Dancing on graves
by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
This Saturday is November 20, a date set aside more than a decade ago to honor those who we lost due to anti-transgender violence and prejudice. The date coincides with the death of Chanelle Pickett in Massachusetts in 1995. It was her murder, and that of Rita Hester just three years later, which led to the Remembering Our Dead project and the Day of Remembrance.
This year marks the 12th Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Ethan St. Pierre – a transgender activist who also lost his aunt, Debra Forte to anti-transgender violence – and I keep watch for the stories, providing them to other transgender activists every November. We also collect information about all the locations hosting vigils. I want to share some information about two events happening on November 20 this year.
In New York City, Qtalk is hosting its anniversary event, celebrating two "amazing, wonderful years" of being the "funnier, bitchier version of The View ." They've asked many of their friends from previous years to come by and perform, and a panel of speakers – including GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios – will be on hand to talk about the recent rise in gay suicides due to bullying. The event has a $5 cover charge, and a two-drink minimum.
Oh, and they'll have a moment of silence to honor the Transgender Day of Remembrance, because people reminded them that it was November 20.
Across the continent, at the University of British Columbia, a Transgender Day of Remembrance event will be held at the Student Union Building. Along with some movies and workshops, they'll have a candlelight vigil followed up by a dance party at the UBC beer garden featuring $3 beer.
Now as you can guess, I do have an investment in the Day of Remembrance. As its founder, I cannot help but cringe when it is tacked onto a party – or when a beer bust is added. It's not about me, however, as the event is much bigger than that. It is out there, and has a life of its own.
The Transgender Day of Remembrance is a moment of activism, when we honor those we've lost, when we seek justice for the victims of anti-transgender violence, and where we make a silent commitment to those lost that we will make a better world for those who come after: a world where we have the right to exist.
It has also been a day that brings a sense of closure to friends and family of the victims, where they can see that their loss was not in vain, and that there are people out there who do care about these people.
It can also be a time of solidarity, when people of all stripes, transgender and non, can come together as one people to say, plainly, that the issue of anti-transgender violence is not to be tolerated.
The Transgender Day of Remembrance is for Pickett and Hester. It's for Brandon Teena and Gwen Araujo. It is for hundreds of those we know were killed, and for thousands more we may never know.
This year, too, it is about people like Roy Jones, a 16-month-old infant who was pummeled by his babysitter for acting like "a little girl." It's about Ashley Santiago Ocasio who was stabbed to death in Puerto Rico and Azra, a Turkish transwoman who was shot in the back of the head. It is about them and many more.
The event is not about dance parties. It is not about being funny nor bitchy. As important as issues of bullying and suicide are, the Day of Remembrance should not be overshadowed for the sake of ratings or remaining topical. It is a somber, sobering event – and should probably not have cover charges or cheap beer mixed in with the sorrow and anger.
In response to community anger and frustration, Qtalk officials did state that they had not meant to offend anyone with their event, and they let people know that they felt this was a good time to bring the community together to discuss how to make things better. It was only then that they opted to add a moment of silence to the event – but not to reschedule it.
It leaves me cold, and questioning exactly how does one "bring the community together" by co-opting a date for an event that has been around for more than a decade. I wonder if their response would be the same if they had scheduled their celebration on December 1 (World AIDS Day) or if they might find that in bad taste. If the latter is true, what makes the Day of Remembrance any different?
Also, why host an event on bullying and suicide at your anniversary celebration? Why did they not do that on Spirit Day? Why conflate so many things into such a hodgepodge? But I digress.
Over the last few years, I have heard reactions from people, indicating that the Transgender Day of Remembrance is a "depressing" event. I don't disagree. It is difficult to hear these stories, and realize that this remains such a large-scale problem.
For that matter, I'd fully support an event that is a celebration of who we are. I'd love to see, for example, a really big party held every August – the anniversary of the Compton's Cafeteria riot where transgender people stood up against the police in San Francisco – where people of every hue of trans identity could shake their groove things.
I'm all for laughter, dancing, and even a drink or two – but not on this one day. This is not a day to dance on our graves.
Gwen Smith founded the Transgender Day of Remembrance. You can find her online at http://www.gwensmith.com.
For details on local Transgender Day of Remembrance events, see the News Briefs column on page 5.