I will be giving this speech tonight (11/20/2016) at 6pm at Club Cabaret in Hickory NC for the Transgender Day of Remembrance. I hope to see you there.
When I sat down to write this speech I had no idea where to start. So many feelings…how could I possibly put them into words? A friend of mine reminded me that you should always start a talk with either a joke or a story. This it not a day for jokes, so I’d like to share a story with you. It’s a story of one of the happiest and most terrifying days of my life. I was in the office at work, my boss to my left and the director of human resources in front of me. There I sat; body shaking, fingers like ice, tears forming on the surface of my eyes. I had to force out the words, make myself say what I was terrified to say.
I was terrified because it was all a gamble. I had a great job that paid enough to keep my family secure, and I was putting it on the line. There were no legal protections for me, no statutes to keep me safe. He could have fired me then and there and I’d have been powerless to stop him. Our income, our insurance, our peace of mind, I was putting it all on the table, and I was terrified. I was lucky, because my gender identity was respected, and two weeks later I showed up to work in the women’s uniform with my new name proudly displayed on my shirt. No longer would I have to wake up and decide who I had to be that day. No more hiding, no more pretending. It was liberating, but also even more terrifying, because now I’d be facing the world as an out transgender woman.
People ask what it’s like to be transgender. It’s an impossible question to really answer. There’s no other experience like it. It’s a journey of personal discovery filled with confusion, doubt, depression, and fear. People say it’s a choice, but I would never have chosen to be in that room, gambling with my family’s future, if there were any other way. When I finally came to terms with my gender identity, I spent the next decade trying to un-choose it. I spiraled into a deep, severe depression, and not a day went by that I didn’t think about ending my life. When you see a transgender person reveal themself to the world, when you see them living openly as they are despite the dangers, remind yourself how much worse it must have been for them otherwise. Transgender people lose a great deal to live authentically. Family, friends, jobs, homes, and yes, even lives. When someone takes on such hardships over staying in the closet, how can it possibly have been a choice to begin with?
As the years have gone by, gay and lesbian acceptance has grown tremendously. Transgender understanding, let alone acceptance, has not been able to keep up. Transgender people are still one of the most misunderstood demographics in the world, and like any other thing not understood, we are feared and hated. Politicians call us a threat to public safety. Pastors proclaim us to be deviants bringing about the downfall of society. We’re the target of crude jokes, the catalysts for fear-based legislation, and the mascots of a seemingly immoral society. All of this swirls into a storm of anger, fear, and hatred. And many of us do not survive that storm.
By the start of November there had already been 26 reported transgender murders in the US. I don’t like throwing around numbers when talking about this subject because the truth is never really captured in them. 26 doesn’t account for the ones that went unreported, or the ones who were misgendered in the reporting. Violence against transgender people is an epidemic. Murders of transgender people are often horrifically violent. Many are shot, more are beaten. These are crimes of passion, fueled by hate and fear. Skye Mockabee was found lying next to a tow truck with blood pouring from her mouth. Keyonna Blakeney was beaten and left to die in a motel room. Brandi Bledsoe was found stripped to her underwear with a plastic bag over her head. Each of these women, and many more, met violent, terrifying ends, just for being true to themselves.
What makes the threat of violence more horrifying is the lack of defense available to us. Transgender people are painted as deviants, bringing the violence on themselves by choosing to live in such seemingly unwholesome ways. A transgender friend of mine has recounted a story where she was jumped by a group of men on a Charlotte street. Her clothes were pulled off, she was beaten, and urinated on. When the paramedics arrived, she was told she brought it on herself for wearing a skirt and heels. Victims of violence are never to blame for their attacks, no matter what they’re wearing or doing. But rather than combat the hate and ignorance that drives violence, we police the victims and make the situation worse. The “trans panic defense”, where someone accused of murdering a transgender person can claim they acted in a state of temporary insanity after discovering the victim’s gender identity, is still a legal defense in every state but California.
What’s it like to be transgender? It’s being afraid, at least a little bit, all the time. It’s trying to read thoughts and intentions in the eyes of those you meet. It’s looking over your shoulder before you go into the bathroom. No one understands this better than transgender women of color, who are likely the most at-risk demographic of any sort in the entire country. A vast number of the transgender murders we mourn tonight were women of color. These were women caught in the perfect storm where racism, sexism, and homophobia combine. Theirs is a bravery I cannot even fathom. I’m at least a little fearful each time I leave my home and face the world as my true self, but I know my white skin offers me far more protection than I’ll ever truly grasp. Even when I am a target, I am privileged, and I try to always remember that.
A moment ago I mentioned 26 transgender murders as of November 1st and how that number isn’t truly representative. There’s another reason. In that 26 we don’t see the largest portion of transgender murders: suicides.
Yes, every time a transgender person takes their own life, they are murdered. The gun, the knife, or the pills may have been in their own hands, but they were forced there by the relentless hatred of an ignorant and uncaring public. Suicide is the last path left to a person who can find no hope on the horizon. When all you see before you is fear, anxiety, and loneliness, death becomes your only friend. The suicide attempt/success rate among transgender people is 41%, and nearly all of us have spent time contemplating it.
When I came out as trans I put everything on the line, and that’s true for so many of us. Talk to any transgender person and you’ll hear stories of family members who turned them away, friends who shunned them, and jobs that let them go. Fear of losing these things keeps many transgender people in the closet. Some keep their secrets for years, living seemingly ordinary lives. But it’s always an act, pretend, and keeping up the act for so long is crushing to both mind and spirit. When you can’t live as yourself and you can’t live as the person you’re expected to be, not living at all can seem like the only option left.
What’s it like to be transgender? It’s to think about death. Either by your own hand or the hand of another, you often contemplate your own mortality. It can be a lonely experience, especially if you have no ally to confide in. This is why allies are so important. Being a shoulder to cry on, a friend to confide in, or even a buddy in the bathroom, can mean saving a life.
When you look at what our world is spiraling into, it can seem like helping the transgender community is impossible. Who could take on such a daunting task all on their own? Trust me when I say you’re more powerful than you think. Just being that person who’s willing to call someone by their real name, to refer to them by their real pronouns, makes you powerful. Telling a transgender woman she’s beautiful when she can’t stand to look in the mirror makes you powerful. Having coffee with a trans person who feels all alone in the world makes you powerful. Having the courage to say something when you hear jokes that make fun of transgender people makes you powerful. Each of these actions seem small, but they save lives. They can make you the reason someone doesn’t load the gun, or open the pill bottle. The reason someone’s heart is opened before they let their ignorance turn to violence. They can make you the reason someone finally found hope.
I can tell you that I would not be here if it weren’t for my allies. I’m alive today because I know I am loved. I know that, even on my darkest days, when a world full of hate and fear weighs down on me, there are people in my life that cherish and accept me. There are people in the world that have kept me from ending my own life, and they did it simply by saying, “I love you for who you are and I will stand by you.”
What’s it like to be transgender? It’s to hold onto love like some never will. It’s to understand the power of community, of friendship, of family. We gather tonight to remember those we lost to hate. Either by the hands of those driven by it or who were finally crushed under the weight of it. Tonight we cry, we hold to each other, we say names and light candles. But mostly we ask what we can do to make it better. What can we do in the face of growing hate and fear?
We can take action. Get involved with the organizations fighting to protect transgender people from discrimination and violence. Donate time or money. Volunteer. Inaction can be as bad as aggression. Don’t light your candle tonight and think you’ve done your part. You haven’t even started. Support organizations like PFLAG that work to help the parents of LGBT youth understand their child’s struggle. Support the HRC, who are on the front lines of the fight for equality and put Sarah McBride, a transgender woman, on the stage at the DNC this year. Here in the Hickory community, I urge you to support OUTright Youth, and show our young people that they are loved and supported.
We can educate. Hate is the byproduct of ignorance which is allowed to grow by apathy and inaction. Take action. Stand up for the transgender community. Don’t be afraid to proclaim you love someone who is trans. Don’t be afraid to walk down the street with us. If someone you know misgenders a trans person, or calls them by a name they don’t associate with, have the courage to correct them. Your voice is needed even when we’re not around, because it’s when our ears are away that the ignorant reveal themselves. Don’t only be an ally when it’s convenient for you, or when it won’t make you uncomfortable. Be better than hate speech, and be willing to combat it with knowledge and compassion.
Most importantly, we can love. We can love bigger and stronger than we ever have. We can see the power in even the smallest actions. We can reach out to those who are afraid and offer them the peace that only comes from knowing you are not alone. Tonight, I urge you to hold to one another. So many transgender people have been lost to hate, lost to ignorance. Even in death, some were not given the recognition they so desperately wanted. So tonight, we offer it to them. To the souls of those taken from us, we say we’re sorry we couldn’t save you, we love you, and we validate you as the beautiful people you were. You are forever in our hearts, and we carry you with us as we fight to save the next victim of hate.
What’s it like to be transgender? It’s to be human, just like you.