My TDOR speech tonight in Ithaca
Hey all! Long time, no see. It seemed to get a really good response, so I’m posting this here until I can maybe submit it somewhere better? Hope you enjoy!
Hello, everyone, and thank you so much for coming to this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony.
I would like to talk to you all about Dora Özer. Perhaps one of you will have the opportunity to speak her name aloud later this evening. Her name, if called, will be just one of many we will hear this evening. We will all pause. Some of us will cry. Few of us will ever know anything more about her than those very specific reasons that anyone comes to our attention this evening — she was transgender, her life was violently taken away from her this year, and, what’s more, people heard about it. In the midst of the deafening uproar that had only just begun sweeping through Turkey, protesetors rallied around Dora’s memory, which grew into a wave of solidarity demonstrations across the world in July, which is how her story fully came to my attention. As a Turkish trans woman, the unchecked violence Dora and her sisters have faced and continue to face everyday resonates particularly strongly for me.
But I’m not them; none of us are. I have many transgender friends across the country who face so many hardships in their lives — including rampant harassment, discrimination, and the everpresent specter of suicide — but I can very thankfully say that I do not live with a daily expectation that a dear friend or comrade I care about has been beaten or killed. Being transgender alone does not mark one as a target for these most malicious of abuses. Those of us who live here in Ithaca, and especially those of us associated with Cornell, cannot do these people justice by thinking that because we are members of a broader queer and trans community that we share equally in the burdens of our kind. We make appeals to statistics that make us feel our lives are constantly at risk when, in fact, we have incredible privileges that in many ways shelter us from the worst excesses of others.
Coming out as trans is something that will almost assuredly have its attending troubles and dangers for anyone, even if for many of us in certain parts of the world there has never been a better time to be transgender. How are we to make sense of this contradiction, that so much violence can fall on the heels of acceptance? The transgender activist and writer Julia Serano described trans women as “whipping girls” of our society — a group of people who occupy those particular margins where the corrosive byproducts of our collective mythmaking around gender and normality are dumped such that the vast majority can safely ignore them while enjoying the rewards of stability. This concept of being a “whipping girl” or “whipping boy” is just as relevant regarding our other shared social myths, such as around race or economic inequality. And once we recognize this, it is an obvious enough truth, then, that the more of these social dumping sites one occupies, the higher their chance of being poisoned. The people we commemorate here were not killed simply for being transgender — they were killed because they were transgender and a woman, or transgender and a racial minority, or transgender and poor, or transgender and an immigrant, or transgender and a sex worker. Dora was exposed to the danger she was and denied the means to protect herself from that danger because she was a trans woman engaged in sex work, not because she was a random trans woman walking down the street. Trans women of color in the United States, like Brandi Martell and Islan Nettles, are long denied the justice to which they are supposedly entitled not just because they are transgender, but because they are people of color in an unequivocally racist legal system.
We cannot call these women victims, They lived their lives knowing full well their destinies as objects in our collective psychodramas. The stares and snickers in the street and invisibility everywhere else. The taunts that are simply empty threats until they’re not. The vague assurances that it wasn’t the way you look that lost you that job. The man who decides to kill a trans sex worker in a fit of confused rage brought on by trying to resolve his honest desires with who knows what kind of a lifetime of social education to see her at once as a threat to vital aspects of his being and an expendable non-person. It does neither them nor us any justice to think of them only in these broad experiences. Every trans person lives like they do, with whatever obstacles that entails, because at some point it is something that could make their lives livable, something that at its best can bring heights of personal joy surpassing the potential depths of abuse.
No matter how we feel about ceremonealizing death, we have to recognize that for many transgender people and queer people more broadly, commemorating those we have lost is more often than not a luxury we cannot afford to take for granted. For every Dora Özer, there is at least one Jane Doe, someone too brutalized or too insignificant to identify. Even when we do recognize some precious person whose life was taken away, it is tragically common for ertain aspects of their lived experiences to remain as unspoken in death as they were in life. As with the death of Islan Nettles, it is often up to those who shared love and solidarity with the departed — fellow trans and queer people, fellow immigrants, fellow sex workers — to fight families or communities who, whether out of prejudice, propriety, or estrangement, refuse to acknowledge the deceased as they wanted to be acknowledged.
Commemoration is but one part of remembering, though. This is not a Trans Day of “Remembrance” when most of us can’t place any kind of a human face to the names we read. This is not a Trans Day of “Remembrance” if it gives us license to forget every other day of the year. And, hypothetically, even if we were to take our acts of remembering as seriously as we should, remembrance is not and will never be the same as justice. Dora’s death is meaningless if it prompts us to think about some homogenous set of “transgender experiences” while we remain stubbornly silent when our legal systems perpetuate and expand the backwards laws and indiscriminate police tactics that leave sex workers most at risk and most vulnerable. Islan Nettles’ death is meaningless if we focus on the senselessness of her attack — which occurred in clear sight of a police station — and fail to recognize just how normal it was. Remembering gives us a chance to acknowledge, and acknowledging gives us a chance to learn. But what we choose to learn and what we choose to do with that is entirely up to each and every one of us. Violence against trans people around the world will not be abated by any number of days of remembrance, pride marches, or characters on TV. What will make a difference for trans people is the commitment and the hard work to engage those systems that produce the “whipping girls” and “whipping boys”, even if it means chipping away at the sources of our own comforts and safety.
To all of you gathered here tonight, I will end my remarks by challenging each of you who will participate in the reading of names to take that name home with you and put it in a place you will see it repeatedly. Remember that name whenever you can. Go online and learn as much as you can about that person. Do whatever you can to turn that name into a person. Imagine that person not in death, but as a vital being in the world. To borrow from the transgender legal scholar and activist, Dean Spade, try to imagine them as they might have looked through the eyes of someone who truly loved them, who saw them as a whole person, and not as either an anonymous data point or an abstract martyr. Once you have known them and loved them and truly embraced their humanity, let them go. Meet a trans person in your community. Make a friend. Better yet, make a few. Listen to them. Because the dead need no one to fight for them, but the living will always need others to fight with them.
And finally, to those beautiful people to whom this night is dedicated, I and many others will not bid you to rest in peace. There should be no peace for anyone as long as this violence continues as it does. No, we bid you to rest in power; the power that you showed in life and the power that you give us to stop this violence wherever we might see it. Thank you.
Free CeCe McDonald, Free Chelsea Manning