THE BLOG
11/20/2012 10:08 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Transgender Day of Remembrance: More Than a List of Names

The first time I saw my father cry was over a list of names.

It was the Fourth of July 1993, the summer before my senior year at West Point, and we'd come to Washington, D.C., so that I could catch a plane. I'd volunteered to spend the summer leading a platoon of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, patrolling the Korean DMZ; my dad, an Army command sergeant major, had volunteered to drive me to the airport and see me off.

My flight was scheduled to depart well before dawn (or at "o-dark-thirty," as Dad put it), so we drove down from our home in Pennsylvania the afternoon before to spend the night. We made good time, and as we crossed the Potomac we realized that there was just enough daylight left to visit one of the monuments on the National Mall before checking into our hotel. We both knew which one we wanted to see.

We parked the car near the Lincoln Memorial and walked among young American elms and columns of slanting light. The two conspired to keep us from seeing our objective until we were practically upon it: a long wall of black granite cut into the low hillside, and chiseled upon it a list of 58,000 names.

When Maya Lin's winning design for a memorial to veterans of the Vietnam War was revealed to the public in 1981, the critics decried it, calling it "nihilistic" and "a black gash of shame." They missed the point. The wall and its list of names have a very real, almost visceral power -- enough to drive my normally stoic father, who spent 1967 at Tan Son Nhut airbase outside Saigon and whose generation bore the brunt of our war in Vietnam, to tears.

All across America this week, and in cities and towns around the world, members of our LGBT community are coming together with allies and friends to mark the 14th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, a yearly commemoration of those who have lost their lives to anti-transgender violence. In my years in the LGBT movement, I've been privileged to mark the day with communities from Atlanta to New Orleans and from Waco, Tex., the place where I came out as transgender, to Washington, D.C., the place that my family and I currently call home.

Each observance is different, representing the uniqueness of the local transgender communities that organize them. Some are very formal, others more folksy; some feel like a church service, while others are more like a civil rights rally. However, almost all share one element in common: a reading of the names of people murdered over the last 12 months simply because they were transgender or someone believed them to be. This year's list has 256 names on it.

In recent years some have criticized the Transgender Day of Remembrance for being too dark, too gloomy, too morbid. We've seen Days of Action and Weeks of Awareness spring up around the world, in part to help offset this darkness, a move I wholeheartedly support. We in the trans community can use all the awareness and all the action we can get.

But just as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall refuses to allow us to remember the Vietnam War without remembering the people who gave their lives to see that war through, the Transgender Day of Remembrance serves an important purpose for those of us fighting the battle for LGBT equality. It reminds us just how much is at stake. It shocks us out of the day-to-day detachment that our privilege grants us. It refuses to allow us to go about our advocacy and activism as if it were just a job or hobby.

And if it causes us to shed a tear or two, so much the better. Frankly, I think we could use a few more of those, too.

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