It’s Transgender Day of Remembrance. I’m up very late–it’s 3 AM here–because I was drafting a post about what this day means, it got away from me, and then suddenly it was 3 AM.
There’s a reason today is specifically a day of remembrance. U. Utah Phillips, the great singer and labor organizer, once said that the long memory was the most radical idea. Oppression wants us to forget. It’s an incredible force that way–expending all that energy to affect us, then trying to make us believe our world was always this way. For me, the long memory is the best way to believe another world is possible.
Last year on November 20th, I didn’t take the train into New York City for the annual vigil. I shared an AE Housman poem about death and fighting with some of my friends, I thought a lot about hatred, fear, and death, and that night I had a dinner party. It wasn’t intentionally on the Day of Remembrance; it just happened that way–my partner and I had been wanting to have one and that was the date all our friends were available.
So I spent the evening with them, eating homemade gnocchi and then later various baked deserts. I remember watching one young woman making muffins, whom I now don’t feel safe speaking to–a while back she used a transphobic slur to describe a mutual acquaintance of ours. I remember my partner worrying about the oven, trying to make sure the gnocchi wouldn’t go gummy, gesturing as he talked to our guests, garlic butter all over his hands. Life seemed so solid and warm. We were playing Benny Goodman. My partner and I danced; some other people danced. Even though it was Transgender Day of Remembrance, and I’d been thinking all day about violence and hatred, they seemed like ideas for the moment, and very abstract, far away ones.
A guy who would later go on to be one of the most impressive cis allies I’ve ever met was there, pouring wine for everyone. I think he was talking about politics, but I do remember him complaining that there was no good vegetarian Worcestershire sauce. Another couple of people were singing mashups of the Cure and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog. Most of our guests were people I loved and valued deeply, and all of them I at least liked, but it was November 20th, and I spent the evening with it humming in the back of my head that there are people in the world who think that I am not a person.
It is equally true, though, that there are people in the world who see that I am a person and feel that I must be stopped from being a person. That’s how I described murder at the vigil I hosted this year on one of the lawns at Sarah Lawrence, my college, where I’m one of the leaders of an activist organization called Trans Action. It seems like a good working definition for murder: murder is when you see someone being a person, and you decide they should not be a person anymore.
Our vigil happened on Friday, to be clear–all week we were having a series of trans related programming as part of an annual college event called Genderfuck Symposium. Any trans related programming during the week is highly visible, so we decided to hold our vigil on Friday to raise awareness more effectively. Powerful a group of silent, thinking people holding candles can be, I didn’t want our college’s vigil to be just a gathering of people being sad together, although such gatherings can be beautiful and important. (I’ve certainly needed them quite a few time in my life so far.) I wanted it to be a venue for emotional release, discussion, and growth. To that end, I asked some musician friends of mine to perform, and several student poets were to read their work.
We lit our candles and arranged ourselves in a horseshoe formation on the lawn. From the dorm building on our right, an anonymous voice shouted, “IT’S A FUCKING CAROUSEL!” Presumably in reference to the fact that we were lit up and sort of in a circle. There was a moment in which we all tried to compose a response to this disrespect, and then one of us (a braver person than me) yelled back, “It’s the Transgender Day of Remembrance, you asshole!”
The band we’d gotten together performed a song, Ain’t No Grave, and I thought about what it means to yell back at someone by naming what you are and how they have disrespected it.
My co-chairman, Kevyn, read a poem in which he talked about the wrong name being engraved on Brandon Teena’s gravestone, which Kevyn had visited in Nebraska. I thought about the enormous truck that had honked at my partner and I walking down the street in Yonkers last week, its driver shouting slurs. I thought about yelling back at the truck driver, about going to Nebraska and engraving Brandon Teena’s real name over the lie cis people have put there to make themselves feel more comfortable.
After the vigil itself, we adjourned to our usual meeting space and talked about violence. What’s violence? Is violence only physical? Is it violent to call someone a slur, or to mispronoun them, or to force them to use the wrong bathroom? Since those acts support a culture of violence against trans people, are they themselves violent?
This Transgender Day of Remembrance, I challenge you not to do what I did last year–don’t think of transphobic violence as something far away and strange, even if you are in a room full of good people, eating gnocchi and listening to Benny Goodman. It is not far away and it is certainly not abstract, although it may be complex. It is something happening in all our lives, right now, because all of us deal with cissexism and transphobia in some form. Some of us are treated badly because we’re trans and have to decide on the best response. Some of us are cis, hear a joke about trannies on TV, and have to decide whether or not we should laugh along.
Be present in your life and in all your actions, and remember that oppression takes root in the most basic human interactions–stories, shouts, laughs, dinner parties. When you see violence, I encourage you to yell back. Yell kindly, yell tactfully, yell in a nuanced manner–but yell.
All the November 20ths I’ve spent in the almost six years since I’ve been out as trans have been quiet, sad, private affairs. I haven’t lost a friend to murder, but I have lost friends to suicide. I think often of what messages the world was sending them about their personhood as transgender people, and whether they would have made the choice they did if we lived in a different kind of world.
Below is the poem I shared with people last November. It’s still relevant, I think. Everyone take care. If you’re planning on going to tonight’s NYC vigil, I may be there if the nasty cough I’ve been having calms down, and if you see me you’re welcome to say hi. I’ll try to stay cheerful and make a better world if you do.
As I gird on for fighting
My sword upon my thigh,
I think on old ill fortunes
Of better men than I.
Think I, the round world over,
What golden lads are low
With hurts not mine to mourn for
And shames I shall not know.
What evil luck soever
For me remains in store,
‘Tis sure much finer fellows
Have fared much worse before.
So here are things to think on
That ought to make me brave,
As I strap on for fighting
My sword that will not save.
by AE Housman, from Last Poems