Chapel Hill: Opinion

Dolores Chandler: Honoring lost lives on Transgender Day of Remembrance

The Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is a somber day because it reminds me that I am not safe as a gender non-conforming, queer person of color. To be authentically myself is to be at risk of violence at the hands of someone who thinks a person like me should not exist.

TDOR, taking place on Thursday, Nov. 20, this year, is an annual event that began in 1999 to honor the memory of Rita Hester, an out African-American transwoman murdered in Boston. We come together as members and allies of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community at vigils nationwide to remember transgender men and women whose lives have been taken by acts of violence.

Transgender and gender non-conforming people, particularly transwomen of color, are grossly overrepresented in national hate crime statistics: 53 percent of all reported anti-LGBTQ murders in 2012 were transgender women and 73 percent were people of color. Sadly, many incidents of anti-LGBTQ violence are unreported. Few law enforcement officials accurately identify and report hate crimes because they lack adequate training. In addition, personal bias is frequently at play on the part of law enforcement. Transgender people of color and transwomen are almost three times more likely to be victims of police violence than their heterosexual counterparts.

This is a real issue in our community. The problem is largely one of silence and invisibility. Many LGBT individuals affected by violence do not report such incidents because of a fear of being outed, not being taken seriously or even blamed by responders. The issue is compounded for transgender individuals, because law enforcement, family members, or the larger community often do not respect their gender identity.

As North Carolina celebrates marriage equality, I wonder what that means for the cross-dressers and transwomen who stand on the corner in East Durham and engage in sex work, because our community has given them no other option, and what it means for people who are murdered every year because they had the audacity to challenge society's ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman.

On the eve of TDOR, I can’t help but think of the young people who are still turned out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and find no shelter. Why is there no emergency shelter for youth in Durham? Why do area homeless services feel it is out of their scope to competently address the needs of transgender men and women who are experiencing homelessness or housing instability? How can Durham be a safe place for young LGBTQ folks when there is a startling lack of culturally competent service or when racism, classism and religious intolerance alienate those who are the most marginalized from being connected to the community?

Durham has been named one of the most tolerant cities in the U.S. The Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau website claims that our community is so gay friendly, that “the LGBT community almost seems not to be present here at all.” ( Sorry, Durham, but being virtually invisible is not a point of pride when young LGBTQ folks have no homeless shelter or when they show up at a bar looking to hook up with someone for a couple of days so they don't have to go hungry or be out on the street that night. Being virtually invisible is not something to be proud of when social service providers can’t understand why it’s important to respect an individual's gender identity. I think it’s time for all of Durham to step up and address the issues that make our community unsafe for those who are most marginalized.

At Thursday’s vigil, I’ll be thinking about all of these things while remembering the transgender folks who have been murdered this year – those whose names we know and those whose names we don’t know. But right now I’m thinking about a line in an Amiri Baraka poem, Numbers, Letters: “I can’t say who I am unless you agree I’m real.”

Dolores Chandler is the program coordinator of the Pauli Murray Project, engaging a diversity of residents to lift up the vision and legacy of activist, scholar, feminist, poet, and priest Pauli Murray in order to tackle enduring inequities and injustice.