Whether you know it or not, since 1998 November 20th has been set aside as the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day for remembering the tragically high number of transgender men and women who have lost their lives to violence. Tonight there will be memorial vigils held in cities across the nation. Candles will be lit, and stories will be told.
A person could be forgiven for not knowing what today means. Often, victims of anti-trans violence are not identified as transgender, stripped by the media of the dignity of being referred to by their chosen names or preferred gender pronouns. All too often, these crimes go unsolved. It doesn’t help that some (but by no means all) of these victims were sex workers, a particularly vulnerable population whose deaths rarely make headlines - though the extreme poverty and shockingly high unemployment rates for transgender people should.
A recent report entitled “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey” found that trans Americans were nearly four times as likely to have an annual income of less than $10,000 (15% opposed to 4%). The unemployment rate for transgender Americans stands at 14%, and for the African American transgender community, it rises to 28%. Poor, misunderstood and erased, these are stories that are not often told.
As a cisgender woman – meaning somebody whose gender identity is consistent with the sex I was assigned at birth – I know that the stories marked by Transgender Day of Remembrance aren’t necessarily mine to tell. Despite challenges, there is a strong and growing community of trans advocates who are skilled at putting a public face on issues like workplace discrimination, and many transgender Americans are simply happy, healthy and successful, overcoming tremendous barriers to quietly live normal lives. Their lived experiences say more than I ever could.
But just as the gay and lesbian community, of which I am a member, has always needed our allies in the struggle for equality, I hope to be counted as an ally to my transgender friends. Friends like the proud member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary who is constantly being asked by the service members he works with why he doesn’t enlist. Even with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” gone, his talents, training and commitment to his country still aren’t enough to allow him to serve. Stories like his need to be told if our military’s policy against transgender service is ever going to change.
Or there are the stories of the men and women who seek help at places like the Whitman-Walker Name and Gender Change Clinic, where I am privileged to serve as one of the attorneys providing pro bono assistance to individuals trying to navigate the labyrinth of rules and requirements to obtain social security cards and drivers licenses consistent with how they live their lives. Because of these stories, I will never again take my easy acceptance for granted when I use my ID to get into a bar, to use a credit card, to get on a plane, or to vote.
One story that I know personally, but have yet to see told anywhere, is the vital role that transgender staffers and volunteers played in winning the freedom to marry at the ballot this year. I spent the last two weeks before the election volunteering with Mainers United for Marriage, and I can tell you that the campaign headquarters in Portland was full of trans men and women. From the cheerful lady greeting volunteers each day and manning the front desk, to the field coordinator leading canvassing efforts for GOTV, and countless others, it is no exaggeration to say that we would not have won marriage in Maine without the contribution of transgender activists – and I suspect the same could be said for Maryland, Minnesota and Washington. Especially when we too often hear gays and lesbians suggest that we leave out the “T” in LGBT because “their issues are not our issues,” it’s a shame we haven’t heard more about these vital contributions to the cause.
There are many more stories I could tell, but truthfully, today I’d rather listen. Transgender people have important stories to share, and today, at least, America should lend them our ears.
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