Transgender Day of Remembrance in D.C.

Transgender Day of Remembrance in D.C.

While this past week in D.C. has been centered around the Thanksgiving holiday, another special day was celebrated this week: Transgender Day of Remembrance. Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) was founded in 1988 by transgender activity Gwendolyn Ann Smith in order to memorialize the murder of Rita Hester in Allston, Massachusetts. Since then it has spread to over 200 cities around the world, D.C. included.


While TDOR is primarily a solemn event to remember those lost, it is also a day to celebrate transgender perseverance and brilliance. This year, I offered my services to the local organizers of TDOR at the Metropolitan Community Church of D.C. I ended up just passing out programs, stacking chairs, and leading people to their seats and, after an hour, it seemed that my job was essentially finished.


As the event began, I decided to take a seat in the back of the church and sit quietly with another volunteer I had befriended. The program outlined a diverse array of speakers and performers, from transgender activists to local politicians, church choirs, families of murdered transgender women, and even the chief of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).


Transgender Day of Remembrance


As the service started, I began to witness what a strong community was present in the church. Everyone seemed to already know each other, and as I manned the entrance, I got to witness many a reunion among old friends. Everyone seemed to be comfortable with the purpose of what we had gathered for. After reading the names of all the transgender individuals whom the community had lost over the past year, one woman approached the stage and faced the crowd. With a finger pointing towards the policeman sitting onstage she began her impromptu speech: “How dare you sit on our stage! How many trans women have been killed by the police just this year? How many of my friends have been attacked? How dare you desecrate our stage with some PR stunt!”

At several points, the woman tried to engage the audience, calling for a chant of “get off our stage” and asking audience members to raise their hands if they had friends who had been abused by the police. A few hesitant hands slowly rose from the crowd. After several minutes, much deliberation, and some tears, the woman reluctantly took her seat. One of the organizers took the stage and began to affirm the woman’s experience. “She has a right to her opinion everyone and she has a right to share it. We have all heard it now, haven’t we?” The speaker encouraged the audience to applaud this woman for her honesty.


After the clapping died down, the speaker began to explain how they needed the police to work with them and that they cannot exclude them from this issue when the issue so clearly pertains to them. But before she could finish, another, older woman rose from the stage and took the mic.“You yell that they desecrate this stage with their presence but you desecrate this space with your outburst! This is a holy place and you have ruined it!”


Soon, the debate was reignited, with the activist and the older women arguing over exactly who had disgraced this event and why. The underlying debate became clear: What was the Transgender Day of Remembrance for? Who was it for? Is it a time and space for multiple communities - activist, police, government - to come together and speak? Wouldn’t that be helpful or would it merely be an instance of another safe platform compromised in order for other, more privileged groups to feel comfortable? Is TDOR a solemn event or a celebration or a call to action?


I have my own opinions, but one of the many things I was reminded of during this event is that it doesn’t always matter what I think. All three women who participated in this extremely public debate were trans women of color and, despite this similarity in experience, had all come to separate conclusions on why and how we gather. They are the ones who get to decide what is and is not appropriate. In many ways the interaction these women had reminds me of debates between activists and legislators. Activists are often less willing to compromise on issues where they clearly see a Right and Wrong, while legislators (in theory) must compromise on ideological issues in order to get anything done. Both are important to reaching the overall goal. Activists stay hard-lined in order to keep their representatives honest and legislators often settle with minor progress instead of none at all. In the end no one is happy, because compromise rarely leaves everyone satisfied.


Later in the program, I witnessed two speakers who both definitely had the right to define the “purpose” of TDOR, but also came to different conclusions. The first speaker was a trans activist who had been working in the D.C. metro area to empower homeless trans youth. When she spoke, her passion was electric and persuasive. “This is not a day to celebrate the police, or politicians, or the passing of a bill. Today is to remember.” She was right. Remembrance is in the title, but she did not advocate for a quiet eulogy. Beside her stood young trans women, each holding framed pictures of trans women who had died in 2017. A slideshow of these faces played in the background as she listed off their names. Afterwards she spoke to the connotation of the prefix, ‘trans’.

“First and foremost I am a woman. I use ‘trans’ for your sake, but even that word puts me in a cage. I am trans…transitioning…transitioning to what? I am already a woman. You look at me and think I am a man dressing up as a woman, but oh no, I am first and foremost a woman.”


This was a powerful reminder to me about the power of words and the persistence of my own faulty perceptions, but it also spoke to the purpose of TDOR. TDOR is not for anyone but the trans community, but that does not mean others are barred from taking meaning or value from its observance. TDOR is a solemn day of remembrance, but that does not necessarily mean quiet and sullen contemplation. There are many ways to remember and to grieve, including shouting from the rooftops and taking pride in your own resilience.


The next speaker was an older couple whose trans daughter had been murdered in D.C. The two had lived in D.C. since the 50s and had been front-row witnesses to history in the fight for equality and justice, only to have their daughter killed due to hate. When the father began speaking he said he had two things he wanted to say - something that he had written and something he knew his daughter would’ve wanted him to say. At first he described how he felt when the police came to his door and delivered the news. As anyone might expect, he described the lowest feeling he had ever felt.


However, after taking a moment to collect himself, he said “but that’s not what she would’ve wanted me to say. What she would’ve wanted was a celebration, so we’re gonna sing.” Soon music began to rise from the speakers and an old tune started to rumble from his throat:


“Oh Lord, I'm strivin',
tryin' to make it through this barren land,
but as I go from day to day,
I can hear my Savior say,
trust me child, come on and hold my hand.
I'm comin' up on the rough side of the mountain,
I must hold to God, His powerful hand.
I'm comin' up on the rough side of the mountain,
I'm doin' my best to make it in.”


So we all happily sang with a man who had lost so much and we all understood what Transgender Day of Remembrance was about. It was about everything that had happened in that church that night. The screaming, singing, and shouting were all part of the wide range of experiences each person in that church had powered through that year.


I learned that D.C. has often been called the "human rights capital" of the world, but names like that give little comfort to the people who still struggle. While many people walked into that church with expectations of what they’d see, I don’t think anyone expected everything that occurred. Throughout that night I was shocked and amazed by the amount of life these people had lived through this past year. That kind of life cannot be condensed into one night, but I got a glimpse of it and for that I am grateful. There are many ways to remember. Many are often not pleasant, but important nonetheless. And just as important are those who do not look away at the unpleasantness, but acknowledge and validate it.


Remember well my friends,


Read Noah's previous blog posts

Experience a Day in the Life of an Intern at The Washington Center

Learn More