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Lessons From My First Transgender Day of Remembrance

11/20/2013 02:20 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
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I remember my first Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony three years ago. At the time I was a program coordinator for an LGBTQ teen group in Rockville, Md., that met on a bi-weekly basis. At the beginning of every meeting, before taking time to share the joys and challenges we'd experienced since the last meeting, we stated our names and preferred pronouns. It was my first time ever running a group full of queer-identified and allied teens, and I slowly learned that the "Jane" who walked in and spoke about her experiences at school one week could easily walk in as "Joey" the next. I also learned that it was my responsibility to not only provide a space for that fluidity but hold the others accountable for respecting how that person identified at the time. It took a little extra work, sure, but we were all in that space to hold on to and create something that some of us did not have, a privilege that most take for granted: safety.

There was an organization that was holding a Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony at a church and wanted to donate a collection to our group. As the coordinator, I nervously got up in front of the church full of people and spoke about the lives that would be affected by the donations and what an honor it would be to receive that gift. I nervously prayed over the lives of the lost, passed the collection plate around, and took a seat in a pew. The ceremony continued to the remembrance of those who were not with us anymore, each pair of blessed footsteps no longer upon the Earth. Everyone said the names of the dead aloud and rang bells to reflect the dimming of their lights in an all-too-early sunset. We hugged. There were tears. It was over.

After the ceremony, the group moved into a small community room within the basement of the church, set for food and fellowship, where I had the uncomfortable job of shaking hands and accepting money... until a woman, small in stature, walked up to me in silence. She looked up at me, eyes dark and sad, the lines in her face etched by sleepless nights and pain. It was as if the only thing that was keeping her erect was a memory, a light inside her. The hard streaks of gray in her hair seemed to glow from the overhead light, or from that light inside. I greeted her with a friendly smile.

"Thank you so much for what you do with the kids," she said. "My son was in a group like that, and he enjoyed it. He killed himself a year ago." She handed me a $100 check, then added, "By any means, keep that group going."

I stood in silence and shock as she gently patted my hand, sealing the responsibility to me, and glided away upon the air of strength that had brought her.

As much as Transgender Day of Remembrance is a time for memorializing those who have died, this day, this week, this month, this year, this lifetime and beyond need to be committed to ensuring the safety of all who place footprints on the Earth. How trans* people die is a testament to what we are doing as the living. How are we as people, all people, assuring the safety of those around us? When someone is being cat-called while walking down the street, do we turn a blind eye? When a trans* child is blossoming into their existence, do we proclaim that they couldn't have been born that way? When we are fostering and teaching our future educators, service providers, social workers, counselors, and psychologists, are we actively eliminating the idea that trans* people are confused and that there is a brokenness in them that needs to be "fixed" through therapeutic means? As a professor, I always remind my students to think about the "how abouts." Domestic violence... but how about trans* people? Access to health care... but how about trans* people? The privilege of receiving all this knowledge and education around working with people every day... but how about the way we treat trans* people? Calling out "wrongness" in the existence of another person, verbally, emotionally or physically, degrades who we have become as human beings.

As a cisgender person, I constantly have to work toward trans* awareness in my teaching and in my language. Why? Because I see and respect being trans* as the purest form of existence. The trans* person's awe-inspiring ability to take the broken pieces of our society's systems of social construct and fit them together to create a complete human being is beyond my ability to understand. And being honest about who I am, I will not pretend that I have "been there" or "done that," even if I do belong to one of the letters in the rainbow acronym. Being cisgender gives me privilege, making it even more my responsibility to maintain the safety of others in the spaces that I occupy (which might even mean stepping back to make more room for my trans* family). That check from the woman was an investment in the living to provide a safe space, by any means. Safety is existing as who you are or want to be without the threat of violence, and it is a privilege.

Trans* people are being executed in broad daylight, and as human beings, these deaths are our legacy. Evil is no longer hiding in the shadows of night or in a closed space. What do I do to create safety for trans* folks around me? These violent deaths happen due to the failure of the living to provide safety. The loss of a trans* person, whose gender expression is one of the purest forms of expression of self, true self, inside and out, is a loss to anyone who claims that they are human. Saving a life and providing safety is earning your keep and the privilege to say you are human. The energy, life, and spirit of those we lost still live among us and haunt us with hope through the bells we ring. Safety and respect for everyone's existence is the oil that will keep their light burning for lifetimes to come. Having the strength to be yourself in this world we live in deserves my commitment to service, which is a light that, bowing down, I can behold.