a trans day of remembrance service for your phone
the movements are usually the same: say words, light candles, mention lists, say no words, say small words, and disperse. what is being observed may seem obvious, but the obvious answer doesn’t completely explain our actions. trans day of remembrance (tdor) is, bleakly, the biggest day for many trans groups, with the potential for great positive effects. in tandem, we blog and we rant and after dispersing we reconvene to say y’know what else about—and it’s all comfortingly routine to be contrarian about it. it’s comfortingly routine to do nothing in particular.
(1) say words
i’m older than trans day of remembrance. i’m older than the trans flag too. i’m barely 25. when i tell this to young trans people, the idea that our days and symbols came a full 30 years after the stonewall doesn’t sit right. when i tell this to cis people, they don’t seem phased. tdor was first observed in 1999, marking one year since the murder of rita hester, a black trans woman and sex worker. hester’s death was accepted in the community to be a hate crime, but it was not investigated as such. police refused to acknowledge her as a woman, and only ever put out calls for information under a male placeholder name.
hester’s death was on november 28th, 1998. no online source from the past decade could explain why tdor is observed on the 20th; the 20th was a saturday in 1999, but so was the 27th, and hester’s birthday being the 30th clarifies nothing. “both chanelle and rita’s stories were key to the foundation of the event,” writes gwen smith . i wrote to smith, who started the remembering our dead monitoring project and organised the first vigil in san francisco. she clarified that the first tdor was actually held on the 28th; the event was later moved to give it some space from thanksgiving. the 20th, in particular, was chosen to align with the anniversary of chanelle picket’s death in 1995, whose killer received only two years of jail-time under assault thanks to a trans panic defence.
stemming from hester’s death was the remembering our dead project, which publishes an annual report on murders and suicides of trans people. most tdor gatherings seem to acknowledge this project in some form or another, with some (including two of the ones i have organised) electing to share the list in its entirety. how connected should this gathering be to that list?
trans life feels close to death.
any opportunity to process this was bound to be latched upon. why is it that affluent trans communities—those for whom the most lethal imagery of tdor mostly becomes a slim possibility—feel so attached to this day? these communities—white, rich, stable—ask us to mourn the black and brown communities with the implicit, sometimes explicit, statement that ‘this could be me one day.’ this could be me one day, and so, i deserve whatever pity continues my position in white straight circles. who has pulp’s common people playing in their head at the vigil?
i want to die like common people, frankly. heart attack or old age: something boring. this isn’t a death that feels possible to trans people. trans deaths are retold as violent and psychosexual. false death statistics—trans women’s life expectancies are in the 30s—emulate this at tdor vigils. it’s thought that this particular statistic emerged as the average age of murder on a tdor list. murdered people, in general, tend to be in their 30s. murdered people, and i don’t mean to condescend, live shorter lives. trans life expectancies are a statistic it’s almost impossible for us to have—we haven’t been consistently doing trans research for long enough to even guess. maybe i could die of gout, or of laughter.
even sophie’s death, nonviolent and accidental, on a rooftop, adjusting herself to photograph the full moon, had to be made psychosexual too. beautiful and filled with desire, we wrote. it is never enough just to die a bread-and-butter death, it has to be ethereal, and at least kinda hot. i hope no one calls me beautiful at my funeral. what noble deaths are there for rotten women? (oh venus, who wished for fame. extravaganza—dead five scenes later.)
this closeness to death is paralysing. many have written about how the prevalence of trans danger narratives paralysed their work as activists and community members. many fail to mourn because death is so large. and close. (this is not just true of trans people.)
why is it then that affluent trans communities feel so entitled, and oddly comfortable, claiming the deaths of the most vulnerable as part of their politics?
you could argue that tdor is a performance of the idea that once one’s transness is known to a trans community, your name and status will be preserved, in direct opposition to the many ways in which it is otherwise erased, and has been erased through history. this is a perfectly reasonable account of what exactly is being done at a tdor, but brings us no closer to an answer to why we have to invoke the name of a few hundred south american sex workers to get there.
a similar non-answer comes from considering queer temporalities. without the landmarks that age us—kiss, fuck, marriage, kids—we can make no sense of our age as a social being. queer futures—happy, stable, peaceful—become unimaginable. unimaginability answers life in the negative. could suicidality—even one far removed from the violence of which tdor intends to speak—go some way to explain the vicariousness with which white bodies approach racialised tragedy?
this feels unconvincing. the whys of racism, pity, and death are rarely answered with a pale ‘to cope.’ is pity baked into how we think of transness? gender dysphoria is core to most’s conception of transness. whilst non-mandatory, it still sits alongside transition and gender-as-an-identity as the central concepts of trans 101. discussion of trans joy and the antonym-neologism gender euphoria go against these narratives, but they don’t unseat suffering from the conceptual foundation of transness. pity goes some way to explain why tdor has been successful among allies, but still not why we focus on the list. if our real-world commitments to black, poor, and precarious trans people are negligible, what is it we are doing when otherwise affluent bookish types stand outside for a bit with comparatively affluent trans people and wish us all a peaceful life? sans lip service, what are they left with?
sarah lamble in her 2008 paper, retelling racialized violence, remaking white innocence: the politics of interlocking oppressions in transgender day of remembrance, argues that part of the function of tdor is to turn white people from agents of racialised and bloody violence, into spectators. her paper follows one person, whose murder was highly racialised, and plots how racialisation is, piecemeal, dropped from the story of their death as it is retold within trans contexts. by the version of the story that reaches any vigil, racialisation is completely absent. how much are we replicating this when we compile many disparate deaths into one list of trans deaths?
is this what a list does to the deceased? who was rita hester, beyond being a black trans woman sex worker? it’s 1 am and i’m cock-deep in the archive and i couldn’t tell you. what was her dream job as a kid? how did she take her eggs? what’s the bechdel test for dead trans women? even the remembering our dead project fails to give me anything other than how she was murdered, the circumstances of her death and funeral, and that she was well known. a surviving mother was mentioned in one article, but no more than this. are we remembering hester, or invoking her name? is it her name we’re invoking, or her death? venus was strangled, i can tell you. but i can’t tell you what she drank. i can tell you her name. i can’t tell you what judith butler was paid, turning that name into a chapter.
despite this, i still—denial or optimism—believe there is a tdor washed of these vices. i still believe that a gathering could exist where mourning is done productively, some certain part of a trans person’s soul is soothed and where the complicit and their systems are held to account.
(2) light candles
death will never be the full extent of my womanhood. most holidays come to us sideways and tired. what does it mean to name our culpability whilst licking our wounds? what could a network of care be? transition as in january, the month of janus, the god of change. recurrent and unownable january. a new year of being a traitor to the institutions of whiteness begins in november. trans day of ungovernability is the ides of january.
(3) mention lists
judith butler, aforementioned, puts forward a social model of what purpose a funeral serves. socially, the funeral does not mourn the dead. (the dead are dead and cannot do social.) rather, the funeral says to those who are like the dead that they would be mourned. this would and its wouldn’t creates the binary between casualties of war and collateral deaths. i remember a november 19th coming home from a 12-hour doing palliative care, showering hard and hot, and laying out half the kitchen so that tomorrow, we will eat about it, for once. no one died at work today, but no one felt ok to die today, either. tomorrow those of us who don’t eat in public will eat in public, and those who do not sing in public will sing in public. on five hours of sleep, baked macaroni cheese cycled in an off-duty deliveroo bag will vow a public vow to be traitors to the empire which terrorises the southern dolls, and traitors to the empire which renders its dairy body insolent. where could mourning feel like a stomach filling?
suggestions for political currents for your event:
resisting the vicarious use of black and brown peoples death’s to extend assimilationist trans politics. red fightback gives examples of “increased visibility, legal recognition, and inclusion/assimilation into the very same capitalist and colonial-imperialist systems that generate violence against the most marginalised trans and gender-nonconforming people globally.”
affirming the responsibility white people in the global north have in sanctioning and benefiting from the kind of violence tdor invokes.
responding to police violence in your community.
affirming the mournability of the trans people in your service, community, and worldwide. providing practical support to the trans people in your community.
building your local trans group, your local black liberation group, and your local sex workers group. building cross-border solidarity with gendered subjects and projects worldwide.
building mourning practices that are self-caring.
saying a public vow, this year, white bodies, to be insolent to whiteness, insolent to institutions which uphold whiteness, and good traitors whenever needed. promise never to use gender as an excuse to be complicit.
some things are worth noting in the planning stage:
what can constitute mourning? quiet funerals are a cultural anomaly. most funerals involve food, eating, music, and wailing. many take days. tackling cold calvinist assumptions will be important if you seek to mourn without rubbing the wounds. if we are to commit to honouring the deceased of the global south, then perhaps we should pay some thought as to whether our mourning is alien to the deceased.
many cultures and religions do not acknowledge an afterlife or the idea that people rest in peace forever. to many, memory is what is persistent. in general, english-speaking jewish communities say ‘may their memory be a blessing’ in a similar way christian communities use ‘rest in peace.’
discussion of antitranssexual hate groups and figures will be mentioned by someone in a non-productive way. perhaps plan for productive, power-building ways to steer the conversation out of a mutual-harm pit.
if you want to talk about the remembering our dead project, what context are you putting it in?
tdor has been renamed in some cities recently as trans day of resilience. there’s some discussion to be had about how this replicates the same transness-and-pity discussion had above.
some accessibility considerations become heightened at tdor:
where possible, arrange another room where people can decompress if necessary.
many tdors are outside-only. if you cannot split time between indoor and outdoor spaces, or cannot find an indoor space, be aware that some cannot stand for extended periods.
set expectations: explain the programme and the purpose of each part; explain what participation is recommended. talking about death and what to expect to feel is core to mourning. perhaps your most traumatic family deaths were when you were young, and no one wanted to explain it all to you. if necessary, use content warnings as part of this.
if you cannot afford a sign interpreter or closed-captioner for your event, ask your speakers to share their notes beforehand so you can have print-outs ready to go for deaf/hoh mourners.
how do we decompress?
every service i have organised has also been a potluck. (there’s a certain sort of trans woman that affirms her womanhood by cooking for people.) nonetheless, eating together is holy. singing is also important and can give some a sense of power. we are blessed as a species with an abundance of songs about love and solidarity. one service i organised used auld lang syne to close, but a 1910’s song about gayness and transness, das lila lied (“the lavender song”) is very beltable if you speak german. daloy politsey and other revolutionary songs are worth considering. a similar function might be served by a minute of noise, following a minute of silence, that some prides take.
with that in mind, here are some suggested activities for your service:
pass a (proverbial) hat around for those in your community in hardship.
in a darkened room, each yell out a plague you would wish on transphobes this year. (a practice borrowed from the pink peacock trans liberation seder.)
taking chalk, write slogans of transsexual decadence and demands on the outside walls. yell them together. wages for transition, hrt freely delivered by storks, gold leaf on my top surgery scars, cigarettes with rose-petal tips.
share art! the first tdor event i went to was an open mic and art space, and it wasn’t on target with the tone 100% of the time, but its atmosphere was enough to show me trans joy was important in and of itself.
i would like to suggest, finally, this year, if you are in the uk, that you consider the death of lucy meadows, a teacher and trans woman, who was killed in 2013 following a relentless campaign of national press harassment.
part 4: say no words.
part 5: say small words. (postscript)
one answer to is tdor a funeral? might be found within the study of death and death rites. william hoy, thanatologist, compares funerals across cultures on five points: ritual actions, shared culture, gathering a community, significant symbols, and the transition of the corpse.
dr kami fletcher, president of the collective for racial death studies, is interviewed by caitlin doughty, who is also an author of a number of notable books on pop-thanatology, in an interesting video about african american mourning cultures, how that differs from white america, and the west african roots of that.
a jewish-led cross-denominational service, with its feet planted in some jewish mourning traditions, was held recently. details on this event, including a booklet with prayers and further thoughts for your event, can be found here.
i called hester’s death a hate crime. there’s an argument to be had as to whether hate crime, as a concept, replicates the same problems we have pinned on the list.
red fightback explicitly calls out the vicarious nature of tdor when practised by privileged white bodies, and the necessary cure: the end of racial capitalism.
part 6: disperse.
this list is available as a google doc where you are welcome to suggest additions and edits. accessible here.