Transgender Day of Remembrance: Violence, Distance, and Memory

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

16 Responses to “Transgender Day of Remembrance: Violence, Distance, and Memory”

  1. 1 Jennifer Fabulous November 20, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    The world needs more people like you, Stephen. People who are not only willing to fight for justice, but educate the world as well.

    I think most hatred stems from fear of the unknown. It causes people to panic, because they are confused and ignorant.

    I do believe violence is not merely just “phsyical.” Words can be incredibly painful when used as a weapon…

    I had an uncle who was transgender. My eyes were opened 20 years ago, when I was with him in line at a grocery store. (I live in the midwest, pretty near the Bible Belt, so of course there are always some delightful characters to run into). A man wearing overalls (no joke) and a scowl approached my uncle and asked, “Are you a man or a woman?”. My uncle tensed up and I could tell he was uneasy. He ignored the man, but the man kept asking him, louder and louder. Even though I was only seven, I stepped in and asked, “Why does it matter?” and the man glared at me. “It matters,” he said. But when I asked why again, he never gave me a REASON for why it mattered so much to him. And then he ended up shoving my uncle to the ground and spitting on him. It is one of the saddest memories from my childhood. I always wished I could have done something more or that my uncle had been emotionally strong enough to say something back. Every time I think of it, it breaks my heart.

    I hope there will be a day when all of this prejudice will be in the past. I meet a lot of people who say it never will be. But I think we can come close, if we try.

    • 2 NJK November 21, 2011 at 12:17 am

      At what age did you feel you were different? Were you very young? Did you feel isolated or could you confide in your family? You write so poignantly.

      • 3 Stephen November 21, 2011 at 1:34 am

        NJK, thanks for the comment, but I’m not interested in talking publicly about my personal life. I’m glad you think my work is poignant!

      • 4 Penny Jeannechild November 22, 2011 at 6:46 pm

        NJK, in my limited, but more-than-most friendships with transpeople (who will go on here to offer their own experiences, I know) ‘difference’ is experienced at such a young age that memory barely serves. ‘Very young’ seems to fall at about age 4, a time most everyone can reach back and touch, if only fleetingly. ‘Confiding’ in family at that age comes out more like insistence and persistence, in the early, binary language & clothing the world offers the young: ‘why do i have to wear a dress when Daddy doesn’t’ or ‘I want to wear a dress like Mommy’ or ‘I feel funny wearing this.’

        Isolated? Well, yeah, and even if some one prides herself (that would be me) on deeply listening.

        A parent’s heart races and breaks when our children smack up against normatives. My son, now 43, then 5, straight now, straight then, came home from kindergarten in anger and fighting tears and said he could no longer wear his cowboy shirt to school because it had ‘girly sleeves’ (think Oscar Wilde mashed up with Will Smith in Wild Wild West; flouncy cuffs with stud snap buttons; they don’t even make these for boys anymore).

        He’d loved that shirt; I think we found it at a thrift store.

        His anger? It was at me. I’d betrayed him by allowing him to go to school in something that got him teased.

        And here I thought I was just letting him be him.

        Then someone else, another 5 year old, defined who ‘him’ was. With a punch, I later found out. A punch. Five years old. He told me about the punch when he was 15. He didn’t confide in me, in whom he confided many things, because he knew I’d go to school and bring up the issue. And he’d already taken the teasing and the punch, so why set himself up for more.

        So, confiding, it’s a mixed bag no matter your age, no matter the confidence.

        Sigh. Life. It’s so damned complicated.

  2. 5 D. November 21, 2011 at 1:56 am

    Thank you for sharing your memories, Stephen. One thing you said stuck in my mind: “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.”

    It sickens me that in a world when we have more to gain from compassion than ignorance that people still like this exist. Thank you for being one of the people that inspires others to not be. I found your weblog at a curious point in my life as I’m wandering through my own sense of self, and it has helped me quite a bit.

  3. 6 floodsrollback November 21, 2011 at 3:07 am

    This is really, really good. ❤

  4. 7 Marta Martin Amos November 21, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    I am one of three girls and one boy. The daughter of a Mexican mother and Anglo father. Nothing special about my upbringing. Dad worked really hard and mom stayed home to raise us. Typical ups and downs of any family, I guess. Although, their mutual love of alcohol probably contributed to a few more of the latter.

    It was during his less sober moments that my dad would make clear his true feelings about two things he couldn’t stomach. Gays and blacks. He loved to share this little nugget with his young daughters- “You can do whatever you want with your life, but you bring home a n***er, and I’ll shoot you both.”
    You can imagine how that resonated. As for “the gays” well, they were just to be avoided and ignored because clearly something was very wrong with them.

    Why am I telling you all this? Because I want to share with you a small miracle. You see, what my dad didn’t know, didn’t even suspect at the time, was that his only son was gay. Or that, years later, I would go on to marry an extraordinary man who happened to be black. Nope, he had no idea that he was headed for a brick wall at 120mph.

    I am not going to pretend it was easy. It took time, it took patience and it took a whole lot of screaming and tears BUT….. he changed. His entire view of life changed. He owned his ignorance and asked US for forgiveness and understanding. At 65 years old he was willing to admit HE was wrong.

    Today, my brother is married to his partner of 25 years and has 2 young sons. My dad loves them more than life itself. He calls my husband “son” and has been a better parent to him than his own father.

    My own little miracle. But I can’t be alone, right? There must be small miracles happening everywhere. People waking up from their ignorant slumber and changing the way they look at their fellow man…..and woman…..and trans.

    The lovely Maya Angelou put it best -“We are more alike than unlike.”


    • 8 Penny Jeannechild November 22, 2011 at 6:50 pm

      Marta, thank you for this. I hope you’ve shared it on It Gets Better, cause that’s what your story is all about. It actually DOES, it CAN, it WILL get better if we just keep living, talking, posting, blogging, YELLING, essentially, “YES I AM!” whatEVAH you am! xoxox

  5. 9 Cathy November 21, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    Your sensitive, insightful, honest, and thought-provoking blog is one key to understanding that each person on the planet is an individual. We were all created differently, not better or worse. I have great respect for your courage and dignity.

  6. 10 Kristen November 21, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    You give me hope for a better world. I hope that my children will one day know a world where people are judged for what is in their hearts. For someone so young, your maturity and intelligence are something you should be very proud of.

  7. 11 Hank November 22, 2011 at 12:31 am

    The name “Brandon Teena” was also a media invention. He usually went by Billy (either Billy Brandon or Brinson), but also sometimes Charles or Brandon Yale, but never Brandon Teena. That name was used after his death to make it easy to refer to him in the media without confusion. I agree that putting his given name on his gravestone is insulting, but what name would you put on it instead? One of the ones he used to pass bad checks? Billy Brandon was a more complicated character than he’s been allowed to remain.

    • 12 Stephen November 22, 2011 at 2:18 am

      I think the way we try to present him as uncomplicated is hugely problematic and uncomfortable; you’re so right. We act like he has to have been a perfect person for it to be horrible that he died, when in reality it’s just horrible that a person should be violated and die that way, full stop.

      I didn’t know that about his name–what’s your source? Fucked up of the media, putting something on him that he never used. And I mean hell, his gravestone should have whatever name he personally preferred. The one he used in his relationships, etc.

      • 13 Hank November 22, 2011 at 3:36 am

        Well, that’s the thing. He didn’t seem to use any name specifically, but most people who knew him said Billy was the most common. You have to remember, though, he was going through his shit in the early 90s. I don’t think he had any concept of creating and maintaining a new identity as a man, complete with perfect name. He was just trying to get by and live in the gender that felt right to him. Well, that and stay one step ahead of the law – he was no boy scout, but I’m not going to judge from here.

        As for sources, just google Billy Brandon Teena and I’m sure you will find plenty. I followed everything I could get my hands on when it hit the media, back in those pre-interweb, pre-mass trans awareness years.

        • 14 Stephen November 22, 2011 at 6:00 am

          I’ve never really looked deeply into the whole story what happened in Lincoln, mostly because it’s so emotional and a very painful subject to research, but this was really interesting to hear. Thanks for teaching me something.

      • 15 Penny Jeannechild November 22, 2011 at 7:04 pm

        That’s the thing: so many trans kids have to live waaaaaaay outside the lines to make a living. Bad checks, prostituiton, whatever. Hell, the 99% are just making it financially, right? Those of us who live in the 1% – myself included, a biowoman (correct use? did I make it up?) & lesbian with resources most of the world can only dream of – we lead such a protected existence for our day-to-day survival. So when bad checks, heists, truck-stop prostitution, whatever, come into the story, how can I help but think “there but for the grace of . . . ” or “get on with your bad self, just stay alive.” I want a bumper sticker that says something like “Survival Rule #1: Be kind. No weapons. Everything else is cool. You’re already forgiven.”

  8. 16 I remsen November 22, 2011 at 1:07 am

    Interesting reading. Like the other poster, I probably would not have followed this blog, had I not realized the link to your parents. Sad, but true. I realized, though, because of your birth right, you do have a “voice”. You are so very lucky to have that “voice” and I hope you continue to make a difference. BTW, like another poster, I too am from the Midwest. I didn’t appreciate, the blogger, assuming it was “Bible Belt”, we, (midwesterners) are naturally, bigoted. False. Though, I don’t get the gnocchi menu (for your dinner party). I encourage, you, to experience, true, “hoosier” food, home grown veggies and some old school recipes. It really is good.

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