Transmissions: Never forgotten

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday November 16, 2011
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Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

Summer wanes, and the days get shorter. Blue skies give way to gray skies and the occasional rain shower. A slight chill now accompanies the sun's warmth – not too long ago pervasive and penetrating.

The change from summer to fall has been a part of my life for as long as I've been alive, but in the last 13 years, it has taken on a new connotation. It reminds that the Transgender Day of Remembrance is coming.

Not that I could forget, mind you. You can tell from its very name that it isn't here to be forgotten. For me, personally, it's indelibly marked on me, as permanent as a scar.

It's not something that crops up in my calendar app, or that others need to remind me about. It's not something I program around, like one might hang their seasonal tinsel in anticipation of the holidays. It's not the time I start to craft a carefully worded fundraising letter.

In some ways, I dread even having to write about it at all. Not because – after all these years – I won't have anything to say, but because there are still quite a few things left to speak about.

Back in 1998, when I first had the notion to look at the state of anti-transgender murders, I did not think anyone would care. From what I could tell, our dead were gone weeks after they perished. When Rita Hester died on November 28 of that year, the trial of William Palmer – who had been accused of murdering Chanelle Pickett on November 20 – had concluded roughly a year and a half prior. Yet some in Massachusetts, where both deaths occurred, could not recall Pickett's case.

So I began to chronicle these names. Not for the hope that anyone would pay attention, or that we'd have a big event every year, or what have you – but that at least someone was not forgetting.

I recently talked with Ethan St. Pierre, who is the Squiggy to my Lenny when it comes to the Transgender Day of Remembrance. He and I discussed the difficulty in chronicling all these cases, how it changes you. You can't look into the eyes of those we've lost lightly. It's never just another murder, each one is a person, each one could be you, your friend, your family member. Each one is someone with whom you have a sort of kinship.

I think back to the Gwen Araujo murder in 2002. Seeing her in her coffin at the funeral home. Getting to know her family. Sitting in several courtrooms. Looking at forensic evidence. Watching her killers just a few feet from me, smiling and joking with their own families. Listening to eyewitness reports of what happened that night – and listening to defense attorneys try to claim that a several-hour beating was somehow a moment of "transgender panic."

I think back to other cases, and how each affected me. Looking at those photos and hearing their stories, hearing the pleas from their parents and friends, and watching the trials and legal machinations changes you.

Then there are the new cases. You see, it doesn't really stop, at least not yet. There are cases every couple weeks. There's many more than we may never know. Even with more than a decade of awareness, even with a lot of transgender victories in both the legal  arena and the court of public opinion, we still die at a rate consistent to where we were in 1998.

The cases are no less brutal, either. Not that you'd expect them to be. Our murderers don't typically kill us and go on their way: they attempt to obliterate us, to erase us fully from existence.

Consider one of the most recent – as of this writing – cases, that of 19-year-old Shelly Moore in Detroit, Michigan. Her mother, Lyniece Nelson, had reported her as missing. Then Nelson had to identify her child solely from a charred torso.

Moore's killers did not just kill this teen. They dismembered her. They burned her. They dumped the remains along a service drive on the side of an interstate. They did all they could to make her a non-entity.

This is why we don't forget. They may kill us, but we won't let these murderers get the chance to erase us from existence. We remember, and we fight to make a society where killing us is not an option, where maybe some day we can look at the Transgender Day of Remembrance as a curious part of our past, much like one might baffle over medical treatment in the days before sterilization.

It's not that we want to have a Transgender Day of Remembrance, it's that we still need to have one. Our deaths, as I said above, continue to happen at the same rates as they seemingly always have, from as best as we can tell. Some things have changed, but this remains an alarming constant. We still seem to lack the simple right to exist.

With all this said, I urge you to go to your local Transgender Day of Remembrance event. Show your solidarity with your transgender family and friends. March, light a candle, and be there for those we've lost while you remember those we have. If you cannot make it to an event for whatever reason, then just try to take a moment to remember privately.

Further, let us hope for an autumn in our future where we can remember when we had to remember, and when we can see that this brutality will no longer be tolerated.

In San Francisco, events are planned for Friday, November 18 at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav ( ) and Sunday, November 20 at Ark of Refuge ( For more events, see story, page 1. Gwen Smith hopes everyone stays safe out there. You can find her at