility in pop culture and-perhaps to a lesser degree-in the political arena.

Smith noted to EDGE it is important to recognize TDOR as an important event for anyone who lives, or is seen as living, outside of traditional social constructs of "man" and "woman". This year’s statistics include Roy Antonio Jones III, a 16-month-old from Southampton, N.Y., who died on Aug. 1 after his caretaker allegedly struck him several times "to make him act like a boy instead of a girl".

"This is important to realize that although transgender people are at the heart of this, and are the most affected by anti-transgender violence, this is not solely about transgender-identified people," said Smith "We all can face anti-transgender violence."

Michael Silverman, executive director of the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, told EDGE the day serves two purposes-a reminder anti-trans violence remains a serious problem and it urges a more proactive approach toward ending prejudice. "The positive thing about a day like this is that it gives us a moment to reflect on that violence and remember all those we’ve lost and also commit to working to end that violence going forward," he said.

Silverman added the risk of violence many trans people face remains a major concern. The most recent data from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs revealed half of the reported anti-LGBT murder victims were trans women.

"If we trace the trajectory and levels of violence over the past few years, there is no sign of it diminishing," added Silverman. "With every step we take forward and demand equal rights, dignity and respect, the more push back we see in the form of harassment, bullying, outright violence and even death."

In Chicago, Sandy Woulard’s still unsolved murder resulted in the formation of a new coalition of trans and gender non-conforming organizations. The coalition, which remains in its preliminary stages, intends to allow affiliated groups to more effectively support one another and communicate with law enforcement and media.

The TDOR itself also hits close to home for Windy City activists. Candice Hart, vice chair of the Illinois Gender Advocates, said Woulard’s death is a reminder of how much farther the trans community still has to go, particularly in addressing unemployment and other issues. Woulard, 28, had reportedly been prostituting herself at the time of her death on June 21, likely as a result of being unable to find other employment.

"Yes, there is a law that has to be enacted to create protections within the system, and laws are a prevention tool, but the other piece of it is public education and changing the perceived image of the transgender community," Hart told EDGE.

Trans activists, however, are not of one mind on TDOR.

Well-known activist Kate Bornstein told the Windy City Times earlier this week she views TDOR as "problematic because it’s so concerned with death and despair". Bornstein and others argue advocates should use Nov. 20 as an opportunity to celebrate trans lives and the community’s resilience.

Smith stressed, however, such divisions and misunderstandings can threaten the movement’s progress. "There are so many who don’t want to acknowledge how this can affect them, or want to somehow assume they’re not going to face any trouble because they are not ’like’ some other person or persons," she said. "Meanwhile, anti-transgender violence remains as bad as it ever has, which belies any results where it counts."

Hart also sees the TDOR’s somber tone as appropriate.

"I think we’re still a bit far from celebrating anything because in my mind there is still so much work to do," said Hart. "We want to help build and contribute to society and these tragedies really hurt us deep inside because we’re human and we’re still looking for the basic human needs of love and appreciation. So far we haven’t gotten that in a large way."

Loree Cook-Daniels, who heads the Transgender Sexual Violence Project for the Milwaukee-based FORGE, acknowledges many trans advocates see the TDOR as a much-needed time to mourn. She added, however, she wants to see the day taken a step further.

Andrew Olacirequi allegedly killed Chanel Larkin, 26, on a Milwaukee street on May 7. And in response to the tragedy, FORGE worked with other local LGBT organizations in the city to hold community meetings, a vigil and launch a successful campaign encouraging the Milwaukee Police Department to appoint an LGBT liaison. Cook-Daniels said these efforts generated unprecedented amounts of organizing that spanned the city’s racial divide-a proud moment for FORGE as it prepared for its own TDOR event.

"We want people to recognize the losses but realize it’s important that we connect with each other and create a community for those of us who are here," she noted. "My fear with [TDOR] is that it can contribute to and reinforce a sense that transgender people are victims, that the world is unsafe and dangerous and that can be very isolating and disempowering, but I think it’s really important to turn our eyes back on the people we’ve got now and ask what we’re doing to support each other right now and make good things happen to help those that are still here."

Log onto www.transgenderdor.org to view a list of TDOR events around the world.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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