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  • Oliver Whitney

Trans Day of Remembrance: To Honor the Dead, Fight For the Living, and Refuse to Forget

Trans Day of Remembrance candles

Each year on the 20th of November, people across the world pause to honor the trans and gender-diverse folks whose lives have been taken by anti-trans violence. This is Trans Day of Remembrance, an annual observance of those murdered simply for being trans or gender nonconforming.

But as much as this day is full of mourning and sorrow, it’s also about refusing to forget each and every name and life taken, and committing to fighting for a future where all trans people are liberated from violence and oppression.

In the past year, 320 trans and gender nonconforming people were killed across the globe, 31 of which were in the United States, according to the latest Trans Murder Monitoring report. The report, compiled by Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide, tracked deaths between October 1, 2022 and September 30, 2023. Ninety four percent of those murdered in that period were trans women or trans feminine folks, and a glaring 80 percent were racialized killings that predominantly targeted Black and brown trans folks. This data, while horrific, is also not surprising given that Black and trans women of color are disproportionately the targets of anti-trans violence. A large portion of the trans lives taken in the past year — a disturbing 48 percent — were sex workers.

While these numbers are startling, it’s also incredibly important to note that this is a mere snapshot of what is undeniably a much larger number of trans deaths. Many cases go unreported, and not all murder victims are properly reported as trans or gender-diverse in reports of their death, with many often being deadnamed or misgendered.

This year marks the 25th annual Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR), and while many are at least vaguely aware of the day, largely thanks to how widespread it has become internationally, as well as from official White House acknowledgements by Obama in 2014 and Biden in 2021, most don’t actually know its origins. Forgetting the lost lives of our trans siblings is actually what led to the creation of the very first Trans Day of Remembrance back in 1999.

It all started in 1998 when organizer Gwendolyn Anne Smith, at the time the administrator of the AOL Transgender Community Forum and founder of online trans space The Gazebo, was having a conversation with other trans friends. They were discussing the recent murder of Rita Hester, a Black trans woman who was brutally stabbed and killed in Boston, and how similar it was to the 1994 murder of Chanelle Pickett, another local Black trans woman who was killed at the age of 23. But none of Smith’s friends even remembered who Pickett was. “It seemed clear to me then that we were forgetting our past, and were — to paraphrase George Santayana — doomed to repeat it,” Smith wrote for HuffPost in 2012. It was then that she, along with fellow activist Penni Ashe Matz, decided to hold the very first TDOR vigils in Boston and San Francisco on November 28, 1999, the one-year anniversary of Hester’s death.

Rita Hester, courtesy of Hester Family/The History Project

Rita Hester; courtesy of the Hester Family/The History Project.

At the time, this story was viewed as a significant turning point for the representation of transgender individuals in the media.

In addition to co-founding the day, Smith also created “Remembering Our Dead,” a still-active website that tracks trans homicides and, most significantly, provides reliable resources and information about each life taken.

As much as TDOR is a vital day to honor and remember the trans lives lost, as well as a siren call to “fight for the living,” as Smith has written, it’s also a day about humanizing trans people. Those 320 people killed in the past year are not just numbers, but actual, full human lives stopped short, the majority of whom were under the age of 25. As Imara Jones of TransLash media told The Root, what’s needed to protect trans lives is simply “the ability to see us as humans.” If TDOR can offer a moment for non-trans folks to learn the names and stories of trans lives taken by violence this year, and in years’ past, that’s one step towards humanizing the trans community. But remember, it doesn’t just require one day’s work of reflecting and learning, but is a process of constant work and advocacy. As Smith told them, “Honoring our dead is more than just lighting the candle, it's making sure there's not more next time.”

On this TDOR and every single day after, remember Rita Hester, remember Chanelle Pickett, remember the 320 lives taken this year, and remember that there have been over 530 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in the U.S. this year that continue to threaten the future of trans existence.

For more information about TDOR and anti-trans violence visit GLAAD, and to see the list of names of those that we know of who were killed, visit Remembering Our Dead’s database and the Trans Murder Monitoring report’s Names List and Global Map.

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