Ain’t A Damn Thing Changed: TDoR Still Fails Trans Women of Color

Content warning: Discussion of suicide and ostracism of trans women, significant fatphobic hatespew is involved on the part of Andrea James. Proceed with appropriate caution if this might cause you pain.

It’s with a heavy heart that once again I address all of you before yet another Transgender Day of Remembrance that still  fails trans women of color, fails trans victims of suicide, and directly refuses to count trans people killed by police and in custody. TDoR remains a day dedicated to dividing our community, an already divided and fractious community, rather than bringing us together. Yes, this is directly related to the insular and panicked community we have, but it’s also connected to the problem behind TDoR itself: its “ownership” by Gwen Smith, whose refusal to discuss race on the official TDoR site along with her somewhat narrow choices as to what deaths do and don’t matter, strangles the opportunity for TDoR to do better.  It’s time for trans women of color to boycott TDoR, because it’s a minstrel show.

I’ve talked about Gwen Smith’s mismanagement of TDoR (and claim of “ownership”) before and on my old blog I tried to strike a more conciliatory tone, but nothing has changed since 2012 when that entry was published. Other people smarter than I have talked about it, too, and they echo almost identical concerns. Unfortunately, because Ms. Smith has positioned herself as beyond dialogue, it’s impossible to talk about why choosing not to discuss race on the ‘official” TDoR site that local TDoR events use leads to individual events that don’t talk about race….and what does it say about us that reading a list of dead that are mostly dead trans women of color is an ‘event’?  It’s impossible to discuss that deaths of trans people (again disproportionately trans people of color) at the hands of police or in a correctional system that tortures trans people (especially trans women) need to be counted as part of any memory of our dead who were murdered, but Ms. Smith doesn’t count those deaths, nor discuss that criticism when it’s made.

Or perhaps only “important” trans people are able to make any criticism. After all, the ‘trans community’ is devoted to remaining as Whites Only as humanly possible and often slagging off the struggle of some trans people as acceptable losses, which says a lot about community priorities. I think that in this world of manufactured scarcity in the ‘trans community’ that what actually ends up happening is the belief that only certain voices are valid and this creates a situation where trans women target each other trying to be “important”. If you’ve seen Andrea James’ consistent harassment of Parker Molloy, harassment based on things like body size, no shock given what a raging fatphobe Ms. James has shown herself to be, you’ve got a fine example of someone engaging in just this kind of bullying in reply to Parker’s criticism. Now, I’ve argued with Parker, I don’t cosign everything she’s done, and we don’t see eye to eye on everything, but I value her voice and disagree with Andrea James’ apparent desire to silence her.  Ms. James is acting in a manner that implies that there is no space for dissenting voices that don’t toe her HBSer line as public figures, and her harassment about shallow things like Ms. Molloy’s weight and appearance really shows exactly what Ms. James’ priorities are.

So what the hell does this have to do with Ms. Smith deciding she’s above criticism? Well, we have a narrow, strangled community because of how closed it is to people who are something besides “just trans.” If you’re disabled, you’re unwelcome. If you’re a person of color, you’re unwelcome. I call this the “Ingersoll Effect”, named for the hateful nest of vipers which is the point of entry into “trans community” here in Seattle and whose support group is pretty much openly and proudly abusive to almost everyone. It keeps the people who are “known enough” to have a place at the table very abled, very white, and very closed. As I have for the past two years, I emailed the people in charge of the TDoR in Seattle, the ones who claim not to have organizing meetings that people have bloody mentioned going to, and once again this year got silence, most likely because of the ‘who the fuck are you’ effect that is furthered by actions like Gwen Smith believing she’s above discussion with the hoi polloi. Now, to be abundantly clear hereI don’t want to be important, nor am I asking to be…I just want to participate. I want my being disabled to not mark me as lesser, I want the fact that I’m not white and that my body cant meet Caucasian-Western-Northern cishet beauty expectations to not be seen as a mortal sin by trans community. The fact remains that our community remains homogenous and closed because of people like Ms. Smith and Ms. James and tinpot tyrants who decide who is and isn’t “good enough” in community spaces around the country, and there’s an unfortunate cost to community being closed to newcomers: being shut out of spaces is killing us.

(As a personal aside, it’s come pretty close to killing me. One of my attempts came about as a result of a particularly savage mocking at the hands of an Ingersoll facilitator, who called me “it” and spent five minutes informing me in front of the group what a horrible, ugly person I was…just because I went there to ask for a list of safe doctors to see for a trans woman, information I was informed I had to go to Ingersoll meetings to obtain. I didn’t get that information. The scathing, venomous rejection from the community that’s allegedly yours is the most painful and hateful rejection that there is, and the fact that Ingersoll keeps talking about inclusion but never actually bothers to change is a very sad statement on how much we’re willing to accept savage, cruel treatment of our own kinfolk.)

It’s killing us by a lack of access to medical care, a lack of access to community resources, and oh yes, it’s killing us because we kill ourselves. Trans suicide, unlike the other deaths reported and unreported by TDoR, is still structural violence, and unlike this other structural violence, it hits all sorts of trans people, from white CAFAB nonbinaries on down to trans women of color. There’s no good suicide statistics, but I certainly hear plenty about suicides of trans women as more numerous than suicides of trans men, but it keeps happening across the board. The primary reason is a transphobic/transmisogynist world, but “Men’s Rights” types and their kin radical fauxminists are especially willing to harass trans women, and the specific harassment of trans women from within by HBSers and their New Separatist ilk reinforce this toxicity and make trans women who don’t fit a narrow “acceptable” narrative, body type, and economic status rampantly unwelcome. Just like transphobic violence affects all trans people but disproportionately affects disabled trans women and trans women of color, our suicides are aided and abetted by both outside factors that hate women of color, like the aforementioned MRAs and radfauxs, as well as our own ‘trans community’ rejecting us in life and crying over us in death.  The very suicides that Ms. Smith refuses to count follow the same pattern as the homicides Ms. Smith counts…as well as the ones she doesn’t count. The message is very clear: that we’re disposable, that we’re acceptable losses.

TDoR generally sees trans women of color as acceptable losses as a central part of the minstrel show that it is. You can’t have a list of dead trans people without it mostly being dead trans women of color with a significant scattering of disabled trans women, too. This common thread between trans suicide and homicides of trans people is no accident, because the violence of rejection may not be the same force of violence that comes from a killer’s blade, but it’s violence nevertheless, and that violence drives some people to suicide. That violence, unlike the violence of a killer, is tolerated and even encouraged in our community. From Ryan Blackhawke’s since-deleted libelous comments complaining about last year’s version of this article to Andrea James’ harassment to the exclusionary nature of the only spaces trans women have (spaces like Ingersoll) comes this violence, and it needs to stop.

TDoR is still broken and still fails trans women of color. Gwen Smith still keeps the list manicured and controlled for whatever political purpose she’s aiming for, refusing to discuss race on the official site of TDoR itself, a day Ms. Smith continues to claim to “own”, and she hasn’t shown any willingness to change the reprehensible fact that deaths in custody don’t count when trans women are frequently targets of police harassment which disproportionately affects trans women of color, which leads to the logical conclusion that we’re more likely to be victims of police and governmental violence. She hasn’t expanded discussion of race, encouraged local TDoR ‘events’ to discuss race, or done much besides leave a snippy comment that I didn’t approve last year linking to one tweet about it. One tweet, brothers, sisters, and non-gendered brethren.  Ms. Smith still isn’t counting suicides, or talking about what leads to trans suicides, probably because that would require looking within to the white ‘trans community’ power structure that enables her community’s exclusion as being just as complicit in these suicides as family rejection, medical access issues, employment difficulties, and toxic MRA/radfaux harassment.

It’s time for trans women of color to boycott TDoR and I implore trans people of color to boycott in sympathy and because you’re being ignored by Ms. Smith et al until your deaths are politically useful also. Enough is enough, and we need to be welcome in life in the ‘trans community’ 365 days a year, not just in death. If you’re white, I say go, and make an unholy stink about race if it isn’t discussed, but if you want to boycott too, just make sure the local organizers know why. If race is discussed, and they’re doing a good job (I hear the TDoR down in Tacoma has done well on this, for example), let it be known, because that’s good. But let Gwen Smith know, too, because her refusal to discuss all of these things taints TDoR. It’s time for Ms. Smith to be thanked for her past service, and pass the torch along to the trans women of color whose deaths she’s used for political gain for years. It’s time for ‘trans community’ to include us, not just use us for a once-a-year Dead Trans Women of Color minstrel show.

See, you can’t have a minstrel show without a cast, and we ain’t gonna dance for you anymore, Ms. Smith.

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TDoR For, By, and About Trans Women Of Color Now

Like many, if not most, trans women of color, I have a lot of serious anger about the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR). It’s flawed not just in concept, “owned” by a white trans woman who shuns even the most polite constructive criticism or to discuss race on the official TDoR site, but also in execution, where the names of a group that is almost all trans women of color are used almost as objects in many venues throughout the Global West where TDoR events are held.

It’s been mentioned over and over that TDoR is broken, exploitative, problematic, or whatever word you want to use. I’m really not planning on rehashing this, because it’s all been said before. Similarly, I think we’re all on the same page by now that any organized group of trans women controlled by HBSers or New Trans Separatists is going to essay to exclude trans women of color or include us solely on a token basis where our behavior will be so micromanaged you’ll wish for that pointy-haired gentleman from Dilbert. It is neither new nor groundbreaking criticism to point out that trans women of color’s deaths are tabulated but the community shuts us out at every turn to preserve its white suburban concept of “safety.”

But that’s all talking about what’s wrong, and that’s all known. We need to talk as a community about that has to change. The solution is not  bringing in a token trans woman of color at TDoR, bringing in gospel singers (they seriously did this in 2011) to bring some “color” in, or putting your event on social networking to tell people to be there in the audience. The solution is not to have a white person talk about race for 30 seconds as part of the proceedings, and it’s definitely not to have a goddamn dance party afterwards.  So I hope you’ll forgive me for using 2Pac to make a point here, but “It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes. (…) let’s change the way we live and let’s change the way we treat each other. You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do what we gotta do, to survive.”

I don’t think the “trans community” is magically going to change overnight to include trans women of color. I have been through having that hope dashed over and over again, and like a lot of other trans women of color, I feel very much alone and disconnected from any “trans community” and thus am a little unhappy with it.. But part of the way the community can change to become more inclusive is to at least consider that TDoR is a seriously alienating day for trans people of color, especially trans women of color. The format is always the same: names of trans women of color are read out, usually by white folks, and then white people talk about how oppressed trans people are. It’s kind of like in a sci-fi show when the protagonist lands in Bizarro World and everything is vaguely familiar but completely different…you know, when the cars look the same as they do on Earth, but every part has a different name.

So here’s what I, Martin Luther nailing my grievances to the Internet-style, have to say:

It’s time for white trans people to stand aside from all positions of leadership of local TDoR events.

I’m not saying don’t be involved, but it’s time to stop claiming a right to run things, to organize events (thank you very much to the local TDoR in Seattle for once again this year ignoring emails from me asking how to get involved, btw), or to have any place that isn’t at the direction of a trans person of color. It needs to be organized by and for trans people of color, with a focus on trans women of color.

It’s time for Gwen Smith to stand aside from “owning” TDoR.

Yes, Gwen Smith claims ownership rights to TDoR. TDoR shouldn’t be owned by anyone, and she must certainly be recognized for past service as the founder.  But when one person “owns” something, there is an ability to steer what the message is, like that race isn’t mentioned on the TDoR site, which is then used as an excuse for local TDoR events to ignore race. I don’t think Ms. Smith is a bad person, but it strangles TDoR for one person to “own” it. It’s also deeply improper for a white woman who can’t seem to let race into the official discussion to “own” an official site that’s full of names of dead trans women of color…this disconnect has everything to do with why it’s time for a change. Ms. Smith, you’ve had your chance to reform TDoR, and you haven’t taken it. You’ve been aware of criticism for years, and you haven’t made any changes. It’s time to let trans women of color lead, and for this day to have no owner at all.

It’s time to turn over leadership and management of official TDoR matters to trans women of color.

This would be a huge part of making TDoR TWoC-driven rather than TWoC-exploiting. TDoR should be run and led by a coalition of trans people of color that is predominantly trans women of color…say, 85%? The goal should be inclusiveness and providing a consistent focus on discussing, examining, and preventing violence against trans people, and to foster real solutions, not theory-laden twaddle. TDoR has to see trans women of color as valuable as living people first and foremost, not just once we’re dead when we’re available to pad various bullshit statistics about the life expectancy of a “trans person” or the likelihood we’ll be killed. We’re more than just numbers, we need to be central to the discussion when we’re alive. It’s time to let those of us who are trans women of color lead.

It’s time to listen to trans women of color…(I can wish for every day, but) at least one day a year.

The dead are us. They’re trans women of color trying to live their damn lives. They’re killed by partners, by clients, by random encounters on the street. I mean, seriously, the silence of white trans people when Islan Nettles was beaten to death walking down the damn street, and even worse the attempts at victim-blaming, were truly horrific…including some invective hurdled about how walking around in the hood comes with such risks. There is such a severe disconnect that part of what would help is that if white trans people in general listened to us this one day a year it could be a catalyst, or so I try to believe. Our realities include much more than how we’re seen in the TDoR list-of-names format: dead people. We are so much more than that, and our realities might be uncomfortable to the “trans community” or maybe, just maybe, the “trans community” will see us as something more than just a list of names of dead people and a bunch of inconvenient bodies and realities to dismiss in life.

Reforming TDoR is a huge part of beginning to include trans women of color as part of the trans community. It’s all about addressing the violence against us as trans women of color. And, well, it’s part of healing, a matter on which I must defer once again to the  Prophet Pac: “It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other.”  Let’s get started.