We cannot hope to avoid repeating history if we do not know our history. Our history is not a sterile sequence of events, actions, and thoughts. History is what people thought about themselves, the world, and other people; history is how people acted on those thoughts, acted in the world, acted with and over other people. Despite this, people are forgotten. Sometimes people are erased.
Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance. Today we remember people.
We remember Yaz’min Shancez, a 31-year-old Florida transwoman of color who was shot, lit on fire, and left to die behind a dumpster.
We remember Tiffany Edwards, a 28-year-old Ohio transwoman of color who was shot. We also remember another Ohio transwoman of color, 22-year-old Brittany Stergis, who was found in her car, having been shot in the head.
We remember Kandy Hall, a 29-year-old Maryland transwoman of color who was stabbed to death in a field. We also remember Mia Henderson, another Maryland transwoman of color, who was found dead just six weeks later.
We remember Jennifer Laude, a 26-year-old Filipino transwoman who was found with her head inside of a toilet bowl, having been strangled and drowned.
We remember Rayka Tomaz, a 20-year-old Brazilian transwoman who was stabbed multiple times while in her apartment and left to slowly die.
We remember many, many more who are named, just as we remember the existences of those who go unnamed, whose deaths have gone unreported.
On Tuesday night, in the Den of the University of Alaska Anchorage Student Union, the Anchorage community gathered for a Transgender Day of Remembrance event organized by UAA Women’s and Gender Studies professor, Tara Lampert, and her Women and Social Action class. The event was designed, in part, to invite the community to learn about what it means to be transgender. UAA Anthropology professor Roy Mitchell discussed Alaska Native gender identity and gender variance; Identity Inc.’s Youth Engagement Specialist, Billy Farrell, discussed the differences between sex and gender, gender identity and gender expression; a representative of UAA’s LGTBQA Student Organization, The Family, and many transgender people from the community told their stories and discussed the need for their stories to be heard.
UAA’s Transgender Day of Remembrance event was also a memorial. As Lampert’s students read out the names of the dead, pictures of the victims flashed on a slideshow behind them. The room was quiet, except for the shuffling of the lives of murdered transgender people as page after page of names was turned. After everyone’s names had been read, we, the living, did our own shuffling outside, where we stood side by side in a circle stitched together by candlelight. For a few moments, we were connected by our intent.
Part of remembering is looking forward and as we move forward, we must examine our intent. Our intent should be to be the best allies that we can. In order to do that, we must examine ourselves, the places and spaces that we occupy in society, and practice active listening. As a white, non-disabled, middle-class, transmasculine person who was fortunate enough to graduate from university, my story is different from that of a person of color, or a person who is disabled, or a person who is homeless, or a person who is a transwoman. We cannot hope to achieve equality if we do not provide people the safety and the freedom to be the experts of their stories.
As we examine the list of the dead this Transgender Day of Remembrance, it should be obvious that the people most in peril are those people whose stories we hear the least: transwomen of color. Not one local transwoman of color was represented at UAA’s event. Yes, the Anchorage LGBTQ community is small, but it is not that small. A short movie by former Artistic Director of Out North Contemporary Art House, Scott Turner Schofield, which featured transgender performance artist Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi, the so-called Ancient Jazz Priestess of North Africa, allowed us the only opportunity to hear from someone who could really speak for the people we had gathered to remember.
According to Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey put together in 2011 by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force (called the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force at the time the report was published), transgender people of color are more likely to lose their jobs, have higher rates of unemployment, are more likely to face housing discrimination, and are more likely to experience police violence. Compound this with the findings of a 2013 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which revealed that transwomen are more likely to experience police violence, discrimination, and have higher homicide rates than any other LGBTQ group.
Statistics are not a substitute for the stories of transwomen’s experiences, and remembering is not a substitute for inaction. There was one sentiment that I heard repeatedly during UAA’s event, and that was the hope that there will be fewer names to read next year.
What we must keep in mind is that erasure is not only something that happens to the past. Every day people, their thoughts, their feelings, their experiences in the world are erased, and this happens when people are not allowed to speak in their own voices, when people are not supported, when people are made to feel expendable. If the next year is to be a better one for transwomen of color, we cannot let ourselves contribute to their erasure. We need to listen to and learn from their experiences, and we need to hear them when they call us out. We need to support them in their interpretations of their experiences and the solutions they propose for the issues they face. We need to commit to being allies.