On Transgender Day of Remembrance, We Should Focus on Resilience Over Mourning

Emphasizing resistance can help fight the psychic toll of violence on trans people.

On November 20, the LGBTQ community observes Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR)—which was started in 1999 by trans activist Gwendolyn Smith—to mourn murdered trans people, particularly trans women of color who are killed at an alarmingly high rate. The day is commonly marked by holding a candlelight vigil alongside a reading of the names of the trans people known to have been murdered in the past year (22 individuals in 2018 so far). But is a day of mourning and remembrance what the transgender community most needs? In order to center the strength and hope of the trans community, some have begun appending more hopeful words beginning with R—words like resistance or resilience—to the day.

Already the media coverage of trans issues tends to focus on the suffering trans people face: Stories of trans people’s survival, resilience, and hope are few and far between in the mainstream press. TDOR plays into the media’s pre-existing appetite for trans stories of hardship and loss. Although remembering trans murder victims helps to call attention to the deadly consequences of anti-trans rhetoric, many within the trans community have become concerned about the unintended results of having too much of a spotlight on tragedy.

For every cisgender person who may become a better ally to trans folks after hearing about their deaths on November 20, a trans person may also hear these terrible stories and feel demoralized, helpless, or afraid. Emphasizing resistance and resilience in the community is one small way to fight the psychic toll confronting the painful reality violence can take.

It’s not clear when activists first began to tinker with the R in TDOR, but in 2014, lawyer and transgender activist Chase Strangio referred to it as Transgender Day of Remembrance and Resistance in an ACLU blog post. A 2015 article on Blavity examines why BreakOUT, a New Orleans-based trans justice group, called for an update to the day’s name. BreakOUT, alongside nonprofits Forward Together and the Audre Lorde Project, went on to create the annual Transgender Day of Resilience Project, which seeks to “imagine a world that cherishes and uplifts trans people of color” through art. It’s essential to note that early efforts to reframe the day were led by trans women and femmes of color, as the burden of violence is disproportionately borne by those communities. Today, many groups advertise November events under the name Transgender Day of Remembrance and Resistance or variations thereof.

In addition to facing higher rates of violence, trans people also have elevated rates of depression and suicide compared to our cisgender counterparts. Less often emphasized is the fact that social and family acceptance, as well as the ability to transition, are known to drastically improve the emotional well-being of trans people. For example, one recent study showed that allowing kids to socially transition reduced levels of depression and anxiety so much that the trans youth who transitioned were on par with their cisgender peers. It's evident that the high rates of suicide and depression are due primarily to social stigma, discrimination, and difficulty accessing transition-related medical care. We could eradicate these stats if we eradicated anti-trans bias.

Until we can build a more accepting world, caring for our own mental health and avoiding hopelessness and burnout is of huge concern to the trans community. It’s vital to give one another hope as we work towards a world where trans people’s equality and dignity is universally affirmed. Centering resistance and resilience alongside our mourning for the dead is one way to remind ourselves of the need to ward against despair.

In my family, there are two trans adults and a gender-nonconforming youth. Both adults have experienced homelessness. All three of us have faced rejection by relatives, and discrimination and prejudice from the outside world. But none of us are dead, yet. On November 20, and on every other day, we fight to live with dignity in a world that seeks to rob us of it, and as we do that, we also remember the lives of transgender people that were ended far too soon.

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