Erasure of Trans Lives & Identities

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

November and December are tough months for a Canadian, transgender, women’s rights activist. On November 20th, the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, we came together to mourn the senseless loss of another 369 lives to trans-violence. On November 25th, we once again came together to advocate on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. From November 25th to December 10th we embark on the “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence”. On December 6th, Canadians come together to mourn the murder of 14 young engineering students at École Polytechnique — they were all women. Finally, on December 10th, we amplify our collective voices on International Human Rights Day, in honour of the 1948 proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Naturally, as a transgender woman myself, I pay particular attention to November 21st, the International Transgender Day of Remembrance(TDoR). On January 1st, 2008, Transgender Europe(TGEU), an NGO based in Berlin, Germany, launched the Transgender Murder Monitoring(TMM) project. In essence, this is a database of reported murders of transgender people from around the world. It became clear to activists that, in many countries, police authorities could not be relied upon to accurately report the deaths of transgender people. Indeed, in the worst offending countries, most deaths are reported based on gender-assigned-at-birth and not a reflection of the individual’s identity at the time of their death. As a result, civil society assumed the role of statistician and started collecting data. Since the project began in 2008, there have been 2,982 deaths reported. Now, please, let me be very clear, these are the deaths that we know about. It is widely acknowledged that there are so many more that we do not know about and that go unrecorded. In this past year alone, over 369 cases were reported to the project, 44 more cases than the previous year, and continuing to show a steadily increasing trend in violence against transgender people.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

The four worst countries for transgender deaths this year are Brazil(167), Mexico(71), United States(28), and Columbia(21). Most of these deaths are transgender women of colour, one of the most marginalized population groups in today’s global society. In the United States alone, the majority of the trans people reported murdered are transgender women of colour and/or Native American trans women (85%), and in France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, which are the countries to which most trans and gender-diverse people from Africa and Central and South America migrate, 65% of the reported murder victims were migrants. There are tremendous overlaps with other mechanisms of oppression such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia.

Institutional system transphobia plays an important role in the struggle to fully understand the extent of violence against transgender people. A recent study in the U.S. revealed that in 74 out of 85 cases of violence against transgender women, victims were misgendered and identified by their “deadnames”; that is, the names, and gender, they were assigned at birth but which they had previously abandoned. In such cases, when trans women are misreported as male and cited with deadnames, a murdered woman’s fate may not be known by her community and, worse still, witnesses may not know to come forward. This systemic governmental prejudice and discrimination perpetuates the mainstream belief that a transgender person’s identity is not ‘real’. That, the identity, name, and gender, assigned to them, by someone else, at their birth, is deemed to be more accurate than a person’s own sense of self is, quite frankly, absurd. In many states around the world it is simply impossible for a person to change their name and/or gender marker on government-issued documentation. This bureaucratic form of oppression impacts a transgender person’s life on a daily basis but none more so than when they die. For this is the time that institutional oppression erases the very identity of the individual.

The challenges of navigating a largely cisgender, heterosexual, patriarchal, society can seem truly insurmountable for transgender people. Especially when they are denied access to essential trans health care, legal gender recognition, and familial and societal acceptance. There are many places in which a transgender woman could not turn to the police for protection. The very service designated with the protection of citizens is the very organization that perpetuates systemic transphobia. So, imagine, for one moment, that you are facing a violent aggressor, and the police officer standing nearby does, at best, absolutely nothing to intervene. To whom should you turn for your protection now?

In order to end the violence against transgender women, we must stop erasing their identities, validate and acknowledge their existence, and recognize their very humanity. I have had the privilege of teaching diversity and inclusivity to grade 1 students and even they get it. It’s not that hard. Regardless of our uniqueness, we are all simply human beings. It’s time for all of us to fully embrace and accept the huge diversity that is the human variability and to stop this barbaric, violent, and juvenile power-play that results in violence against any marginalized minority, including transgender women.