My own private vigil for Transgender Day of Remembrance this year was laden with profound pain and sorrow. Numerous beautiful souls, each with such untold potential ahead of them, had their lives cruelly ended by bitter hatred. This sadness quickly gives way to vitriolic anger. There is a seeming futility to commemorating TDOR—because each year, we learn that this year was the deadliest on record for trans people. It is an anger directed at the systemic violence we still experience simply for choosing to exist.
Transgender Day of Remembrance is an annual observance on Nov. 20 that honors the memory of the transgender people whose lives were taken in acts of anti-transgender violence. The day is preceded by Transgender Awareness Week, which is aimed at bringing attention to the transgender community through the sharing of our stories and experiences, through educating the public about transgender people, and through advocacy around issues of prejudice, discrimination, and violence that affect the transgender community.
This all sounds good on paper. But does it do anything? I don’t know.
It is hard to feel hopeful about the future when 2021 was, in fact, the deadliest year on record for transgender people. Transrespect versus Transphobia, a research project run by Transgender Europe, reported that at least 375 transgender people have been murdered this year—a 7% increase over its 2020 report. Most of this data was collected from countries with an established network of trans and LGBTQIA+ organizations that conduct monitoring.
But these numbers are a small glimpse into the reality of transphobic violence. Many hate crimes and murders go unreported, meaning the actual number of trans people killed each year is almost undoubtedly higher than what is recognized every November. Crucially, the U.S. media frequently misgenders and deadnames transgender murder victims, despite the growing volume of media guides and best practices that offer reporters tools for accurate reporting on trans and nonbinary people. Even after death, transgender people are still stigmatized, with their murders being trivialized.
Transgender people still experience disproportionate amounts of violence.
Transrespect’s report indicates that one in four trans people killed this year was killed in their own home. Furthermore, 96% of those killed globally were trans women or transfeminine people. Most victims were Black, and many were migrants or sex workers. This illuminates the intersections of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and classism that often contribute to instances of transphobic violence.
This data simply proves what trans people like me already know all too well: Transgender people still experience disproportionate amounts of violence. In my social circle, I have yet to find a transgender person who has not experienced some form of violence this year. Personally, I have experienced my fair share—with the majority taking the form of death threats and the threat of sexual assault.
The horrific thing is that this physical violence is only one facet of our lived experience. We must deal with discrimination and transphobia daily. In the United States, 2021 saw a record number of anti-trans bills introduced in state legislatures. Texas, in particular, sought to control transgender people at every possible level of society. The debate over allowing trans youth to play sports attracted so much media attention that it nearly overshadowed the more insidious attempts at outright denying transgender people (including minors) access to health care.
Transgender people are faced with numerous obstacles when trying to access gender-affirming health care, thanks to a cis-normative regulatory environment that attempts to arbitrate gender identity by confining trans and nonbinary people within a fixed binary structure. In the U.S., and where I live in South Africa—not to mention numerous other nations—adults are often required to “prove” that we are transgender before gaining access to lifesaving care, such as hormone replacement therapy. Medical professionals often require us to undergo psychiatric counseling before we can gain access to HRT. This widespread practice runs counter to international best practices established by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, stating that self-identification is sufficient for starting HRT or other aspects of a clinical transition.
The question is: What do we do about it?
Both the violence we face and the institutional discrimination we encounter are tied to—and create a feedback loop with—the anti-trans moral panic that has overtaken the media. In the U.K., liberal media companies, like the BBC, offer an uncritical platform to gender-critical feminists, colloquially known as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” or TERFs, to peddle anti-trans rhetoric that inaccurately casts trans women as sexual predators. TERFs argue that trans women are men pretending to be women to gain access to women-only spaces in order to assault them, despite overwhelming evidence that shows trans people are more likely to be the victims of sexual assault than they are the perpetrators. This particular form of cognitive dissonance also ignores the fact that many modern feminist movements support the inclusion of trans women.
It’s hard to peer into all this and not feel hopeless. The question is: What do we do about it? What do we do after corporations post “Black trans lives matter” on Twitter, then do nothing to create trans-inclusive workspaces? What do we do after a major media organization posts an article casting trans women as sexual predators? Or, better yet, what do we do when we read about the local trans man crowdfunding for top surgery, or the trans woman who is about to be homeless because she lost another job?
The answer is mutual aid and trans solidarity. Neoliberal spaces are often eager to describe trans solidarity as placing pressure on legislators to create bills that entrench trans rights. However well-intentioned, this is not a reliable solution, as these bills are often drafted with little input from transgender people, and the introduction of such bills can spark a backlash that can manifest as harassment or even increased violence.
The strength and tenacity of transgender people does need to be celebrated.
Instead of relying on support from exclusionary institutions, grassroots mutual aid and trans solidarity groups can be far more effective. Historically, these groups, like BreakOUT! in New Orleans or Trans Women of Color Solidarity Network in Seattle, have been better able to assess the needs of their local transgender communities, with input from those communities, and then utilize local resources to meet those needs. This ensures that transgender people have a support network within their communities, helping to counter the social and economic ostracization that further marginalizes trans people, especially trans women of color. Imagine the power these trans solidarity groups could have if they had the resources to unite and mobilize for trans liberation across the country—and the globe.
Half the battle for trans liberation is changing the cultural landscape. Most people in the U.S. support (at least some) trans rights, yet transgender people remain excluded in society—from laws to housing to employment to health care. Anti-trans groups—which likely represent only a small segment of any population—are able to dominate the conversation when the rest of society remains silent and complacent. A chorus of affirming voices—led by and following the leadership of transgender people—can drown out that misinformation. But until those voices ring out loud and clear, we will continue to see headlines like “This Year Is the Deadliest Year for Transgender People” and “New Anti-Trans Bill Passed.”
If we can win the culture war, the war in the courtrooms and the legislative halls will be easy. Because the strength and tenacity of transgender people does need to be celebrated. Real solidarity and mutual aid do this by centering the needs of transgender people. Justice will continue to elude us until all transgender people can live our lives safely and to our fullest.
Cassandra Roxburgh is a journalist covering LGBTQ issues and climate rights. She left academia after completing her masters thesis on corporate human rights diligence to pursue a career as a freelance writer. She can often be found yelling enthusiastically about her favorite punk band or the latest speculative fiction novel to capture her attention. She is based in Cape Town, South Africa, and speaks English and Afrikaans. She can be reached via Twitter or LinkedIn.