Of remembrance and struggle

What honouring the dead asks of the trans community

Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), observed on Nov. 20 each year at the University of Winnipeg and in hundreds of cities around the world, is an event whose purpose defies a universal definition.

Founded in 1998 as a vigil for murdered Black trans woman Rita Hester, the event has grown to memorialize a long and actively maintained list of trans and gender non-conforming individuals “killed due to anti-transgender violence.” However, even this seemingly simple stated goal for the event has been the subject of extensive discussion and critique.

Many such criticisms focus on the way in which TDOR, in framing transphobia as the only motivation for the murders it commemorates, “claims” victims in a way that ignores the intersections of marginalized identities these victims inhabited.

Critics highlight that most transphobia can never be viewed in isolation from other forms of oppression and violence that one faces.

Many, if not most, of those remembered at TDOR are People of Colour, sex workers, poor, disabled or people who inhabit multiple intersections of these and other marginalized identities. Reducing the oppression they faced to just transphobia erases other equally significant parts of their identities.

This insight is intersectionality 101, and many scholars argue that the way in which TDOR presents the dead – acknowledged only by their names, the nation in which they were killed and the cause and date of death – by definition renders such analysis impossible.

Frustrating in itself, TDOR’s contextless, deracialized representation of the dead also subtly crafts a narrative of transness that erases almost all actual trans people, except those who are able-bodied, white and financially secure – in other words, those who inhabit societal default categories. This is at best negligent lateral violence and at worst a subtle form of white supremacy.

Clearly, then, there is a need for a more complete, intersectional acknowledgement of the forms of violence those we memorialize faced in their lives and deaths. However, realizing this necessary change in TDOR would still leave the act of memorializing incomplete.

Trans murders are inescapably political. They are not acts of nature, but tragic consequences of the fundamentally political processes that allow for the oppression experienced by trans people to continue.

As such, the trans community and our allies must not shy away from also politicizing memorial. If we are serious about trans liberation, we should see memorial not only as a moment to remember, but also to resolve to stop that which kills us in its tracks.

To take up this task, we can turn to Leslie Feinberg, trans activist and theorist, who defined transgender identity itself as the basis for a revolutionary struggle against the forces which enact and violently enforce the gender binary.

Drawing back in the earlier criticisms of TDOR, we see that our struggle cannot only be against transphobia and patriarchy, but racism, ableism, whorephobia and classism, too – in essence, capitalism and settler colonialism as a whole.

Merely calling attention to the dead is not enough, as visibility in a transphobic, capitalist and colonial society only amplifies, not lessens, one’s exposure to objectification, dehumanization and ridicule.

To truly honour the dead we must see their deaths in the fullness of their complexity, tragedy and injustice, politicize them in that light and vow to fight until such deaths become unthinkable – until trans liberation is won.

Mieke Ruth is a student in political science and economics at the U of W. This piece is dedicated to the memory of Chloe Sagal, whose death was and is political.

Published in Volume 73, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 22, 2018)

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