Transgender Day of Remembrance is observed on November 20th, and around the country many hundreds, if not thousands of TDoR events will memorialize the 28 trans people in the U.S. — and the 369 trans people worldwide — murdered as a result of transphobic violence. All of these events will be well-intentioned. Many of these events will fall short of supporting trans people in the way we need.
As a queer, transgender woman of color with a history of activism, I’ve seen my fair share of TDoRs. I’ve rehearsed lists of hundreds of names for days on end, looking each up online so that I could grant the dead the basic dignity of having their names pronounced correctly. I’ve given speeches on stage, hugged my friends in the audience, and cried too many times to count in my room afterwards. These days, my work as a diversity & inclusion consultant brings me to TDoRs put on by individuals, community groups, nonprofits, and Fortune 500 companies alike.
On November 13th, I was asked if I could be a last-minute speaker addition to an early TDoR event in San Mateo County, California. I said yes and told my partner to expect me back later that night, drained and in need of care — the same way I always arrived home from these kinds of speaking engagements. I came home beaming. “It was the best TDoR of my life,” I told her, and she looked as surprised as I felt.
Over the last few days, I’ve reflected on my experience at the San Mateo County TDoR and asked myself the hardest question of all as an organizer: had I done it wrong? And if I had, how did this event do it right?
In 2015, I helped organize a TDOR that involved a mass die-in in a public plaza, a call to action for cisgender observers, and donations tables to raise money for trans-led organizations. We raised thousands of dollars and undoubtedly made an impact on everyone who attended. Was it effective? Almost certainly. But we galvanized cisgender allies by highlighting the gruesomeness of trans murders, a tactic that ended up being a double-edged sword that traumatized the trans organizers and attendees, too. I can’t shake the feeling that we forgot one of the most crucial things about TDoR — that TDoR is for trans people. TDoR is a wake, a space for grieving and reflection, but also a critical space for resilience and empowerment. When these events leave cisgender attendees feeling empowered and transgender attendees feeling drained, we need to take a hard look at who we’re organizing these events for in the first place.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what made the San Mateo County TDoR feel different. Maybe it was the trans musician that opened the event, the trans youth from around the county that shared their experiences, or the speakers who brought their expertise as trans people in the working world to the event. Whatever it was, I felt as though I was among friends. When I spoke, I made eye contact with a youth speaker sitting near the back of the room and in that brief glance, it was like we shared an unspoken understanding. We’re here for each other. It was a feeling I won’t forget.
How can we create spaces that respect our community grieving and also leave trans folks feeling empowered and resilient?
1) Invite speakers who can channel the emotional intensity of TDoR into strength.
Hearing the list of names — whether the dozens of U.S. trans murders or the hundreds of global ones — is an incredibly exhausting process for trans people. It’s important to give community space to process these names, but we need a place to put these emotions so that they don’t weigh us down for the rest of the day, week, or month. Speakers who can both acknowledge the gravity of community loss and speak to hope and community power can infuse a TDoR event with transformational energy.
2) Collaborate with cisgender allies under trans leadership.
Annette Pakhchian, a cisgender woman on the planning committee for the San Mateo event, put together profiles of the 2018 victims and arranged them into an altar. To do this she looked through dozens of articles frequently characterized by transphobia, misgendering, and victim-blaming to find any positive and humanizing info she could. “It’s a heavy weight,” she tells me over the phone, “which is why a cis ally and organizer should take on the work.” I agree. When trusted cisgender allies work together with trans people under trans leadership, the hard work of putting TDoR together becomes a little easier.
3) Support trans people’s emotional needs.
Sitting in the audience at the San Mateo TDoR were therapists, counselors, and other individuals that made themselves available for emotional support. The MC and event host made it clear that anyone could step out of the event if they needed it. TDoR is a difficult time for many members of our community, and those who decide to go to an event may be impacted by feelings of grief or loss. It’s important to design the event with this in mind: give trans folks the choice to leave easily without disruption, invest in emotional support resources, and consider providing private community space for trans people to process their emotions.
TDoR is for trans people. As we attend events that recognize the trans murders that have taken place in 2018, let us all remember that our responsibility is to trans community. Together we can grieve and mourn those we have lost, and come together stronger afterwards. Together we can live and work so that the list of names someday drops to zero.