Tuesday, November 26, 2013

TDOR in Black and White

Last week I attended two Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) events. The purpose of TDOR is to honor trans people who were murdered in the past year.  There were about 260 such deaths around the world in 2013, and the majority of the victims are always trans women of color.

Of the events I attended, one set out to remember all 260, and was organized by a white trans group. The other one memorialized four black trans women who died in New Orleans this past year and was organized by a black trans group - specifically, by women who had known and loved the deceased.

I had figured out that those two events would be very different from each other, but that was only a logical deduction. It didn't prepare me for the actual experience of being there.

Why is there a white trans group and a black trans group? I can't answer that question in its entirety. I can only say that I've been attending meetings of the white trans group for a couple years now. Like all well-meaning white people, they occasionally ask themselves "Why are there no black people in our group?" It's a very odd conversation, because no one can ever think of a reason why black people don't show up. (I've heard some attempts at an explanation but none of them made sense to me.) Moreover these conversations never lead to an increase in the number of people of color in the white organization. I mean, they don't just magically appear. I myself have no idea how to encourage people of color to join a majority-white group. But when I discovered the existence of this black trans group, I wanted to visit it. I wanted to learn what these women's lives were like. I decided that if, as a white liberal, I believe in diversity then I should practice a little diversity of my own.

The leader of the black trans group is a woman named Tela Love. She was invited to participate in the white TDOR event. She showed up, she brought a couple friends with her, she joined in the reading of the names. Along with the names they read descriptions of how the people died: shot, stabbed, drowned, beaten. Naturally, at the black TDOR event there were no graphic descriptions of how these women died, because such things are not considered appropriate for a memorial service.

I had figured out that a white TDOR event would be different from a black TDOR event. Now, having experienced them, I believe I can summarize the difference by saying: at the white event we were all thinking "This could happen to one of us." At the black event they were thinking "This did happen to one of us." And it will happen again. Those are two entirely different things.

At the white event, we felt grief, we felt anger, we felt fear. And yet I have to say there was also a certain distance from those feelings. I didn't realize that at the time. But when I attended the black event and saw people mourning for women whom they had known personally: obviously that is different. They had a slideshow of photos of these women, and everyone sat around and cried. I didn't recognize the people in the photos; I didn't cry.

At the black TDOR, family members of two of the deceased were present. (That means that the families of the other two women did not attend.*) Many people have a hard time accepting the concept of transgender. Many people are uncomfortable around trans people. But I permit myself to believe that most of those people don't want trans people dead. And if they could sit in a room with the grandmothers of two dead trans women, listen to them talk about the grandchildren they loved, I believe they would be more likely to decide that trans people should be safe. (The grandmothers invariably referred to the deceased with male pronouns. That is what it means to be trans: that even people who love you and mourn for you will get your name and pronouns wrong.)

The other image I carried away with me was the image of beautiful black trans women. It might seem superficial to speak of their beauty. And yet it is their beauty that makes them a target. It is their femaleness that makes them a target. It is their sexuality that makes them a target. To look at them, you would think they didn't know they had anything to be ashamed of. I could almost believe they were living on lessons passed down from some primeval time, before our society decided that beauty and femaleness and sexuality were things to be hated.

Like soldiers on a battlefield, they see their comrades fall around them. "That could have been me." "I could be next." And yet soldiers have guns to defend themselves, they have armor and tanks and drones. Trans women of color live in more danger than any other group of people in America. And yet I have never seen so much pride.

Personally, I've always sought refuge in silence and concealment. When someone disapproves of something I do, it would never occur to me to repeat it over again, bigger and louder. Like these women do. Watching them, I start to think there is something in it.

Most people still believe that transgender is a "sickness." And if you start with that assumption, it might seem reasonable for these women to be rejected by their families. If they end up living on the street, selling their bodies in order to survive, it's their own fault. No one asked them to behave the way that they do. When they die . . . as one Internet commenter remarked, it's just "Darwinism at work." (I believe this person was referring to LGBT people as a whole.) They contribute nothing to society and the sooner they die off, the better.

On the other hand, our society is arranged according to a certain hierarchy. Considered from that point of view, the fact that black female trans sex workers end up at the bottom of the hierarchy is no accident. In our society, blackness is devalued. Femaleness is devalued. Sex is devalued. Gender non-conformity is devalued. And so we have these lives, and these deaths.

*Update: Tela writes: "I found out why the other two families didn't come, one mother had a stroke the day of the event and the other was only the sister and that death was the most recent as in it's only been a month so I don't think she wanted to reopen the wound as she is trying desperately to move forward."

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