This year the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) lists 162 trans people killed. That's over 3 a week. The number is significantly higher than previous years (which had generally been between 20 and 30), and most people are attributing that to being able to better track trans murders, especially those outside the U.S.
When faced with this overwhelming sense of reality, it's understandably difficult to know how to react these deaths. However, more and more often we hear about events put on by cis-led LGBT organizations that utterly miss the point and border on offensive. This year, the Gay Alliance of Genesee Valley (GAGV) has caught a lot of attention for their TDOR event, which is a comedy fundraiser headlined by a non-trans performer. It's a move being highly criticized in the trans community, even being called "a minstrel show."
I can't do much more but shake my head in shame. Yet it leaves me questioning the role of Transgender Day of Remembrance in the larger LGBT movement and the role of cis queers in the event.
Ceridwen Troy gives a compelling account of her frustrations organizing GAGV's event last year and her perspective on this year's event. It reflects a pattern of failure that has become so common among cis-led LGBT organizations as to be well known in trans circles. First they complain that the Day of Remembrance is "such a downer," then they want to do something more upbeat. In this case they hire a performer, then to cover the expenses (and perhaps raise a little money) they charge admission. There are so many things wrong with that.
I understand that TDOR is not the best organizing tool -- it's not meant to be. It's a shame that in most places it's the only trans event of the year that the wider cis LGB community gets involved in trans issues. It's NOT the trans community's equivelant to pride or national coming out day, or even the national day of silence.
The day of remembrance by definition is addressing those who have experienced the most oppression and inherently becomes an event that recognizes intersections of identity. We're not just talking about trans people here, but overwhelmingly trans women of color, many of whom are dealing with poverty, involved in sex work, living in the global south, and/or are immigrants.
With that in mind, it can be awkward to watch white, middle-upper class, trans male college students who have little or no risk of experiencing the same violence organize events. I've been to my share of name reading vigils where the readers could not pronounce the names. I've seen people become very afraid that they could find themselves on next year's list, without having a clue about how most of the people on the list lived their lives.
Yet as awkward as that can be, when the organizers aren't even trans the events can become downright appropriative. The problem inevitably starts when the cis organizers decide that rather than do another depressing event, wouldn't it be great if they could turn it more upbeat. We've seen GLSEN attempt to re-brand it "TransAction Day," and after community criticism they thankfully decided to hold their "Action Day" in February instead. We've seen the HRC hold a TDOR event competing with another event organized by the trans community, but luckily the headlining speaker told them that was inapropriate and asked them to cancel the event. Then they attempted to claim credit for TDOR events happening that they were specifically not invited to participate in. And it seems like several organizations have used rather unfortunate language for the day, such as "celebrating" the event or even inviting people to a "fun, laid-back evening."
These don't seem to be mistakes that non-LGBT organizations have made. The city government has been involved in my local TDOR for years, so has a local anti-violence organization. Both have always seen themselves in an ally position and have been sure to let the trans people in their organizations take the lead without dumping the entire workload on them. I can only conclude that cis-led LGBT organizations feel some level of ownership of the event because of the "T" in their acronym even when their leadership only has token trans representation, if that.
There is a simple answer to all those cis LGB organizers who don't like the way in which TDOR has been structured by the trans community -- don't do a TDOR event! Step back and let the trans community do it. If you really want to have an upbeat and celebratory trans event don't hold it on the trans day of remembrance. When some organizers in my town (cis and trans) decided that there should be more trans events than the annual memorial of our deaths, they created a trans week of celebration and held it in a completely different part of the year.
There are some folks who can pull of a celebratory funeral, but in those cases it's filled with positive memories to distract from feelings of depression. When you have never met the deceased and spend the evening watching entertainment it only seems like you're trying not to deal with the subject. Now I know the performer at GAGV's event is intelligent and oppression aware, so hopefully she'll make the best of a bad situation. Nonetheless, the event still seems incredibly callous. Charging admission at a higher price than many of the trans people on the TDOR list could afford seems insulting. Even worse, it creates the appearance of profiting off of our deaths, which seems incredibly inappropriate when they obviously have problems with representing trans people. It's almost like we're worth more to them dead than alive.
Cis allies, straight and queer, have contributed a lot to TDOR and the trans movement in general. The problem isn't simply when cis people are involved in organizing, but when they don't see their role to be that of an ally.