Transmissions: Remembering at the White House

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday November 30, 2011
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Transmissions: Remembering at the White House

One evening in late November 1998, I was walking home with a friend of mine. I was venting my frustration with the transgender community of the time, and the world at large. Rita Hester had been murdered a day or two before, and I was angry that those in her community could not even recall the murder of Chanelle Pickett in the same general area just a couple years earlier.

Pickett's murderer, William Palmer, had received a light sentence only a few months prior to Hester's death, and while it was clear there was no direct connection between the cases, it was also clear that here was yet another African American transwoman in Massachusetts, murdered on another November night.

I was telling my friend that I wanted to do something about this, try to show people these deaths. Their killers wanted them erased, and we were helping these murderers by forgetting our own.

In March the following year, a group of nearly 100 people showed up at a viewing of The Brandon Teena Story at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. It was raining. We stood out in front of the movie house with signs bearing the names of 30 or so transgender people who had been murdered over the previous decades, to remind people that Brandon's story was not an isolated incident. I wish I could recall what few words I said to the crowd, standing in the rain, shouting to our group huddled under the theater awning.

That relatively small gathering was the genesis of what is now known as the Transgender Day of Remembrance, the first of which was held in San Francisco and Boston on November 28, 1998. The event continues to grow to this day: it was observed in 18 countries this year, stretching from the Bay Area to Ankara, Turkey, and from Belfast to Tel Aviv.

I want to talk about one Transgender Day of Remembrance event in particular this year: it was one that very few attended, and took place behind closed doors, behind a metal detector and a very well protected gate. It is one I never could have predicted all those years ago, standing in the rain — let alone that one night in 1998.

I received a phone call the Monday before the Transgender Day of Remembrance from Mara Keisling, the head of the National Center of Transgender Equality located in Washington, DC. She wanted me out there on Wednesday afternoon, and was asking me to drop everything and be on a flight Tuesday morning. I dropped everything, handled what little I had to, and packed my suitcase.

After a day of travel by bus, commuter train, a pair of jets, and finally a taxi, I showed up at NCTE's annual awards ceremony. While my presence at the event was noted, I was not an honoree: this was not my reason for being in DC.

Rather, the night was about longtime transgender activist Donna Cartwright and Democratic National Committee staff member Brian Bond, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan — the latter most likely being the first cabinet secretary to speak at a transgender event.

Donovan, in an amazing speech detailing some of what HUD is attempting to do for transgender people said, "I'm here this evening because this administration is not only committed to ensuring the transgender community has a seat at the table." This would prove to be personally truer than I thought.

The next day, I was with a small group of transgender and ally activists as we walked up to black, iron gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: the Eisenhower Office Building, adjacent to the West Wing of the White House.

We were met there by individuals from within the Obama administration, and entered a large room decorated by images of people who had been there before us: heads of the military, a Supreme Court justice, and others. I was given a very literal seat at the large table that dominated the room, and was one of the first to speak, detailing a trio of anti-transgender murders for all in attendance.

I spoke of Roy A. Jones III, a 16-month-old killed by his babysitter because he was somehow "acting like a girl." I spoke of Gwen Araujo, beaten and strangled by a group of boys who then had the gall to ask for leniency from the jury due to "transgender panic." I spoke of Duanna Johnson, shot and killed under mysterious circumstances not long after winning a case against the Memphis police.

Together, we all ended up speaking that day about the violence perpetuated against those viewed as transgender or gender non-conforming. More than this, our voices were heard.

I'm not going to tell you that this one meeting, as incredible as it was, will itself make for great change. I hope it will, of course, but I look at it as more of a ripple in a pool. It took more than a decade for this to go from me kvetching to a friend, to sitting at a conference table in Washington, DC, sharing these stories. This was not the end of the story, but another chapter in a much larger tale about transgender rights.

One last thing: the day after this meeting — at an event I dearly wish I could have attended — over 50 Department of Justice and federal government employees met at the DOJ to honor the Transgender Day of Remembrance. These are words I never could have imagined typing all those years ago.

This is change, and it's very, very good.

Gwen Smith honors those who have supported TDOR all these years. You can find her online at