Allyship During Trans Day of Remembrance: It's Not Enough
By Emmanuel Romero, Co-chair of Dignity/San Francisco, DignityUSA Trans Caucus
On Friday, Nov. 20, I joined members of Dignity/San Francisco in attending the Transgender Day of Remembrance event hosted at San Francisco's LGBT Center.
During the two-hour event, there were performances by various trans artists doing lip syncs, original guitar-driven songs, and a drum circle with a Native American Two-Spirit Powwow. There were inspirational speeches, including an appearance by trans activist Cece McDonald, who cried out that we needed to stop adding names to the horrific list of trans murder victims every year, and reclaim our lives from existence in the shadows of society. There were public proclamations and letters presented by representatives of cisgender allies in government, such as California State Senator Mark Leno, U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, and even President Barack Obama.
Toward the end of the night, Pamela de Jesus, the mother of local murder victim Taja Gabrielle de Jesus, was presented with a memorial book signed by attendees, moments before a slideshow of 2015's other nationwide 20+ trans murder victims was played, and a transwoman sang an operatic version of Amazing Grace.
It was quite encouraging to see the entire venue filled to capacity, including the standing room and an overflow room two floors above. Attendees spanned all gender expressions, sexual orientations, races, abilities, and ages. For more than a passing second, I remembered how Belize described Heaven in Tony Kushner's Angels in America: "Everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome."
Then, a terrible truth came over me like a wave of pain and nausea: It's not enough. Heaven doesn't exist, and we've overcome nothing.
Outside of the main event room were two displays. One was an altar with pictures of 2015's American trans murder victims pasted about, surrounded by Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead,” November 2 in Mexico) decor. Next to the altar was a paper tree, strewn with the pictures of dead trans youth driven to suicide.
Every year, we gather to mourn our dead, and promise never to let another one of our trans kin fall. And we are failing them miserably, myself included. Every time these murders occur, I can't muster the willpower to read the story beyond the headline. I jadedly, callously, think to myself, "I know how this goes: Murder, no suspect, disrespectful reporting about 'a man dressed strangely,' etc."
I've become numb to the story because it happens too often. Cece McDonald, who was sent to a men's prison for defending herself from a racist and transphobic attacker, was a celebrated guest to our own TDoR commemoration, mere hours after The Advocate broke a story about Vicki Thompson, a trans woman in the UK who was found dead in the cell of the men's prison where she was housed.
TDoR is a day when we mourn those whose inner fires had been snuffed out by hatred, but if cisgender people like me are to call ourselves allies, we have to remind ourselves that it's not enough to dedicate one day in November to such a conversation. It's not enough to remember the true names our sisters and brothers chose for themselves, even as bigots refused to honor those names. It's not enough for cisgender people to say to transgender people, "We're sorry for your loss."
It's not enough to be sad. We need to get mad. We need to embrace the pain. Because if there's anything that the early days of the AIDS crisis taught us, it's that those two things may be the only things keeping our loved ones alive, but only if they motivate us into action.
The resurrected Jesus invited Thomas to touch the nail wounds in his hands so that he might believe. If we are to believe in the power of Jesus to heal a broken world, we, as allies and people of faith, must understand that touching the wounds of Christ means feeling the suffering of our trans kin. It means reading the stories of these murders throughout the whole year beyond November 20. It means listening to the sobs of the bereaved loved ones the victims leave behind, like Pamela de Jesus. It means talking to our own cisgender friends and families about how angry this all makes us. It means calling out ignorant people who cry "Boogeyman!" at the thought of trans people winning the right to use the correct bathrooms. It means pushing legislation to make discrimination based on gender identity illegal in all levels of the public and private sector. It means educating ourselves about the intersection where racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and classism meet. It means actively and respectfully asking people in the trans community, "How can we help?"
Sometimes, it means something as visceral as shouting at the top of our lungs, "STOP KILLING OUR FRIENDS! STOP KILLING OUR FAMILY!"
The two-spirit performers who played drums and sang for San Francisco's TDoR event began with a song that called upon the ancestors from seven generations back, and called to mind the descendants from seven generations forward. If we allies to the trans community don't forcefully make allyship part of everyday life outside the month of November, our trans brethren will continue to suffer in every generation. That vision of Heaven where "race, taste, and history finally overcome?" It won't happen, not unless we're willing to embrace more of the pain and more of the anger, and use them to fuel our fight alongside our trans friends and family.