The Private Face of the Day of Remembrance

by Richard Juang

Around November 19th and 20th, communities around the nation held Transgender Day of Remembrance gatherings. On that day, transgender people and our partners, friends, and families grieved for those of us who have been the victims of transphobic violence. The public face of the Day of Remembrance is an important educational tool. If you attended one, you very likely heard that, in the US, one or more transgender individuals a month are murdered. You also learned that nearly all transgender people have experienced bullying, harassment, assault, or sexual violence at some point in our lives.

It is a time when many of us recommit to activist goals beyond anti-violence: some of us will continue to work for non-discrimination legislation, some for transgender access to health care, others for safe-school policies. At the Day of Remembrance, you might have learned that transphobic violence is one part of a larger pattern of social and legal discrimination faced by transgender people.

Alongside this harsh statistical and sociological reality, there is also a private face to the Day of Remembrance. And although it takes a little longer to see this face, it is one worth knowing. The prevalence of violence against transgender people means that ours is a community in which there are no degrees of separation from the specter of violence.

Consider what this means. We are a community in which each one of us has had a friend, family member, or lover who has been a target of violence. We are a community of people aware that someone close to us will, in the future, be in fear for their lives, be hurt, possibly even murdered.

And if you get to know this private face, you will understand why the transgender movement is growing so quickly: we are fighting for the lives of people we love.

Sometimes when people learn the hard statistical reality of anti-transgender violence, they are amazed that newspapers are not filled with stories about ongoing investigations, arrests, and prosecutions. Sometimes they wonder why they haven’t heard much about law enforcement officials denouncing such crimes and offering large rewards for information leading to arrests and convictions.

Not everyone is surprised, of course, at the lack of public action against hate violence, of course. Many quickly realized that transgender people are reluctant to report crimes because of the fear of being mistreated and mocked by the police, of being outed by the media, and of retribution by the original perpetrators. Many people understand, pretty fast, that the police often don’t take transgender people seriously and blame us for “bringing it on ourselves.”

Others also move to another level of understanding: the police and newspapers are often indifferent to violence against transgender people because of a set of related, erroneous beliefs: that transgender people are sexual deviants and pariahs, that no one really cares about transgender people, and that to care for a transgender person is a perversion.

This set of beliefs have, as one of their most vicious consequences, the use of the “trans panic defense”. This is a defense strategy where perpetrators of violence claim that they were so upset and disgusted when they discovered that someone was transgender that they, naturally, had no choice but to assault the person. Those who use the trans panic defense claim that, because disgust toward transgender people is a natural and universal feeling, it must be considered a mitigating, even exonerating, factor in their crime.

On the Day of Remembrance, the transgender community and its many friends and allies expose those beliefs as a set of lies. We make visible the moral vision of a world in which no one is marginalized or terrorized because of their gender identity and gender expression. We make visible the many lines of compassion, commitment, and respect that join us together. We expose anti-transgender violence as a form of irrational, unnatural, and unjustifiable bigotry.

As part of the Day of Remembrance’s public face, you might have heard about a recent legislative advance: the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act. Passed into law in California in September, the Act prohibits the use of the trans panic defense in court, and prohibits the use of social bias as a defense strategy, more generally. It is an act that says, in essence, a person cannot make personal bigotry into public policy.

Maybe, in the back of your mind, you might wonder, especially if it’s the first time you’ve thought about transgender issues, don’t many people really have bad reactions to trans people? You might think, if only for a moment, that in The Crying Game, when the main character realized that, when undressed, slender, exotic Dil was “really a man,” didn’t it make sense to everyone that his reaction would be to vomit and hit her? How many comedies have we seen where “freaking out” was the expected reaction to discovering that “a woman was really a man” or that “a man was really a woman”?

If that thought crossed your mind, think about the private face of the Day of Remembrance. In that private face, you will see that “trans panic” is neither natural nor universal. The trans panic defense says that someone who was well loved– as a classmate, a friend, a brother, a sister, a mother, a father, a daughter, a son, partner, a wife, or a husband– was so inherently disgusting that he or she had to be beaten or killed. The private face of the Day of Remembrance reveals the absurdity of that message. The Day of Remembrance shows that transgender communities are composed not of “freaks” or “sexual deviants,” but of people who love and are loved and who have come together to confront a common enemy of violence and discrimination. Transgender communities, it turns out, have come together for the most natural of reasons: compassion.

And if you keep in mind this private face of the Day of Remembrance, you may realize that it not transgender people, but anti-transgender violence that is the unnatural perversion of our common humanity.

Richard M. Juang
November 30, 2006
Cambridge, MA