Brynn Tannehill speaks about some of the roots of anti-transgender violence, and steps we can take to end it.
The following is a transcript of my keynote address at Transgender Day of Remembrance Louisville.
Before I talk about building a movement that is more inclusive of transgender people and our issues, including violence against us, I’d like to talk about what led us to this moment in time and space, here, tonight.
This is a Transgender Day of Remembrance observance, and the names of those who have been lost this year will be read. We need to do more than just that tonight, though. We owe it to the dead, and to the living — the living who fight on against indifference, cruelty, hatred and dehumanization of trans people.
We need to talk about why our people are dying and what needs to be done. When we say “never again” and “not one more,” we are all doing something about it. This is not just a call to action for trans people; I am speaking to everyone who calls themselves a trans ally and every person who is friends with, family of or loves a trans person.
Being transgender isn’t what is killing us.
It is the culture we live in.
It is a culture that teaches people that we aren’t real men or women, one that reduces us to jokes intended to inspire visceral reactions of disgust. It is a culture that teaches people that such portrayals are not just acceptable but entirely justified.
It is embedded in our culture that we have no value and our deeply rooted self-hatreds are well earned.
How can others value us, how can we value our own lives, when we are constantly bombarded with messages that we have less than zero worth as people because we are transgender?
How can others love us, how can we love ourselves enough to live, when our society tells us that nothing in creation could love a transgender person?
We are told repeatedly that, at best, our bodies are the subject of prurient interest, from the tawdry Maury Povich to the respectable Katie Couric. At worst, our bodies are objects worthy of only disgust and revulsion.
When we fail to accede to demands that we make our bodies public knowledge, we are told that the violence against us that follows is justified.
We are called liars and deceivers for failing to announce our transgender status to the world. We are then beaten and murdered when we give the information demanded of us.
Violence against the transgender community touches us all.
In the late fall of 2001, I got back from my second deployment with the Navy. The post-deployment period gave me a lot more free time. As always, this gave my dysphoria a chance to manifest itself again. I didn’t know what to do; it was more overpowering than ever before.
I found out the leader of a local transgender support group in Jacksonville was a retired Navy lieutenant commander. She had also been a Naval officer and had fast-tracked her transition soon after retiring. She was also a very out and prominent local activist.
Her name was Terrianne Summers.
I emailed Terianne quite a bit and spoke with her several times on the phone. She was soft-spoken, kind and passionate and had a wry sense of humor. We decided that we would meet sometime around the holidays, when both of us had a little time off. I was terrified, but she was my only lifeline to figuring out why I felt the way I did.
The meeting never happened, though.
On Dec. 12, 2001, Terrianne Summers was found shot to death in her driveway. Whoever did it ignored the purse she had left in her car, along with the keys in the ignition and the car itself. She had been shot in the back of the head at point-blank range.
She was killed just 22 days after she participated in the Transgender Day of Remembrance in Jacksonville.
The police blamed it on a robbery, even though nothing was taken. No persons of interest were named, no arrests ever made. It was obvious to everyone besides the police, though, that this wasn’t some random murder or botched mugging.
It was a premeditated execution.
Afterwards, my spouse begged me never to come out, because she saw it as a death sentence.
So I didn’t — or at least not for another 11 years, as a result.
In Scotland a transgender man has been convicted of rape and placed on the sex-offender list for not disclosing to his girlfriend that he was transgender before engaging in consensual sexual activity.
I have seen it expressed that any transgender person who does not tell their partner that they are living in a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth is guilty of rape, and that violence against the transgender person is merely an act of justifiable self-defense. This “transgender panic” defense has regularly been used to defend perpetrators of anti-trans violence in court.
When the man 18-year-old Angie Zapata was seeing found out she was transgender by forcibly groping her, he bludgeoned her to death with a fire extinguisher. A commenter on a story about the case summed up how anti-transgender violence is accepted when he wrote, “This [transgender] brought this on himself….”
For whatever reason, this expectation seems to only apply to transgender people.
Is it acceptable to beat your girlfriend when you find out she’s a quarter Jewish? Are men required to tell if they’re circumcised? Is it self-defense if you murder your boyfriend because you found out he’s not a gold-star gay like you? How about throwing your girlfriend off a balcony when you find out she dated men before she came out as a lesbian?
From Gwen Araujo to Brandon Teena to Angie Zapata to Cemia Dove, our lack of ownership of our bodies has meant being forcibly stripped, groped, raped, strangled, stabbed, burned and bludgeoned. It means that so-called “transgender panic” defenses live on in court — and sometimes even win.
After Brandon McInerney shot a gender-nonconforming student named Larry Kingtwice in the back of the head in the middle of a crowded classroom, the jury deadlocked on the case. Some jurors even sympathized with the murderer, saying, “[Brandon] was just solving a problem.”
Being transgender is seen as so vile that our partners, parents and children often reject us. We learn that love isn’t unconditional, that in fact we cannot be loved by the people who mean the most to us. We are sent the message over and over again that no one could love us as romantic partners, that life holds only a promise of loneliness and abandonment and that we deserve solitude for refusing to remain in the closet.
This extends even to the supposedly unconditional love of God. The dominant message from Christianity towards transgender people is “return to living in your birth gender or burn in hell.” We are not welcome.
God only loves us so far as we comply with not being transgender.
We are told our core identities are a delusion that needs fixing. The ignorant believe we should be put in camps or thrown in mental hospitals. Pockets of supposed professionals push their unsupported theories that gender identity doesn’t exist, that all transgender individuals are either self-hating homosexuals or heterosexuals with a fetish.
Either way, we are told our identities are wrong, and that in being wrong we are worthy only of pity, disgust and violence.
Our culture perpetuates the narrative that when we are mistreated, bullied, fired, denied housing or refused service, it is exactly what “those people” deserve.
In a post-Lawrence v. Texas America, where lesbians and gays have had the right to be with whom they love for over a decade, transgender people are on the verge of losing the right to use the bathroom without presenting a birth certificate.
We are told that we are rapists and violators of women and children.
We are told the only difference between a transgender person and a convicted pedophile is the conviction.
We are ordered to accept the fact that other people’s irrational fears supersede our actual need for physical safety, because we are too alien and loathsome to ever hope for empathy.
When we do try to set boundaries, the reaction is swift. We are told that jokes that involve ridiculing “men in dresses” and the use of the word “tranny” are all in good fun, that we should expect the kind of language we endure, that people have a right to know about our bodies, and to stop being so sensitive.
When we try to preserve ourselves from actual physical harm, we go to prison likeCece McDonald. When we die at the hands of our attackers, they try to mitigate the crime with the worthlessness of all transgender people.
All the while, most of the LGBT people murdered in hate crimes are transgender women, and most of those are people of color.
In the face of such unremitting and remorseless treatment by society, it is no wonder so many of our lives are marked by despair. We dream of simply being loved by anyone, even if it is only in the internal security of believing a higher power does so. Yet even that simple hope is often asking too much.
In response, we do not dry up, fester, sag, crust over or explode.
We implode, crushed by the omnipresent violence that is why we are here tonight.
Yet somehow we resist the narrative that our lives lose all value the instant we come out. We fight to show the world that there is a person worth loving beneath the label. We endeavor against all odds to just be loved for who we are.
Being loved requires friends, partners and family to embrace a belief that runs against our cultural dogma, to speak up and act despite the stigma of being seen with “those people” and embrace a marginalized people who are not their own.
This is why loving a transgender person is a truly revolutionary act.
When we are loved, the beauty of who we are shines through, like it did for Gizzy Fowler.
Gizzy was a loving and optimistic woman. Her mother was a constant source of support, inspiration, resilience and love for her.
She also looked to God for strength, and while she didn’t attend church regularly, when she did, it gave her renewed energy and love for the world.
Gizzy always loved posing for pictures, looking glamorous and showing that million-watt smile to all her friends. She loved being with her sisters in the community and had an infectious energy about her.
And as she found herself, as she became herself, she was all the more radiant.
She worked hard and was dedicated to her job at Chipotle, where she was going through training to become a manager. After work, though, she would get changed and be able to fully be herself. It made her so happy. She glowed.
We don’t know the exact circumstances of her death, but it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that whoever dumped her body in a driveway of an abandoned house was nothing but malicious and cruel and did it as an act of hate.
One newspaper hypothesized that she was killed as a result of drug-related violence.
I don’t believe this for a second, and especially not after Gizzy died exactly the same way Terrianne did.
Even worse were the reports that it was somehow her “fault” that she was targeted for being transgender.
No one wanted to call this a hate crime, but a young transgender woman who only just came out, and did so in a city where another transgender woman of color was also recently killed….
If the media wants to fabricate a story blaming the victim, sadly, many will believe it.
We see this far too often. Time and time again we are told that we are worthy of whatever punishment the world dishes out, just for the crime of being transgender and daring to exist.
Tragically, being beautiful, authentic and loved by those closest isn’t enough to stop the violence. We may be more visible than ever with figures representing us in the media like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox. We have emerging positive media portrayals like Orange Is the New Black and Transparent.
But this isn’t enough — not nearly enough.
There is a need for a day of remembrance every year despite these gains because cultural presence does not equal cultural power.
And this is also why our allies are the key to reducing the appalling violence and self-harm pandemic in the transgender community. Only 9 percent of Americans know someone who is transgender.
The beginning of cultural power comes from individual presence. When we live authentically, when we heed Harvey Milk’s call to “come out, come out wherever you are,” we bring up that 9-percent figure.
But the starting point for establishing that respect is being visible. But then come the endless “Trans 101” conversations that leave us feeling like lab rats or sideshow attractions.
Unfortunately, we exist in a culture that demonizes transgender people to the point where many of us often feel safer just staying invisible. This situation leaves our community disinclined to talk about our experiences.
But for us to be visible and real, we still have to tell our stories. Jennifer Boylan has observed that “people can’t hate you when they know your story,” and there’s a grain of truth to it. We have to tell our stories to be known.
When others inquire about our experiences as transgender people, they often feel like they are stepping into a mine field:
What words should I use? What questions are off limits? What in the past is OK to ask about?
So they pull back and don’t engage, and as a result, they walk away hanging on to whatever preconceived notions they had before.
Frequently, though, telling our stories just plain hurts. It exposes us to ridicule and gawking and risks opening old wounds. However, the thing that is killing us, sometimes literally, is the lack of exposure and education on transgender issues among our would-be allies.
As a result of all of this, we are left with our own “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Don’t ask us and we won’t be offended.
Don’t tell them and we won’t feel hurt.
Don’t ask and don’t tell and nothing changes for the better.
It is that 9 percent, though, who carry the greatest burden for standing up for the transgender community. We cannot do this alone. We are too few, too impoverished, held in far too much contempt, to effectively protest the indignities heaped upon us.
People can’t maintain a positive sense of self when there is literally nothing in their day-to-day life that they can touch, see, hear or feel that affirms their identity.
For a transgender kid in Nowhere, U.S.A., who is being treated like an abomination every day by virtually everyone, it does them next to zero good hearing that someone they will never meet who lives in a place they have never been “supports” them, in a nonspecific “I’ve-never-met-you-and-never-will-but-I-value-people-like-you” sort of way.
Support and love need to be tangible to resist tangible hate.
It is up to you, those who have had the courage to see past labels with one transgender person, to speak up against the dehumanization of the rest of us. Whether against depictions in media or in personal conversations, it is up to you to challenge narratives that demean the worth of transgender people.
It is up to you to find the daily courage to take on these conversations.
The only way we can someday look back at days of remembrance like these as things of the past and wonder at how far we have come is if we change our culture from one that sees transgender people as less than others to one where transgender lives matter.
In Gizzy’s last Facebook post she wrote, “If you want to keep me, you gotta love me harder.”
If you want to keep us here with you, we have to be loved harder.
And that starts with the revolutionaries.
It starts with you.
Follow Brynn Tannehill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BrynnTannehill
Photo: Karin Dalziel/Flickr
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