Students enact die-in for Transgender Day of Remembrance

Nov. 24, 2015, 5:15 a.m.
TARA BALAKRISHNAN/The Stanford daily
(TARA BALAKRISHNAN/The Stanford Daily)

Approximately 100 students, staff and other members of the Stanford community gathered in White Plaza on Friday, Nov. 20 to commemorate the International Transgender Day of Remembrance. The event, organized by Stanford Students for Queer Liberation (SSQL), memorialized transgender people who have been murdered or who have committed suicide since Nov. 20, 2014, and was one of over 140 such gatherings nationwide.

The Transgender Day of Remembrance was established by Gwendolyn Ann Smith in November 1999, in response to the murder of transgender woman Rita Hester. Each year on Nov. 20, the Day of Remembrance serves as an occasion to recognize the individuals lost to anti-transgender violence in the previous year.

Stanford has played host to such events before, but this year’s gathering differed markedly from the somber, candlelit vigils of past years. Lily Zheng ’17, one of the event’s co-organizers and a columnist for The Daily, characterized this year’s event as a call to action.

“[Transgender Day of Remembrance] is not a funeral — it’s a rising,” Zheng said.

As black-clad attendees arrived at the event, SSQL members provided them with printed statements of solidarity: “I will educate myself and challenge complacency to end violence against trans people.” Organizers also distributed handmade cardboard signs, bearing messages such as “Trans Power,” “Black Trans Lives Matter” and “Cis Complacency = Consent.”

Co-hosts and organizers Zheng and Alex Rezai ’18, both of whom identify as transgender women of color, then asked cisgender (non-transgender) attendees to “die in.” Participants laid down in White Plaza, forming a visual representation of transgender loss of life, as Zheng and Rezai recited the names of trans people killed in 2015. Cisgender attendees who were unable to participate in the die-in held signs in the audience, and transgender attendees joined the hosts on stage.

Zheng and Rezai began their reading with the names of transgender people killed worldwide — a list that reached nearly 300 in number. According to Zheng, low reporting rates for anti-transgender hate crimes meant that the list was by no means comprehensive.

“I would hesitate to say that we even got to half of them,” she said.

The listing of the names, many of which belonged to murdered transgender women in Brazil, displayed the lack of information available about worldwide anti-transgender violence. Many of the deceased were referred to only by first names or titles — “Miss Garcia” or “Paloma.”

As Zheng and Rezai moved on to the names of transgender victims of suicide and those of transgender people killed in the United States, the accounts grew more comprehensive. “Papi Edwards, 20. Black. Louisville, Kentucky.”  

Unprecedented levels of reported anti-transgender violence in 2015 have played out against a backdrop of an increased transgender presence in the media and pop culture. Zheng cited former Olympic athlete Caitlyn Jenner, who announced her transition earlier this year, and transgender actress Laverne Cox of “Orange is the New Black” as examples of trans visibility. But both hosts emphasized the insufficiency of transgender celebrities in fighting transphobia.

“The recent surge of visibility has not changed the state of emergency for trans communities,” Rezai said.

Celebrities like Jenner, she explained, are poor representatives of the marginalized transgender people hit hardest by transphobic violence. That 18 of the 25 transgender people reported murdered in the United States in 2015 were black trans women and feminine people, Rezai said, is “not just a tragedy, [but] a symptom of violent and oppressive systems.”

Zheng noted that none of the event’s organizers were black trans feminine people, calling on the audience to “acknowledge the lack of blackness on this stage” by “indict[ing] the systems” that promote violence against black transgender people. She dedicated part of her speech to recounting the narratives of successful black transgender femmes (the population hit hardest by anti-transgender violence in the United States), including activist Miss Major and model Isis King.

Zheng and Rezai presented the audience with two demands: first, a commitment from cisgender people to do their part in ending violence against transgender people; second, a commitment from Stanford University to create a safer world for transgender people.

On campus, Zheng stated, this means taking steps such as ending the creation of binary-gendered bathrooms, creating gender-inclusive housing and including trans identities in academic curricula. But Stanford’s responsibility, she said, extends beyond campus.

“It is not enough for Stanford to be the eye in a global storm,” she said.

“[Stanford] needs to do something bigger and better, to ensure that this idea of ending anti-trans violence, keeping trans students safe, is not a promise that ends when students set foot off campus,” Zheng added in an interview with The Daily. “Safety looks like creating structures outside of campus. It looks like divesting from private prisons; it looks like investment in communities of color and low-income communities. Stanford graduates populate every niche of society, and so it is also their responsibility and our responsibility to use that power in ways that are positive.”

Zheng and Rezai urged the event’s attendees to act on their pledges to support and protect transgender people from violence and prejudice. They closed the event with a call-and-response statement: “I believe that we will win!”

After the event concluded, the hosts welcomed attendees to an informal discussion at El Centro Chicano y Latino. The space was decorated with art and poetry from transgender artists, much of which was created for the Transgender Day of Resilience (an art and activism campaign implemented for this year’s Day of Remembrance).

A focus on resilience and action has characterized many recent Transgender Day of Remembrance events and was a key point of focus for Zheng, Rezai and other organizers as they planned Friday’s gathering. To Zheng, last year’s candlelight vigil felt “voyeuristic,” and placed too much emphasis on pain, sadness and helplessness to effect any meaningful change.

“We wanted to move away from this narrative of always grieving and kind of take power back,” Zheng said. “And so this event was our attempt at still memorializing the dead but leaving on a note of struggle, of fight, of ‘We can do something.’”

To Zheng and Rezai, that action looks like cisgender people educating themselves about transgender identity, valuing the voices and labor of transgender people and reaching out to communities inaccessible to trans people. It also means talking to other cisgender people about the actions that they can take to help transgender people — and listening to trans voices when they ask for help.

After the discussion at El Centro, organizers asked cisgender participants to leave in order to allow trans students to debrief, reflect and converse in a transgender-only space. In a statement that echoed the shift toward resurgence Transgender Day of Remembrance has taken in recent years, Rezai emphasized the importance of creating a space “for trans people to come together and laugh.”

“I hope that in the future, there’s more celebration of trans folks, both on campus and off, “ she said.

For now, though, Rezai is cautiously optimistic about the event’s outcome.

“I was very pleasantly surprised, and it made me feel at least like a good amount of people care, and with this amount of people, something can happen,” Rezai said. “Something better happen.”


Contact Francesca Lupia at flupia ‘at’

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