In honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) today, please read this excerpt from “Decolonizing Transgender: A Roundtable Discussion,” in “Decolonizing the Transgender Imaginary,” a special issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. In the excerpt, Kalaniopua Young addresses TDOR and how this memorial event can provide a collective space to “affirm the sacredness of life and our continuing responsibilities to stewardship in terms of our relationships to one another as humans.”
Kalaniopua Young: I am excited for trans studies–themed knowledge production and the potential for this emerging field of study to serve the interests of gender-nonnormative people who are themselves marginalized by structural violence. Part of my excitement stems from the possibility of mobilizing this field toward a more revolutionary standpoint, one that can better avoid the trappings of identity politics by rooting activist scholarship to community-based social-justice efforts that operate from the bottom up. Activist scholarship in this way serves as a critical tool for grounding intellectual pursuits in the academy to grassroots movements that are seeking, demanding, and creating change for frontline communities who are most marginalized. One such movement, or shall I say event, particularly relevant to this discussion is the annual international Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR).
According to a recent article commemorating the fourteenth anniversary of the international TDOR, 265 people from around the world were reported killed in 2012 due to antitrans violence. Sadly, this number reflects a rising trend in the number of antitrans murders. In 2011, for example, the number of antitrans murders was recorded at 221 and at 211 the year before that. While jarring, quantitative figures alone do not reflect the actual number of deaths, due to inadequate reporting capabilities and other failures in data collection, nor do they capture the ubiquitous senselessness with which governmental forms of systemic violence dispose of many more trans and nontrans folk alike through various kinds of slow death: cuts to welfare and education, the criminal-industrial complex, gentrification, environmental racism, and land dispossession, for example, facilitate perhaps an even more insidious and targeted form of inequality among all gendered subjects that while more general are no less cruel.
TDOR is a memorial event for transgender, two-spirit, and gender-nonconforming people killed by antitrans violence. But it is also so much more. Its growing transnational popularity around the world suggests that there is something significant happening here that transcends the social and cultural lines of gender liminal identity. The proliferation of the event is particularly empowering. Typically, these events are organized by random, devoted volunteer groups and are hosted at common public sites: legislative buildings, city parks, college campuses, city halls, churches, and community centers. As such, TDOR events provide a great opportunity for bridging the academy and the community by collectively addressing antitrans violence through a collaborative and reflective effort to affirm trans life as lives that matter.
As a veteran co-organizer for a number of TDOR events in several US cities including Olympia, Austin, Portland, and Seattle, for me TDOR has come to symbolize an increasingly important site for public resistance and a potentially strategic site for mobilizing an activist-based transgender studies education that can better organize and account for an intersectional analysis of antitrans violence. For example, it can assist in articulating, analyzing, and accounting for the intersections of race, class, and gender within the context of antitrans violence. This is an important endeavor, for while trans women of color suffer the highest number of casualties due to antitrans violence, a cogent analysis of their disposition at the dangerous nexus of race, gender, and class receives little if any attention at TDOR events. Further, volunteer organizers for TDOR events tend to generalize antitrans oppression and thus fail to account for the complexities that tacitly institute such violence in the first place. As Kortney Ryan Zeigler (2012) points out, “the goal of eradicating gender oppression as a necessary step in the transgender movement is one that is failing to keep trans people of color alive.”
Thus while TDOR creates a space for resisting gender violence, there is oftentimes little attention paid to how such violence disproportionately affects trans women of color. This discrepancy presents an important opportunity for trans studies scholars who can collaborate with TDOR organizers on and off campus to create a more robust resistive stance in politicizing antitrans death as part of larger systems of injustice and systems of gender violence that is both classed and racialized. Without a cogent analysis of how systems of race, historical trauma, and social, environmental, and economic disparities play into antitrans violence, the experiences of transgender women of color in particular remain unaccounted for while we become a quantifiable body count for a largely white, middle-class trans movement.
As many of us involved in the planning and facilitation of such events are aware, antitransgender violence is anti-men and anti-women, and as such, the recognition that state violence obscures our subjective connections should remain paramount to any effort seeking to shift the TDOR function from one of mourning to one of activist-based action. The structural violence of gender oppression affects everyone, whether self-identified as men, women, asexual, and/or gender or sexual liminal.
Still, even with a nuanced recognition of gender-violence operations among diverse communities that traverse identity categories, it is interesting to note that trans women of color still remain differentially and disproportionately pipelined into bare life, premature death, and antitrans violence. In this sense and in line with Judith Butler, I suggest that we must all work to vehemently oppose state violence and facilitate a horizontal politics recognizing the undue distribution of precarity as but one important site of opposition against systemic inequality and disenfranchisement. As she points out, “Precarity cuts across identity categories as well as multicultural maps, thus forming the basis for an alliance focused on opposition to state violence and its capacity to produce, exploit and distribute precarity for the purposes of profit and territorial defense” (Butler 2009: 32). Similarly, Devon Peña, in discussing Mesoamerican diasporic subjectivities, suggests, “There has never been a louder giant sucking sound than the screed violently heralded by the shift of wealth that has led us to the current class composition of the USA in which 371 families have as much wealth as 150 million of the rest of us. We are Basement America. And it is time to dig out” (2012).
TDOR, in collaboration with trans studies scholar-activists, I argue, has the potential to offer this kind of counterhegemonic collective space to do just that—to dig us out. Through grassroots efforts of public mourning, for example, we begin to affirm the sacredness of life and our continuing responsibilities to stewardship in terms of our relationships to one another as humans as well as to more than humans (land, animals, and so on). Common spaces of mourning offer us an opportunity to more effectively honor our people and commit to politicizing the social, environmental, and economic injustices that leave the most disenfranchised to endure disproportionately the burden of antitrans hate and violence.
Read the full roundtable here: “Decolonizing Transgender: A Roundtable Discussion.”