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Transgender Day of Remembrance: Protecting the Rights and Future of the Community

By Lorelei Erisis, Nov. 20, 2018
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Transgender Day of Remembrance

With the midterms over and 2018 drawing to an end, the Boston transgender community has a lot to celebrate. But with the arrival of cold November days, that celebration is solemnly tempered by the approaching observances of Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR).

Transgender Day of Remembrance—observed annually on November 20th in countries all over the world—was founded in 1999 by a transgender woman named Gwendolyn Ann Smith, as a way to mourn the brutal murders of transgender people. Overwhelmingly, it has been transgender women of color who have lost their lives.

This day is usually observed with a reading of the names of those who have been killed within the past 12 months—most often including the manner in which they were killed and details of the lives they’d lived. Beyond that, observances vary; but a candlelight vigil is frequently included. Oftentimes, community members will speak and space is made for mourning and shared grief.

The first Transgender Day of Remembrance was held specifically to memorialize the murder of Rita Hester in 1998 in Allston, MA. Rita had been the fourth Boston area transgender woman killed in as many years. She was incredibly well-loved and popular in a number of our local Boston area communities. Her death, and the poor media reaction to it, represented a tipping point that spurred many members of the transgender community into action—prompting both activism and remembrance.

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of Rita Hester’s murder and will likely be a more reflective time for the transgender community here in Boston. Compounding this sad memorial will be the fact that the first transgender woman murdered this year in the United States was my friend Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, a transgender activist and organizer who was stabbed and beaten to death by her husband in their North Adams, Massachusetts, home.

Due to the overwhelming support of the people of Massachusetts for the equality and dignity of their transgender neighbors, ballot question number 3 was soundly defeated during the midterm elections. Vital protections for transgender people were preserved, and by a large enough margin to send a much-needed message of support for the basic human rights of transgender people. This was a much-needed victory for transgender people both here in Massachusetts and across the country.

But even with the success of Yes on 3, the list of names read at TDoR observances grows larger each year. Some of this may be attributed to better recognition of transgender people by reporting outlets including the media and law enforcement. But far too much of that growth is likely a result of continuously rising violence against transgender people as well as systemically ingrained and culturally entrenched transphobia. However, the list doesn’t include the disproportionately large numbers of transgender people who have taken their own lives as a result of transphobic violence, familial rejection, social stigma, and pervasive discrimination. Nor does it include the many transgender folks whose gender identities have not been recognized or respected by authorities, reporters, or their families.

I would encourage you, whether you’re transgender or whether you simply care about transgender people, to find and attend a Transgender Day of Remembrance observance near you. It’s incredibly important to take this time to remember those who have passed away within the community. And the only way we might find a path out of this repeating cycle of violence and death is to come together and work as a community to end the stigma and the transphobia that continues to take the lives of so many of my transgender friends.

The murder of Rita Hester, like the murders of a shockingly high percentage of transgender people, remains unsolved to this day. The Boston transgender community held its own Transgender Day of Remembrance marking the 20th anniversary of her death at the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul on November 18th.

Learn about the significance and origin of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, and attend an observance near you.

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