Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Day of Remembrance 2007

(speech given at the Day of Remembrance vigil at AIDS Project Worcester )

Welcome. I feel honored to be here with you observing the Trans Day of Remembrance. We’ve come together tonight to mourn the trans folk who have been murdered this year because they were trans. We’re also here to affirm our strength and resilience as individual trans people and as a community. I want to talk to you about both of those purposes – the mourning, and especially the affirmation.

I've been doing stuff like this for a lot of years now, and I have to say that the part where I’m supposed to talk about myself is the hardest part in some ways. I get to feeling like a bear in a zoo. Like, ooh, look a real live trans person! Any of you had experiences like that?

But actually, I’m glad that I get a chance to tell you a little bit about me. Because even though we’re here to honor our dead, this day can’t just be about dead people. We need to make space for hope, as well as mourning. In the collage over there, and later when we read the list of names, we bear witness to the life stories of a whole bunch of dead trans people. That’s really heavy stuff. I’m glad that the organizers of this event had the foresight to realize that we might all feel a little bit better if we could also spend time with the story of at least one trans person who’s still kickin.

This is probably obvious, but I have to start out with a disclaimer. I am not here to speak for all trans people. I can only speak for myself. Trans people, like all people, are diverse. My experience should not stand in for some imaginary “average trans experience,” or anything like that. My story is my story; my ideas are my ideas. Some trans people might disagree with some of what I’ll say tonight, and that’s okay. I’m speaking as an individual, not as a representative of trans people in general or of any particular trans community. I’m just gonna be who I am, and I hope you enjoy what I have to say.

So here’s one slice of my story:

I am transgender & genderqueer. I started “coming out” as trans and genderqueer about 8 years ago, when I was in college. And as I’m sure some of you have experienced, I found that in every space I was in, I ended up having to teach people about trans issues. I didn’t set out to be a teacher, but it seemed like everywhere I went, someone would say something stupid, and I’d have to school them about it, just so I could be comfortable in the space and continue to work with them. I got so much practice, and I guess I was pretty good at it, that soon, groups I was not part of were asking me to come teach them about trans issues. And so I started giving talks and facilitating workshops - around town, in other schools, sometimes in human service agencies.

Nobody ever offered to pay me for these workshops, and I didn’t think to ask. I had a few trans friends who were in similar situations, and we all just assumed that it was our responsibility as trans people to teach everyone else about trans issues. We called it “trans jury duty,” or sometimes “rent-a-tranny,” although “rent” would imply that we were getting paid, which we usually weren’t. Now, I recognize that situation as an oppressive dynamic, kind of like when the one Person of Color in an organization is put in a position of having to educate all their white coworkers about racism. But at the time I didn’t see any better options.

When I finished college, with a BA from a prestigious school, I thought I would just graduate, get an entry-level job in my field, which was child psychology, and I’d live happily ever after. It makes me laugh now, because that’s so far removed from what actually happened. But that was the myth I’d been handed as a working class kid going to a fancy school: That education was my ticket “out,” and that if you just get good grades and get a degree from this college, you can do anything.

What actually happened is that I started looking for a job, and discovered that I was pretty much unemployable.

To give just one example, I applied for several jobs doing counseling and grassroots education at various rape crisis centers. At one of these interviews, someone asked me, “How will it be for you as a trans person to work in a women’s center, since you don’t want to be a woman?”

There’s a lot wrong with that question, and I’m not going to totally pick it apart right now. What especially bugged me about it was that this particular center is not a “women’s” center per se. Rather, it’s supposed to provide services for anyone who has been affected by sexual assault or domestic violence, including men, and certainly including trans people. But this interviewer made it clear that she considered my gender identity a liability for working there. Similar things happened in a lot of my job interviews. So I was barred from some jobs in more or less explicit ways, because I was trans.

I did get one job that was sort of related to my studies. I supervised an after-school program for elementary school students. Snack time, homework time, play time … a pretty straight-forward job, I thought. What could go wrong?

On my first day at work, a 5-year-old said to me, “Teacher, are you a boy or a girl?” I knew this would come up, but I didn’t anticipate it coming up on my first day. I decided to treat it as a teachable moment. I said, “What do you think?” And then the kids had a little debate about it, right in front of me. “Well, I think he’s a boy, cuz he has short hair,” “Well I think she’s a girl, cuz she wears earrings,” and so on. And I discussed it with them: “Do all boys have short hair? Matt has long hair and he’s a boy, right? And Tracy has short hair and she’s a girl, right?” and we had a nice little conversation about gender.

The best part was when one kid said “Well I think he’s a boy cuz look at his shirt.” It was autumn and I was wearing a plaid flannel shirt. Another kid piped up and said, “Nah, my moms wear shirts like that all the time.” Later on I met the kids moms, and they do wear plaid flannel shirts all the time.

After that first day I thought, well thank goodness we got that over with. From now on it’ll be a nice easy job. But five year olds are persistent. The next day, they asked me again. They asked every day that week. And after that first week, they asked at least once a week for the next four months.

I don’t mean to make it sound like I was beaten up by a crew of five-year-olds. Actually I think it’s a reasonable question for a kid that young. They weren’t trying to be mean, they just wanted to know. I had coworkers too, who were my age, but they were even more clueless about gender than the 5-year-olds were. They didn’t back me up in the gender conversations; in fact, they mostly made it worse And so when school finally let out for winter break, I thought, this job’s not worth $8.50 an hour, and I quit.

So that’s how it went. Instead of getting a job in my field and living happily ever after or whatever I thought was supposed to happen, I pieced together two or three part-time jobs, none of them ever paying more than that after-school gig. Some of the jobs lasted a few months, some of them were just odd jobs under the counter. I was living very much from pay check to pay check, something I’m sure a lot of you can relate to.

At the same time, I was continuing to do these gigs where I’d facilitate workshops about trans issues for groups that felt they needed to be more educated. And I was still doing it for free. I ran a peer education program at a queer youth center – also mostly for free. I designed and facilitated workshops about youth empowerment, and presented them to adults who worked with youth – for free. What was I thinking? I was just doing what I was good at, and what I loved doing. I didn’t stop to think, “You know, maybe my labor is actually worth something.”

After about a year and a half, I decided to go back to school. There were two main reasons for my decision. The first was that I needed health insurance. I was having pretty major health problems, and I knew I couldn’t afford health insurance by babysitting, or painting, or working part-time retail jobs. The easiest way I could figure out to get health insurance was to go to grad school and take out student loans again.

The other reason was that I noticed that some of the adults I worked with, who were doing educational workshops similar to what I was doing, were actually getting paid to do that, and that many of them had gotten their training in a graduate program at UMass called Social Justice Education.

The focus of the SJE program is how to teach about systems of oppression like racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on, in ways that point toward liberation. So that’s what I do, now. I finished grad school about a year ago. I’m self-employed, and what I do is I go around facilitating workshops and dialogues about social justice issues. Only I usually don’t do it for free anymore.

I especially work on trans and gender issues, classism and cross-class communication, and of course to do those well I also have to look at the intersections of those issues with racism, sexism, ablism, antisemitism, anti-Moslem and anti-Arab oppression, oppression of immigrants, oppression of young people, and so on.

So that’s one little slice of “my story.” What I’ve told really only scratches the surface of my experiences as a trans person, and I know that each of you here has a story that’s as complex. So I thank you for doing me the honor of listening to mine.

The other thing I’ve been asked to speak about today is what the Day of Remembrance means to me. The Day of Remembrance means that I put aside a day every year to mourn people who were like me in a particular way, and who were murdered for being that way. (Actually for me it means I put aside another day, because I’m Jewish, and as Jews we already have a day like that. It’s called Yom HaShoah, and it is the official day of mourning for Jews who have been murdered because they were Jewish, especially but not only during the Holocaust.) So now two days a year are set aside for me, to mourn people who were murdered because of something they and I have in common.

It means, therefore, that I have to confront my own mortality. I have to recognize that next year, it could be me. I could be raped and murdered on the way home from the laundrymat, and because I’m trans, police might not even investigate. I could be fired from a job I need, or denied housing, or refused necessary medical care because I’m trans, and it wouldn’t even be illegal in most of MA. The Day of Remembrance is a day we set aside to remind ourselves, as if we needed reminding, that we are ‘at risk’.

It is also a day when we pay special attention to the ways in which the strength and creativity of our community is being sapped by deliberate violence.

And we can’t forget this part - the violence is deliberate. We’re not talking about people who were killed accidentally or randomly. These weren’t muggings gone wrong. The people who killed the folks on that list, killed them because they were trans, and because this society teaches us that trans people are worthless. Their killers could reasonably assume they would get away with it, and many of them did.

Violence against trans people is not random. It is part of a system of oppression. That system does not only operate through violence, but in many other ways as well. Eleven people this year are on the official list of names, but those are not the only trans people who have died this year because of oppression. We are not dying once a month, we are dying daily. We are dying not only of anti-trans violence. We are dying of poverty. We are dying of drug addiction. We are dying of depression and mental illness. And we are dying with AIDS. And just like the violence is not accidental or random, these other deaths are not random, either.

But here I am still talking about dead people. For me, the Day of Remembrance can and should be more than that. Mother Jones, a famous union organizer, said, “Mourn for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” It is so beautiful how we turn out at these Day of Remembrance events to support each other in our mourning. And one thing I want to make sure we take home from this Day of Remembrance is that our support for each other as a community is not only needed when we mourn for the dead. We also need to get together to fight for the living. And we need to do it not just one day a year. We need to do it every day.

Today we’re here to say, it’s not okay that trans people get murdered. We need to also be saying, every day, it’s not okay that trans people can’t get jobs. It’s not okay that trans people can’t get healthcare. It’s not okay that trans kids aren’t safe in their schools. It’s not okay that trans people are going to prison, because of their addictions, or because the only work they can find is sex work. It’s not okay that trans people who want medical transition have to jump through hoops, like trying to prove to a social worker that we’re crazy enough to qualify for a diagnosis of gender identity disorder, and also not so crazy that we can’t make our own medical decisions. And it’s not okay that some trans people lose the support of their families and their faith communities because of transphobia.

And while we’re at it, we can build a much stronger movement by saying, we’re not only concerned about trans people. It’s not okay that anyone gets murdered, or can’t get jobs or healthcare, or goes to prison. It’s not okay that any group gets left out and put down in our society. The solidarity we have here today can fuel a movement for trans people’s lives, and it can also fuel a movement for social justice for all people.

We are at risk. But we are not helpless. We can do things to make life better for us, for other trans people, and for everyone. When we leave here today, I don’t want any of us to go home thinking, “Okay, that was nice. I did my trans community thing for the year. Now I don’t have to think about it again til next November.” I don’t think any of you are getting ready to do that, but, you know, we all need reminders sometimes. Instead I want us to go home and think, what am I going to do to work for justice? What do I need to learn, or what do I have to teach, or who would I like to work with, to make the world a better place? We can do that.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Meanwhile, we are here to mourn. I get excited about activism, but of course it is also necessary that we pause from time to time to recognize our losses. Before we go on to reading the list of names, I have just one more very important thing to say.

I’ve been at a few Day of Remembrance events over the years. At almost every one, I’ve heard a story that goes something like this: “This person who was killed last year did not deserve to get killed. She was a really beautiful woman. She always passed everywhere she went. She knew she was trans since she was a little kid. She just wanted to be a normal girl and not bother anybody. And she got killed anyway. It’s not fair.”

Of course it’s not fair that anybody get killed. But personally, I don’t need to hear any stories like that this year. I don’t need to hear any stories that imply that a trans person is worth something, is worth mourning, as long as they are passing and acting normal. I want us to make sure we are honoring all trans people and all people whose gender does not conform to society’s expectations for them. For example, why don’t I ever hear a story that goes like this:

“That girl, she was the least convincing woman I ever laid eyes on. Big-boned, barrel-chested hog of a woman. Girl had more hair on her back than my great uncle Albert, and she sang bass in the church choir. And she still didn’t deserve to get beat up.”

Or how about this one: “Boy did not even try. He had a knack for making straight people nervous, and he loved it. Pissed ‘em off on purpose. Boy had tits the size of basketballs, and he would still lean over a counter and show cleavage to get a free drink, even after his voice started changing. And he still deserved safety and respect and love.”

We are a bunch of damn fine people. Instead of us saying we deserve to live un-harassed because we’re just like ‘normal,’ non-trans people … Let’s say we deserve to live un-harassed because we do, because we’re human. And let’s therefore ally ourselves with anyone who is fighting for the rights of any oppressed group. Let’s be part of a broad social movement for the human rights, dignity and self-determination of all people everywhere.

And then we will be even stronger than the amazing strength that’s here in this room right now. And then someday, no one will be ‘at risk’ anymore. And then someday, soon, and in our lifetimes, we will not need to set aside days for mourning. Kein y’hi ratzon – may it be so.

Thank you.