The annual Transgender Day of Remembrance Ceremony is always a time of reflection and consideration for me as I go through life being friends with, dating, and/or partnered with transpeople. More recently, becoming an activist and scholar focusing on transgender issues specifically, and freedom of gender identity and expression for everyone in a more general sense, has made the event something of a time to take stock and look at the world around me and the work that we (the activist community) are doing.
A few events in the past year and a well-timed handout from Forge Forward about the impact of anti-transgender violence on non-transgender folks have changed my thinking about this event and what it represents. This post includes three separate reflections related to Transgender Day of Remembrance and the violence that plagues the transgender community. I don’t try to make any profound conclusions just demonstrate that this year my thinking is about how this violence impacts us all regardless of our gender identity and expression.
1. The first time I ever thought about violence against transgender people in a meaningful way was when my friend from high school, whom I had seen go from homecoming queen (who I helped teach to walk in heels) to a frat-looking boy (who looked awful cute in a baseball hat), was gang raped by several men while he was on an internship. At the time I was working in the cooperative education office and heard about his assault through work channels rather than personal ones.
This happened as I was crushing on a cute first year transdude, but hadn’t gotten the courage to talk to him yet. It wouldn’t be long after that I would find myself in a serious long-term relationship with him. After hearing the news, I got irrationally worried not only about my friend who had been attacked, but felt compelled to check on every transgender person I knew on campus and off, regardless of how well I knew them. I was afraid they would all be attacked or taken away from me by violence.
I have learned that this isn’t an uncommon reaction when human beings learn about the violence and hate that others face in the world. The pre-service teachers in the courses I taught at Purdue University would often respond to the rape statistics that I presented them with in the same irrational way. The horror of reality is, at times, too much for our rational minds to bear or perhaps panic is the only rational response.
Long after my friend came home and we had conversations about the experiences he had around his assault, I realized that this violence never happens in only a moment; instead it has lasting impacts that we can never predict or truly prepare ourselves for. Surviving such an attack is never a given, but when it is survived the scars and damage around the attack is lasting.
2. Private Barry L. Winchell was killed on July 5, 1999 in an anti-transgender act of violence. I am moved whenever his name is read aloud along with the other victims of anti-transgender violence at the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance Ceremonies. Each name has an impact on me, but I believe we are always most touched by stories that resonate with who we are as individuals.
Private Calvin Glover beat Winchell to death because he was in love with Calpernia Addams, a male to female transsexual. What is so poignant about Winchell’s story is the fact that he died because he loved someone that society says he shouldn’t, but also that he died because his lover was not gender appropriate according to society’s standards. Each of the stories told, either including the circumstances surrounding their deaths or by the reading of their name alone is profoundly sad, but Barry Winchell haunts me.
He could be me; or more appropriately, I am, have been and could be him.
More than once since falling in love with a transman and becoming an activist focused on freedom of gender identity and expression, I have been confronted with accusations that I am not a part of the transgender community. The easy to way to confront those accusations is by using my partners as some sort of testament to the validity of my presence or my work. I have no interest in that approach. I do have an interest in helping us understand the truth in Leslie Feinberg’s statement:
Our significant others are not observers of 'our' oppression. They are not 'related' to our movement. All of our significant others are partners in the life-changing experience of trans consciousness and struggle.
There is always a fine line between taking over someone’s experience and acknowledging that most often no experience happens in a void. Those who are blessed to be close to transpeople on any level experience the world differently because of it. This must be acknowledged and thought of in critical and meaningful ways.
3. While working closely with the mothers who founded and direct TransYouth Family Advocates (TYFA) has made it clear to me that although their experiences are different than those of partners, family and friends have a place of their own in the transgender community and anti-transgender violence impacts their lives in dramatic ways. This isn’t radical thinking anymore for gay and lesbian communities thanks in part to the wonderful education and advocacy work that PFLAG has done over the years.
Although I have only been working with the organization for a few months, I have been blessed with becoming increasingly close to three of the mothers who were founding members. Recently, when one of them lost her transgender son to suicide, our organization and each of us were rocked to our foundations. Although I didn’t know Ian very well, I had become very close to his mother and her best friends. Hearing his mother talk about him, as most of us know mothers are prone to do pretty frequently, made me know him, his life and her love for him.
As I watched this all go down and saw how supportive so many transgender men and women were of these mothers and Ian’s family during this time of loss, I was inspired and proud of what we all do together. However, I also watched as a transgender woman, an acquaintance from Ian and TYFA’s past, went about outing Ian and his family across the country, resulting in the family being immediately harassed by the media.
The outing happened on the transwoman's blog and in a formal communication from an organization she leads. When she was asked by the family to change the notification and the text on her website about it she refused. It was fascinating to watch a bunch of non-transgender* folks and the majority of the transgender community go out of their way to respect the wishes of the young man we all lost, only to see his wishes around how he wanted to be talked about and his privacy violated by someone who supposedly got his issues on an entirely different level.
One of the peculiar parts of being the only man who is frequently engaged in conversations with a group of mothers is my inability to truly grasp what it means to be a parent. But, what I did see is that Kim and Shannon responded to the loss of their best friend’s son like they would have responded to the loss of one of their own kids. They cried, got sick and went to her side.
In what I have come to know as classic TYFA mom style, they took a breath, cried and started acting. In the blink of an eye they planned a vigil and developed a campaign to promote awareness of the epidemic of transgender youth suicide. These mothers are working very hard to turn their grief and heartbreak into action to help other kids. What would the world look like if we all made sense of loss in such profoundly meaningful ways?
Violence is never only aimed at an individual or a category of individuals. It always hurts those who love them as well.