By Fredrikka Maxwell, DignityUSA Trans Caucus, Nashville, TN
The worldwide transgender community will gather on Friday, November 20, to remember our siblings murdered at the hands of violent anti-trans perpetrators. Twenty have been killed so far this year in the United States alone. As DignityUSA seeks to become more trans-friendly and a better trans ally, it too should join this worldwide memorial.
The first Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) was held in 1999 to memorialize Rita Hester who was murdered on November 28, 1998. Her currently unsolved murder kicked off the Remembering Our Dead web project and a San Francisco candlelight vigil that year. TDOR has several goals: To raise awareness of hate crimes against transgender people, which most media outlets have grossly ignored; to publicly mourn and respect the lives of our fallen siblings, whose lives might otherwise be forgotten; to remind non-transgender people that we are their sons, daughters, parents, friends, and lovers; and to gives our allies a chance to step forward with us and stand in vigil, http://tdor.info/about-2/.
So how can a mostly white, cisgender male group that sometimes does not quite “get” the trans phenomenon change its ways to become more trans-friendly and better allies? The first thing to understand is that most of the murdered transwomen are people of color. To even begin to grasp this, one must recognize that DignityUSA has very few people of color. What can be done about this? How about recognizing that the word “catholic” means universal. We must be universal in opening the ranks of our chapters to both transgender and people of color. How does a mostly cisgender white male group like Dignity reach out to transwomen of color? With sensitivity and careful planning. Dignity does not, for example, have separate chapters for lesbian and gay men. This is one of those times when separate does not mean equal. I suggest that wherever we welcome cisgender women in our chapters, so too we welcome transwomen of color.
Transfaith, a faith-based welcoming and affirming organization suggests on its website that “we take it to the streets” and reach out to transwomen of color, because in many cities social services programs and LGBT religious organizations are often not located in places where you find a lot of transwomen of color who will see you, and benefit from the contact. Transfaith suggests that we may need to go out of our way to “empower real connection.” http://www.transfaithonline.org/tdor/how/.
In reaching out to transwomen of color, simply using a rainbow sticker may not be sufficient. I would suggest a sticker containing the transgender flag and a bold welcome underneath. Your Dignity chapters may have to actually go to a local trans support and/or social group and work with that group in setting-up a TDOR. In my hometown of Nashville, TN, I have often worked with the Vanderbilt University LGBTQ center and several other organizations to sponsor a joint event at a venue where welcoming and affirming believers gather. Use your Facebook page to create the event and specifically invite transwomen of color, as well as Dignity members.
Most TDOR events often feature the reading of a long list of names, especially those of local trans people. Dignity chapters might even provide personnel to help read those names. A TDOR is a solemn event. Prayer is appropriate. Music and poetry are also good. One year I personally did a song and another year, a poem.
With active participation at a TDOR, tabling of literature and sign-up sheets, I can visualize a Dignity chapter perhaps gaining a trans member or two. Building bridges and making connections will help bring people of color as well as transwomen of color into DignityUSA. Sometimes, the LGBTQ community may not want to hear what such people have to say. But if we are going to be universal, then we need to hear it all. Transfaith says that the LGBTQ communities need to be about “taking transwomen of color seriously.”
Transwomen of color are particularly vulnerable because we are so cut off from social support. Many of us, like many gay and lesbian people, are isolated and sometimes disowned by our families of origin. So we have to do our best with the cards we hold. Sometimes our families will bury us, not as we see ourselves but as they insist on seeing us. There are stories of transwomen being buried in suits and ties because their families do not see them as the women they are. Referring to a transwoman of color murdered this summer, The Daily Beast wrote, “The average age at death of the transgender women who have been reported murdered this year is only around 27. Many, like India Clarke, had families that still used male identifiers when referring to them,” http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/07/23/we-re-failing-trans-women-of-color.html.
There are no stupid questions when it comes to learning about transgender life. How do we help raise awareness of Trans lives and deaths? Transfaith says the easiest way to raise awareness is to know the facts. Dignity chapters and leaders are encouraged to know the facts and share them with those around us. We can educate ourselves and others about what laws and policies challenge or support trans people. We can join efforts to address incidents and patterns of harassment and violence in our areas.
Fredrikka Maxwell is currently the President of the Tennessee Transgender Coalition and works with the Dignity Transgender Caucus. She lives in Nashville, TN and has helped put on several TDOR.