Elegy for the Ones Who Never Got to Be: Trans Day of Remembrance 2022

Delivered as a speech for Canadian Heritage on 16 November 2022.

We usually hold these events for ourselves. Trans Day of Remembrance is a somber occasion we mark with candlelight, elegies, and promises to the future. Every year, hundreds of us breathe our last in Brazil and Turkey and the United States and, yes, here in Canada, and every year those of us who feel safe all being in one place at a known time gather and make our sad pledge: remember the dead and fight like hell for the living. They died unloved and endure one more cruel indignity by way of obituaries and funeral services that don’t acknowledge who they really were, and we place one wholly inadequate bandage on that wound by insisting: they never saw your light, but we did. And we will not forget.

It is a strange thing to be here, presenting any of this for a group that, in all likelihood, does not contain very many attendees of the annual Trans Day of Remembrance vigil at the Canadian Tribute to Human Rights. The grief of the marginalized is, too often, entertainment for the rest, and when I accepted this role it was with stern knowledge that I would not permit my presence before you all to be so. Instead, I am here to tell you all: what exactly are we remembering?

(Video as presented to the Department of Canadian Heritage.)

Trans Day of Remembrance was born in 1999. Transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith held a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, brutally killed the previous year in the US state of Massachusetts. She had lived a happy, if challenging life, largely accepted by her family and beloved of the community, cis and trans alike, that she had built around herself. Her death was a mere two months after the far more publicized death of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man beaten to death elsewhere in the United States whose murder eventually led to some of that country’s most important anti-hate-crime legislation. Where Shepard’s death got all the breathless coverage it rightly earned, Hester’s passing was marked with silence, or worse, with retrospectives that used her former name and gender, including from the family members who had “accepted” her. That is the fate that awaits far too many of us: the nullity of unmarked graves, discarded names briefly resurrected to insult our memory, attackers facing no consequence for their evil deeds or even celebrated. And in the endless communion between the LGBTQ+ communities of our country and theirs, we, too, commemorate the 20th of November.

Image of Rita Hester, an African-American woman with long braided locks and a dense pearl necklace.
Rita Hester, 1963 – 1998

Every November, we remember the unmarked, unloved, and unknown. We say their names because, too often, their families and newspapers and legal documents will not. In life, we were the place of safety in which they could let their walls down and be their fullest selves, just as they granted us that same grace, and in death, we make sure at least one remembrance knows them as they knew themselves. If the ordinary funeral service is, far too often, a performance for bigots, we provide one for the truth of who they really were, that they may pass into oblivion known for something other than what they worked so hard to leave behind.

It is also a warning. Every name we recite at a Trans Day of Remembrance vigil is someone whose name was not on last year’s list. Every one of us lives until we don’t. The dangers that face us all might discriminate by home country and occupation and dozens of other ways that sociologists can catalog and we can embody—there are so many names from Brazil—but they nevertheless wait for us all. The list is a call to action: fix this broken world or we, too, might be next.

I remember 11 June 2016. A monster whose name I cast into the oblivion he had in mind for us brought a semiautomatic rifle to the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on a night when trans women were performing and opened fire. Some of the 50 people he killed were on the next Trans Day of Remembrance list. For most of us here, it was another tragedy in the endless series of tragedies that the misbegotten country to our south vents into our news cycles like so much toxic air. But for me, it was a whole new breed of terror.

The city where that shooter’s disgust with LGBTQ+ people took form? Miami, where my parents live, where I lived for eleven years, whose accent overwrote a little of the accent I had before arriving there. The city where his rampage unfolded? Orlando, where my family vacationed. The people whose crimes against his vision of sinless behavior he decided had to be paid in blood? They looked like me. They had last names like mine and favorite foods like mine and difficult relationships with their families like mine. The part that was not like mine was their fortunes. Mine took me out of that overrated, violent country and into this one. Theirs took some of them into the Trans Day of Remembrance list.

On Trans Day of Remembrance, we who are fortunate remember those of us whose dice were not so kind and declare our dreams of a world in which the consequences of a bad roll are not so hideous.

The interesting thing about the Trans Day of Remembrance list is that it is never complete. Many of us are erased so thoroughly that our deaths register to neither statisticians nor distant compatriots. Some of us arrive on the list unnamed, described but not identified. Many of us are recorded in distant presses and hidden by language barriers. Which kinds of death grant a person a line on this list is often contentious. Even with these absences, time and breath are not infinite. The list must often be abridged.

And there are whole categories who are often set aside, that I think deserve comparable billing. The people I most want to remember today are not the ones taken before their time by actively murderous bigots. It’s the ones that passively murderous bigots work tirelessly to make sure never find ourselves.

Most trans people have one fondest fantasy: that we could have found our truth sooner. Every year earlier that the realization comes is one year less of living a tragic and discontented lie. The younger we find ourselves, the earlier we can correct our hormones and the more anatomical changes we can outright prevent. Some of us even know what lies ahead before we experience puberty and can benefit from the modern top of the clinical line, which prevents the wrong puberty from taking hold at all and spares us physiological ravages that are expensive or impossible to undo in adulthood. To have been spared the widening of my upper torso, the deepening of my voice, the thickening of my androgenic hair…these are beautiful thoughts, too pure for the sullied world we all have the misfortune to inhabit.

Some people in this country want very much for this world to stay sullied. We see it in their outrage that any media depicts gender variance, acknowledges unusual pronouns, or recognizes that romantic relationships don’t have to involve one cis man and one cis woman. We see it in their outrage about “gender ideology” and their favorite turn of phrase, “shoved down our throats.” We see it in their repeated efforts to pretend that “desistance therapy” and “conversion therapy” are anything other than child abuse in medical guise. We see it in their invention out of whole cloth the idea of “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” as some kind of social contagion rather than what it really is: children hiding their truth from unsupportive parents until it can no longer be hidden. We see it in the sadly necessary reality of any teacherly inquiry into a child’s preferred pronouns requiring a separate checkbox for whether that child’s parents should be allowed to find out.

If my parents were more attuned to the Anglophone internet, they would have been all over the idea of rapid-onset gender dysphoria. I look back on my tragic imagined boyhood and see sign after sign after sign of the woman I would become. Hindsight makes it all so obvious, but in situ, denial was so much louder. I took decades to recognize the course that became inevitable the moment I saw it before me, and I hid my reality from my parents a while longer. When I told them, they did not reassure me that I still had their love. They did not celebrate the milestone of self-recognition that this required. They did not acknowledge that disclosure of gender variance is an act of profound trust. They did not cheer the arrival of their new eldest daughter. They shouted, they wept for the son they never had, they accused me of driving my ailing grandfather to heartbroken death, they threatened to withhold my final tuition payment and derail my doctoral studies, they refused to use my name or pronouns for multiple years, and they tried to conceal my grandfather’s death from me so that my presence would not “disrupt” the funeral. And, they accused me of being my now-ex’s plaything, put up to all of this by her devious machinations. They could not imagine that I was learning a precious thing about myself that had always been true, and whose denial had caused me nothing but misery for more than twenty years. They treated the moment of my self-actualization as a crime for which I was both victim and murderer, and they sought to both punish and forget. If they had their way, there would be no remembrance.

There are people in Canada who dream of that being the inescapable fate of every trans person.

They fight against modernizing the sexual education curriculum because, among other updates, modern ones acknowledge that trans people exist and that the students receiving this education might be among us. They fight against depiction of trans people in media because those depictions help free us from the image of trans women as tragic sex workers who exclusively service men and who are doomed to violent ends. They fight against the possibility of puberty suppression for trans youth, despite this being a longstanding clinical practice far more often used to treat precocious puberty in cis youth, because this practice is only useful when it arrives before puberty. They concoct new talking points about “giving parents a say” because they know they can leverage this to prevent anything remotely progressive from ever happening in schools, lest bigoted parents not get “their say.” Their goal is, in no uncertain terms, to replace every incipient trans boy and girl and non-binary child with a miserable, confused, misunderstood youth who cannot ever be allowed to know how much better things could be. To those bigots, this is victory. Better a miserable pretend man than a happy trans woman. Better a sad pretend woman than a contented trans man. Better dead than trans.

They don’t want us finding ourselves. They don’t want us being able to act on that knowledge if we find it anyway. They don’t want our legal identities to reflect our realities. At every step, they want us disappeared through the cracks of ignorance, denial, and depression. They want the very possibility of someone like me, who found herself as an adult and who built a life that child her could never imagine yet would immediately recognize, to be too lofty a dream for today’s trans youth. They want the lives some of my friends’ children are living now, with puberty blockers sparing them the ravages of unwanted body changes and leaving them open to far brighter futures, to not only be impossible, but criminal.

When I imagine my friends’ children’s lives in those supportive homes, I weep. I weep because of how beautiful it is that today’s lucky eleven-year-old trans girl gets to go to her high-school prom in a dress. She gets to be seen as who she is in those precocious years in between when dating starts and everything is awkward and fumbling and nervous. She gets to explore girlhood with her peers at the same time that they are, in all its messy splendor. She gets to watch her body take its womanly shape in the same general part of her life that all her peers do. She gets to experience the warmth of friendship with other girls, the joyful intimacy of it, when it can become a formative memory. She gets to be a girl the whole time.

I weep because today’s lucky eleven-year-old trans boy doesn’t have to dread prom photos in the dress his transfeminine counterpart is eager to wear. He doesn’t have to worry about distinctive scars on his chest to remove features he never wanted. He gets to share the milestones of facial hair and voice deepening that his peers are living through. He gets to live the kind of life I can barely articulate because I was never a boy, not in the way he is, and I was a girl in all the ways he isn’t.

And today’s lucky non-binary people? They get to explore their possibilities on a scale that was scarcely imagined when I was small.

I weep for all the tears their parents aren’t shedding.

I don’t get to look at my prom photos or my university graduation photos or my old yearbooks the way they do. I was not allowed to see myself until long after it was too late to get an outcome like theirs. Possibilities were barred from me by a bigoted cultural milieu, by conservative parents, by documentaries that made trans people the objects of such sensation that their humanity never showed, and by the simple lie that being a trans woman required that I be attracted to men. I will carry to my grave the scars, literal and figurative, of that lost time. I will bury so many photos at the bottoms of file cabinets instead of hanging them proudly. I look at today’s lucky trans children and I feel hope that our future can be so, so much brighter, and a stab of sadness at the childhood I was forced to misspend, and confused wonder at the very idea that a relationship with one’s parents could be so honest and kind. I envy them.

In much of the world, even the developed world, a harrowing number of us never get to find ourselves. We slide into statistics about teenage depression, we self-medicate to oblivion with illicit substances, and we appear in the obituary pages before anyone could see our true light, even ourselves. Thanks to adults who have conservative morality where their recognition of their child’s best interests should be, untold multitudes of girls and boys and non-binary people never find out what they are and live with the preternatural sense of wrongness that comes with that denial, until they don’t. And if anti-trans ideologues have their way, every happy trans eleven-year-old looking forward to prom photos that reflect their true self will be replaced with one of these. Better dead, they say, than trans.

I expect few here truly understand how painful that experience is. To be trans and not know it yet is to feel everything through layers of fog. We recognize the wrongness of every sensation, every emotion, every movement of a body whose shape is mismatched and it bellows its unending chorus into our minds, “wrong, wrong, WRONG, everything is WRONG,” and feeling anything becomes less and less possible. The mind shields itself against the sheer visceral body horror that the endocrine system is unleashing with its unwanted puberty, and having a body at all becomes something to resent. The whole personality gets reshaped around not being seen, because the punishments for transgressing the boundaries of this unwanted gender are swift and often violent. Community with the people who are truly like us, who match our inner shape, is fleeting, hesitant, and difficult, when the outside refuses to comply. I spent years, literal years, barely able to recognize my own reflection because it felt like looking at a stranger. My body was a prison I carried with me and I had no hope of ever feeling different. Were I less driven by routine and ambition I would have been like so many others: taking drugs in a futile attempt to silence that mental chorus of “wrong, wrong, everything is WRONG,” watching the rest of my life barely hold together, until the last, most final silence started to sound better and better.

And if I had, I would never have made it to the Trans Day of Remembrance list.

That is the cruelty that anti-trans ideologues crave for us: to bury us so thoroughly in denial and self-loathing that we never find ourselves or each other. They want the very idea of people like us to be so utterly expunged from our collective sense of possibility that the next girl who could grow up to be me, the next boy avoiding chest scars via puberty blockers, and the next non-binary child who finds a name for what they are and smiles at the recognition that they aren’t broken, is instead another case of “untreatable” teenage depression and another line on the obituary pages. They want us to die unseen, unknown, unloved, and unwanted.

They kill us because they find us both titillating and shameful. They kill us because they hate what we represent. They kill us because we show them that this world is so much less fixed and unchanging than they wish it was. They kill us because our existence upends the tidy order of their universe. They kill us because their reputation will abide them being murderers more than it will abide them letting us live. Every one of those is a horrific crime we have no choice but to remember. Their brutality reminds us that acceptance is fragile, life is fleeting, and progress remains to be made. And the crime atop all those crimes is that they don’t just want to kill people, but possibilities. The ones who died their tragic deaths after finding themselves, choosing their new names, and living a life that crossed the edge of safety one time too many are only the opening salvo of their firing squad. To do justice to this day, we must remember more than the ones who died visible enough to arrive on our sad, sad list. And today, I make special emphasis for the ones we never got to meet because this world, and the same people killing us directly, took them from us before they could even know themselves.

I want to remember those people because, more than the anti-trans violence that finds too many of us every year, it is this fate that our haters want to impose.

We have all seen the famous photo of a Nazi book-burning. The heap of books, the flames, the crowd tossing more onto the pyre, it is etched into our memories through every history book. Far less commonly known is where those texts came from. The place that the fascists looted that day was Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, or Institute for Sexual Studies, and the documents on that pyre included pioneering research on transgender people. As early as the 1920s, Hirschfeld and his colleagues had data on the power of hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgery. The loss of Hirschfeld’s archive set the science about us back decades. Like all right-wing monsters, the Nazis saw these archives as a threat. They wanted us, not just us the people but us the idea, us the possibility, expunged. It was the worst kind of funeral.

A Nazi official tossing books and documents onto a raging fire while others stand nearby.
The worst kind of funeral.

I want us all to remember that underneath the bootheel of every conservative demanding that gender-affirming content be removed from school curricula or put up to bigoted parents’ “personal choice” are untold multitudes of gender-variant children who will, with that loss, never learn the facts about themselves that will enable them to see life as worth living. I want us all to remember that the price of denying puberty blockers to trans youth is measured not in dollars saved but in newspaper snippets full of the phrase “taken far too soon.”

I want us all to remember that part of the reason conservatives get to pretend that being trans is some newfangled cultural contagion is that their ideological compatriots destroyed so much knowledge about us that we are only now ascending past what was on the pyre in that book-burning photo.

And I want us all to remember, not just the ones who met violent ends in the past 365 days, but the ones we never got to meet because an anti-trans world succeeded at hiding them not just from us, but from themselves.

Trans Day of Remembrance is a funeral for the unloved subaltern of this world, and some of them died so unloved that they themselves did not know the community who could have held them close.

It is also a call to action, a demand bellowed into a thankless sky: no more. No more deaths, and no more denial. Not one more child struggling to express that she’s a daughter, not a son, lacking even the language to articulate why this is her last day. Not one more child told that, thanks to the results of some election, that the puberty he thought he could keep from twisting his body beyond recognition is now inevitable. Not one more that we never get to meet because the last trace of them on this earth is an obituary under a name that isn’t theirs.

That is what this day is. This day is our annual reckoning with those we have lost, those we never knew, and those we demand have the chance to know us someday.

We will remember, and we will be remembered.

They burned Magnus’s archive. They’re still fighting the new sex-ed curriculum. They’re still killing us in the streets and in our bedrooms.

But ideas are tenacious things.

Trans Day of Remembrance is something we usually hold for ourselves. But this time, you’re here to remember with us. I hope you remember for eons to come. I hope you never forget.

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Elegy for the Ones Who Never Got to Be: Trans Day of Remembrance 2022
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