Today, trans people are gathering all over the globe to observe Transgender Day of Remembrance, when the names of all the murdered trans people from this past year will be read aloud at somber community-based events. This year marks the 20th anniversary of an event originally created to record otherwise forgotten trans community history.
Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a trans writer and activist from the San Francisco Bay Area, was online in an AOL forum for trans people called The Gazebo just after black trans woman Rita Hester was murdered in Boston in 1998. In discussing Hester’s death, Smith remarked that the circumstances around it were remarkably similar to the murder of Chanel Pickett, another black trans woman who died in 1995 in the Boston area.
At the time, the Pickett murder and subsequent trial of her alleged killer, William Palmer, had received a lot of media attention for its time and was written about extensively in trans circles, but no one in the chat room was familiar with the case.
That’s when Smith knew she had to do something. She created the Remembering Our Dead web project in order to track these instances of violence against the trans community. The following year, trans people in San Francisco and Boston held the first Trans Day of Remembrance, using Smith’s web project as source material.
Twenty years on, trans people have seen some amazing, if precarious, gains in legal rights. But the specter of violence still hangs over our heads, especially for trans women of color: Hate crimes against trans people were up by 41% in 2018, according to recent data.
I spoke with Smith about what it was like watching TDOR grow into a truly global event and the changes visible in the trans community today.
It seems like the Remembering Our Dead project was born out of necessity. How did Transgender Day of Remembrance come to be?
Well, shortly after Remembering Our Dead really started to take off and started becoming visible, here in the San Francisco Bay Area about six or seven of us had gotten together. We were creating a kind of pseudo [activist group like] Transsexual Menace or otherwise in-your-face activism group that was going by the name TG Rage. It really didn’t go very far—it actually ended up morphing into other things later on.
The Castro Theater was hosting a showing of The Brandon Teena Story. This was a couple of years before Boys Don't Cry came out, and we decided to take this opportunity to have a visibility action. We stood out in front of the theater with the names of the trans people who had been killed since the Brandon murder, to say, This is still an ongoing issue. The event went really well. We had a large number out there. We got a lot of visibility, a lot of write-up, a lot of attention paid to the issue.
I was talking with [trans activist] Penni Ashe Matz about how the event went and she said, “I'd really like to do something like this in Boston.” So we decided [to] have an event on November 28, a different date than it is today because of Thanksgiving, in the Castro in San Francisco, and then Boston had theirs.
Can you tell me about the first one?
It was cold. It was raining. That was actually a fairly common thing with the first couple. We stood out holding candles on the corner in Castro, probably about 50 to 100 of us from the local community. I said a few words, which I unfortunately don't have anymore, about the event and why we were there. I [also] read the names that we've lost, which is something that has stuck around.
When did it start to spread to other cities?
The first got a fair amount of visibility for its time, and the next year, we pushed for more places to get involved: It was about 10, 20 places at most. And then in the third year, it really started to pick up. By the fourth or fifth year, it was several hundred locations, and schools started to get involved and things like that.
What's it been like seeing your brain child turned into this international event?
Oh, that's actually a more complex question than you might think.
Tell me a little bit about your feelings on that.
On one hand, it's really amazing and fascinating to see it happen, because really, when I first started to work on the project after that night in the chat room, I didn't necessarily feel a lot of hope around it. I had [a] feeling that nobody was paying attention to this. And I felt like, I'm going to do this project, and who cares? Nobody's going to care. I didn't think that it was going to matter to people. So seeing events around the world 20 years later is really mind-blowing, in a good way.
At the same time, there are times that I feel like, What did I unleash? Did I do the right thing? Was this the event that our community should have? A lot of TDOR [events] are, for obvious reasons, focused around our deaths and our dying. And can we be something more than our deaths?
“There are times that I feel like, What did I unleash? Did I do the right thing? Was this the event that our community should have?”
That's something that I personally wrestle with, which, of course, makes me happy that other events have cropped up since that are more celebratory. On top of that, I sometimes look at what people are doing for TDORs and kind of go, Why?
What do you mean by that?
A couple of years ago, I saw a TDOR beer bust at a bar and I'm thinking, How is this honoring people? What does this mean? One year there was an event where it was this big celebration around a radio show and the DJs were gonna come in and [they] kind of tacked on a moment's silence for TDOR. I kind of feel like...how are you respecting people we've lost by doing this?
I've tried very deliberately to keep a fairly low profile when it comes to TDOR. Yes, I did it. Yes, obviously, I'm doing an interview about it. But I don't like to spend a lot of my time centering the event on me, because it's absolutely not about me.
I think that younger trans people don't often look to those who have been doing this for decades. What are your thoughts on that?
I think part of that is almost built into some of the DNA of our community. When I was coming out, trying to find the activists who came before me was difficult; when they were going through the process, they had to fight to find people. There's this seemingly long history of us not having a lot of readily available trans elders to look to. We don't always share.
The traditional concept is that we transition and we're gone. Maybe we'll leave behind a book or an autobiography or something, but otherwise we're gone. So you don't have that cultural memory as a community. The joke nowadays is, “Well, this is the first trans person to do X, Y, Z.” Because that may be true in some cases, but in a lot of cases, there's just no historical memory.
Do you think collective memory within the community has changed since then?
One of the benefits we have now is the internet—there's much more of a readily available memory through that. At the same time, our community still has that tendency to walk away; we have a problem with eating our own. We tend to look for everyone to be as perfect as they can be. It's a real issue with people who come out and they've transitioned last week and they're now being put in front of TV cameras and they haven't had a chance to really find themselves in that time. And so when that happens, the community rejects them, for better or worse. There's certainly been some very high-profile situations where that's come up recently.
Has that tendency always been around, or is that more of a recent development?
That's always been around, at least since I've been around.
That's good to know.
I was watching that happen in the mid-’90s.
Do you still go to TDOR?
I do sometimes. Sometimes I'll be asked to go speak at one. This year, however, I was not. So I will probably not go.
Is there a case that really sticks out in your mind from the last 20 years?
One day I was talking with a friend of mine and I was saying, “It's been too long. It's been a couple of weeks. I haven't heard a case.” Because you build up that sense of there's going to be a case coming, which is not a good thing. Not a good feeling.
I ended my conversation with them. I went downstairs. I turned on the television and there's Gwen Araujo. I ended up following that case very closely. I went to the viewing, which was difficult. Not too long after was the funeral. I was there, but outside because there were concerns about the Westboro Baptist Church showing up. I ended up going to, I want to say, four different trials, over several days.
Going down to the court every day and sitting in the room and there's her murderers—or going up to the second floor for the trial and sharing an elevator with one of her murderers. Going into that room and looking at the forensic photos, at the length of rope that she was tied in, and spending time with her family. It was extremely, extremely emotionally taxing. I actually did step away for about five years, give or take, after the trial concluded, just to try to recenter, because it was so intense and so painful.
Can you conceptualize for me the ways in which life has changed for trans people in the U.S. since 1999?
It's changed a lot—some ways for the better, some ways worse. In the ‘90s, we started to find places where we could meet and be together, and we started to grow community, and that eventually spilled out into a greater visibility outside of our community. That's good.
Through that visibility, we've gained acceptance, we've gained understanding, we've gained rights. There's a lot of things that, back before much of that had happened, would be at best pipe dreams, the notion of Danica Roem being an elected official and a reelected official, seeing other trans people who are holding office today, seeing trans people on our television screens, in Pose or in Sense8, are things that we didn't even fathom could be possible—and here we are. That's incredible.
At the same time, our visibility has made us an incredibly large target. The right wing and others have been able to use us as the other, the danger, the threat. The whole notion that we're going to overtake sports or threaten people in restrooms or any of this becomes a really incredibly powerful boogeyman.
“The more that people see who we are, what we are, the more they talk with us, the more they experience our existence.”
Both the great things and the bad things that have happened have been [because] of visibility. Once again, the cure for all of that ends up also being visibility. You know, the more that people see who we are, what we are, the more they talk with us, the more they experience our existence. The harder it becomes to say, well, there's this scary thing out there that people should be afraid of. And when your scary thing is named Bob or it's named Juliet, it becomes so much harder to tear that down.
The violence directed at the community is so often racialized—not only in this country, but in the global south as well, particularly Brazil. How can white people and cis allies help stop the epidemic of violence?
Yeah, that's a big, big thing because you cannot look at transgender murders and not look at issues of race. Our trans murders are almost entirely black trans murders. They're almost entirely black trans women. You can't look away from that fact. It's my opinion that you have to create a coalition there, and people who want to help have got to also address race, sexism, sex worker rights. There's so many other parts of the whole that need to be a part of the discussion.
So if we get a little philosophical here, what would you want the trans people who are going to their first TDOR this year to take away from it?
I would want them to look at everyone else in that room and the community who is coming together to honor the people that they've lost. This is a community that will do that. That will show up for you, that will be there for you, even in the most tragic of times. A lot of us who are trans don't often have the ability to have people when we're going through our earliest times in transition, to have friends and family and people that are there to hold your hand when you're crying, when you're hurt. So that's what I would want them to take away from that, is that we do have this community. We do have people that are there for you.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Originally Appeared on Vogue