Transgender Day of Remembrance: Living with the threat

A B&W poster - a single candle burns above the transgender symbol, a famous quote from Santayana is below it"Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it "
– George Santayana

International Transgender Day of Remembrance

I hate writing about the Transgender Day Of Remembrance, I really do. And yet, every year, I still feel myself compelled to write something, to bear witness to loss, to bear witness to our survival. Even though it’s remembrance of all the deaths worldwide, most writings you’ll find about TDOR online will be from the US, where the day started. But it’s important to acknowledge the specifics of exactly who it is dying, rather than universalise the violence as affecting all trans men, women, genderqueers and other non-binaries equally.

Transgender Europe has just released its list of murdered trans people over the last year. Given our extremely low population numbers, the rates are disproportionately high. The report shows murdered or killed trans people in 19 countries in the last year, with the majority from Brazil (91), Guatemala (15), Mexico (14, and the USA (14). Overwhelmingly, the dead are Latina or black, trans women or trans feminine spectrum, and killed by cis men. Many were sex workers.

But if you look at the report, you’ll note that there isn’t a murder reported in Australia over the last year, so why should Australians be commemorating this day? My answer is this: murder is only the most notable aspect of societal transphobia—and that, Australia has in spades. Violence against trans people is institutionalised, and pervasive.

As a trans woman, I have learned to live with the the threat of violence. In my first year of living out in Perth, I was assaulted, threatened with death, sexually assaulted numerous times, called various slurs by random strangers, spat on, harassed by Transperth guards, and given appallingly substandard medical care.

You learn very quickly that you are not valuable, you are despised, disposable, always in a precarious position (especially with regard to institutions). Every time you have to show your identification and it has the wrong sex, every time you have a cold and your voice has dropped to a gravelly rasp. You never really know when it might come, or how bad it might be.

A couple news stories involving trans women make this clear. In 2007, white Sydney trans woman Bridget Fell was outed by the police to her boyfriend, who then beat her so seriously she was hospitalised for several days. “Mate, you’re rooting a bloke,” they told a man known to be violent. Fell had come to the police for their help.

In 2009, Veronica Baxter, an Aboriginal trans woman, was placed in a male jail against NSW policy for handling trans inmates. Six days later, she was found dead, hanging in her single cell. Protestors have called for an inquiry, though as with so many Aboriginal deaths in custody, none has been forthcoming as far as I’m aware.

Trans women are often placed in the wrong sex prison in many states (the risks of rape and violence in that situation should be clear), with the dividing line being the ability to have accessed SRS—something that can take years to jump through the psycho-medical hoops for. But even for those lucky enough to have had that treatment, those hard-fought policies may not protect, anyway. Similarly, with homeless shelters, indeed any form of sex segregated institution or service. Trans people’s lived sexes are simply not treated as real enough to be respected, by institutions, laws, police, doctors, the media (note the uncritical reproduction of the transphobic police perspective in the Daily Telegraph coverage of Bridget Fell’s case), and on the street.

So it’s hard to know the true shape of the problem of transphobia in Australia because we so often fall through the cracks, reported wrongly as our assigned sexes, or just plain unmourned at all. Or we learn as I did, to not report, to distrust cissexual authorities who may just as easily cause you more harm as help.

And this, as much as anything, is what we should remember on Transgender Day of Remembrance. Yes, remember the dead, remember their names, their lives and their circumstances of their deaths. TDOR allows us to note the most visible and virulent forms of transphobia in this world. But we must also remember that it does not emerge in a vacuum. Transphobia lurks everywhere, unacknowledged, in public life in Australia.

Categories: gender & feminism, social justice, violence

Tags: ,

19 replies

  1. Oh, I wanted to add (cos my brain went fuzzy when I was writing) that sex worker hatred is one key factor in the TDOR list, but that domestic violence is another – not tremendously dissimilar to cis women on that score.
    There’s a definite need for trans women to be added to broader anti-DV campaigns…

  2. Actually, there have been many reports on and inquiries into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

  3. Thank you for writing an Australian blog post about Transgender Day of Remembrance even though you hate doing it.
    Your mention of homeless shelters stood out at me as I read somewhere about a trans woman who died of exposure overseas (sorry, memory is being vague) in a town where the local homeless shelter would only have let her stay with the cis men. I am inclined to ring about the shelters for their policies before donating clothes that no longer fit – though I fear a good policy may mean little in practice.

  4. @Linda Radfem
    Well yes I’m aware, but you know people keep dying. Greens MP Sylvia Hale has called for a review of imprisonment policies for several cases in NSW, including Veronica Baxter’s.
    I believe that was in Dallas in the US. But yes, pushing shelters to even contemplate the question of trans inclusion is a helpful move (though I do fear the same thing about practice, obviously).

  5. Thanks for this post, Queen Emily. Very much needed, and it highlights the dangerous aspect of Australian prejudice – it’s like Fight Club. Don’t speak of it, don’t acknowledge it. It’s not that we don’t have it, it’s that it’s institutionally hidden.
    *fist of solidarity*

  6. Thanks for the post. It’s important to remember that murder isn’t the only thing killing transpeople unnecessarily, and you highlight that beautifully.

  7. Thanks Napalmnacey, solidarity always appreciated 🙂
    Yes, Beppie, indeed. I’ve been peculiarly aware of this in the light of the recent “It Gets Better” campaign and the American statistics showing just less than 50% of trans people committing suicide (haven’t seen similar Australian studies). That constant climate of exclusion and prejudice takes its toll in other ways too, I think.

  8. Her name was Jennifer Gale. She was found lying in an outdoor walkway at the First English Lutheran Church in Central Austin, December 21st 2008. The temperature was 2 degrees at the time, with a high wind-chill factor. She died of heart failure and exposure.


  9. Queen Emily – yes I know people die in custody. I work with women who are involved with the criminal justice system and I am aware of their issues. Their issues are usually to do with their caring responsibilities, to children and other kin members within their mob or country. The criminal justice system tends to disrupt these relationships. The other issue is the high rates of sexual assault/abuse in the personal histories of female prisoners and the way this trauma is exacerbated by the NSW criminal justice system’s practice of routine strip-searching. I find it very strange that you would refer to the criminal justice system with no commentary on the way in which it impacts on women specifically. There is, after all, a hell of a lot of criminological theory available on the gendered impact of incarceration.

  10. Duly noted. I find very strange your complete lack of engagement with the substance of my post, so swings and roundabouts innit.

  11. @Linda Radfem — while the impact of the criminal justice system on women and their families is certainly an important topic for discussion, this thread is specifically about the Transgender Day of Rememberance. There are many ways in which our prison system discriminates against marginalised groups, and here and now, the marginalised group that we are discussing, honouring and remembering is transpeople. The inappropriate treatment of transpeople in our prison system does of course, intersect with a number of other issues, such as insitutionalised misogyny, and racism in the case of Veronica Baxter, but it should come as no surprise, given the topic of this post, that the most salient issues in this discussion are those that pertain to transphobia.
    This post is about honouring, remembering and respecting transpeople who have lost their lives as a result of transphobia — either directly or indirectly.

  12. Right. Transphobia intersects with misogyny, homophobia, racism, classism, ableism in its own specific ways. Funny how I thought in talking about a woman being housed in a male prison I was talking about women…

  13. Queen Emily – you totally were.

  14. @Queen Emily — I’d like to apologise for my own comment, too, as I recognise that I fell into the trap of using Linda Radfem’s framing, which creates a false opposition between trans issues and women’s issues.

  15. Thank you Queen Emily for posting on this.

  16. I will remember the violence against Bridget Fell, the deaths of Veronica Baxter and Jennifer Gale and the violence against you, Queen Emily, among the other sorrows. Thank you for posting.

  17. Zoe Brain – thank you so much for reminding me of Jennifer Gale’s name. She is who I was thinking of.

  18. What I find particularly infuriating in the Jennifer Gale case is that she died on the steps of a church.
    How could a church’s ordained and lay staff ignore her? Or do they only live by Matthew 25* when it’s convenient for them?
    *Quoted by a commentor on Zoe Brain’s post.

  19. Cara’s excellent callout for cis allies standing up for not just the rights of our trans* friends but also owning up to our own responsibilities:

    And it’s time, too, for cis people to start recognizing all of these supposedly “small” things, the jokes, the assumptions, for what they are — the roots of violence, violence themselves against people’s identities, the precursors to even more severe violence. It’s time to recognize that when you make someone’s identity a joke, you make their humanity a joke, too. And there is no way for that to not end in violence.

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