On Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a traditional confessional litany called the Al Heyt (“for the sin…”) is recited. It is written in alphabetical order, and it asks forgiveness for our community’s transgressions from God. This year, for Transgender Day of Remembrance, which my Jewish community commemorated last Shabbat, I composed a confessional of injustices that we—and I include myself among this group—commit against the transgender community, especially its most vulnerable members, trans women of color.
We have done injustice to them by ABUSE. 20% of U.S. trans people have suffered domestic violence at the hands of a family member. 50% have been physically harassed at work. 29% of trans people have been harassed or treated disrespectfully by police officers; with much higher rates reported among people of color. 20% were denied equal services, and 6% were physically assaulted by police officers. 55% have been harassed trying to access homeless shelters. Of those who expressed a transgender identity or gender non-conformity while in grades K-12, 78% experienced harassment, 35% experienced physical assault, and 12% experienced sexual violence. And this leads to 65% of all trans people who had experienced this kind of violence attempting suicide, and exceptionally high rates of homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and survival sex work. And we shake our heads and wonder.
We have done injustice to them by BETRAYAL. Trans women of color pretty much started the modern queer rights movement at Stonewall. Yet quickly the movement was taken over by cis white gay men and lesbians, whose attitude was “we’ll come back for you”. Trans people were told to celebrate “equal marriage” in the UK when the law actually allows a spouse to veto their trans partner’s legal recognition. Trans people were told to celebrate the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the US when in fact trans people can still be discharged simply for being trans, just the same as before. We tell them, “We’ll come back for you.” They wonder, “Where are you now?”
We have done injustice to them by CRIMINALIZATION. In many countries, being trans is a crime, punishable by prison or even death. Even in this country, in many places the law does not guarantee a trans person’s right to not be fired from their job simply for being trans. Even now, in California, a “liberal” state, bigots are trying, by means of a state referendum, to make it illegal for trans children to use the bathroom. And from cis allies? Silence.
We have done injustice to them by DENIAL. We deny that “cis” is a category of people because the idea checking our group’s privilege makes us uncomfortable. We pretend that trans liberation is not everyone’s issue. We refuse to accept trans people’s lived experience as true and valid until it has received the stamp of approval of cisnormative society.
We have done injustice to them by ERASURE. Transgender Day of Remembrance events are often billed to be about “LGBT people”. Transgender Day of Remembrance isn’t about “LGBT people”. It’s about predominantly trans women who are predominantly women of color. Transgender Day of Remembrance is not an occasion for a dance party or a drag show, yet that’s what some people who think it’s about “LGBT people” make it into. Each step of removal is another act of erasure, and erasure is a final act of violence against our community’s dead.
We have done injustice to them by FACTIONALISM. We pit groups of marginalized people against one another and make them fight amongst themselves for small amounts of societal approval. We pretend that “umbrella” groups actually represent the people they claim to. Nonprofits trying to do good work all fight over the same small number of grants, and then clamor to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
We have done injustice to them by GROUPTHINK. We produce orthodoxies about how things have to be done, and tell people that they don’t measure up to standards. We tell trans people that they’re doing it wrong, we give unsolicited advice and comments, and dare them to disagree. We use groupthink to reinforce existing prejudices and disenfranchise vulnerable people.
We have done injustice to them by HARASSMENT. We stare, we point, we touch without asking. We ask questions about things that are none of our business. We get offended when trans people push back about these things. We treat trans bodies as public property and expect that there will be no consequences for our actions.
We have done injustice to them by IMPERIALISM. We have obliterated indigenous modes and expressions of gender, while appropriating concepts such as “two-spirit”. We condone, tacitly or otherwise, the continuing colonization of a world we think belongs to us, believing that white people have the answers to the world’s problems. We find quaint “primitive” people’s conceptions of gender and sexuality and erase them by insisting that they fit into boxes that we create.
We have done injustice to them by JAILING. Trans people are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, in many cases simply for being trans. CeCe McDonald is currently serving a 41-month sentence for defending herself against a racist, transphobic attack. And, in a horrible perversion of justice, trans people who are incarcerated are almost never placed in gender-congruent prisons or allowed access to transition-related medical care. Then once they get out there is often nowhere for them to go.
We have done injustice to them by KILLING. Transgender Day of Remembrance is supposed to be about commemorating the trans people who have been killed this year. This year, we remember the names of 63 individuals. And these are just the ones we know of, the ones in the “official list”. And for some of these, we aren’t sure of their names. We do injustice by allowing trans people to live on the margins, but we do violence to their memories by allowing them to die on the margins.
We have done injustice to them by LAUGHTER. Trans women are a punchline. Tune into any mainstream comedian—even “liberal” heroes like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—and you’ll find jokes about us. You’ll hear glib references to people getting “sex changes” and disgusted reactions to trans bodies being played for laughs. When we laugh, we contribute to an atmosphere that tells trans people that their bodies are jokes and their lives are only valuable as humor.
We have done injustice to them by MEDICALIZATION. Accessing transition-related medical care is difficult and expensive, and can be tricky and discouraging to navigate. It’s rare to find insurance paying for any part of transition-related care: hormones, surgery, psychotherapy, medications. Cis people put so much store by how “far along” a trans person is presumed to be in their medical transition to the exclusion of asking the person in question about how they might like to conceive of their own life and their own medical history and future.
We have done injustice to them by NEGLECT. Trans people are at high risk for being thrown out of their families, for being fired by their employers, for being rejected from shelters or treatment programs, and for self-harm and suicide. And when we shake our heads and say “It’s such a shame”, and don’t work to pick up the fight so it doesn’t happen again, we treat those lives as cheap.
We have done injustice to them by OBJECTIFICATION. We point and stare. We call trans people “that” and “it”, and treat them like they’re not in the room. We reduce trans people to their presumed genitalia, or a letter on their birth certificate. And we tell them to be grateful, because at least it means they’re getting noticed.
We have done injustice to them by POLITICS. Those who are the most vulnerable get pushed the furthest out of sight. We drop protection for trans people from laws or policies in the hope of making things as palatable as possible to a society that doesn’t want to have to deal with us. We play respectability politics with vulnerable people’s lives, and we congratulate ourselves on it. We satisfy ourselves with making small steps at a political level, while ordinary people are still struggling and still dying.
We have done injustice to them by QUESTIONING. We refuse to believe other people’s lived experience or to treat it as real until it has been validated by other people we’re more likely to believe. We still require trans people to get letters of approval from psychologists before we allow them access to medical care, and we require trans women to get two letters. We insulate ourselves from other people’s lived experiences by questioning the reality of those very experiences.
We have done injustice to them by RACISM. As much as we don’t want to admit it, we are complicit in institutional racism. We don’t like to think about the ways in which what we do furthers oppression based on race, and the ways it affects trans people of color, who find themselves living—and dying—at this intersection. It’s not a coincidence that year after year, the names of the trans people we remember are, by and large, the names of trans women of color. And this will continue as long as we don’t take a long hard look at why that is.
We have done injustice to them by SLUT-SHAMING. Women’s sexuality is punished by shame, how much the more so with trans women. We blame victims of rape for their own victimhood, and we blame trans women for not “passing” or for “passing” “too well”. We reinforce negative attitudes towards sex work and blame trans women who have to engage in it for survival purposes.
We have done injustice to them by TRANSACTIONALISM. Monika Maldonado, a trans Latina activist and author, wrote that Transgender Day of Remembrance is a day when trans women of color have more value dead than they do alive. We cheapen their lives by only caring about their lives when they are dead. We see the value in their lives as a transaction: to be passed around in privileged communities for a day or two, and then forgotten about for another year.
We have done injustice to them by UNFAIRNESS. We apply double standards to cis people and to trans people in terms of how they present their gender. We apply double standards to trans men and to trans women. We apply double standards to white people and to black people. And we usually don’t even realize we’re doing it—and when we do realize, we rationalize and justify it.
We have done injustice to them by VIOLENCE. 8% of trans people have been physically attacked or assaulted in doctor’s offices, buses, government agencies, retail stores, and other public venues. People wonder why trans people, especially people of color, don’t report things to the police: it’s because they often are not believed and sometimes get harassed or even assaulted for their trouble. Domestic abuse, rape, assault, and murder—these are plagues that afflict the trans community.
We have done injustice to them by WITHHOLDING. The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force released the largest ever survey of transgender and gender-non-conforming people in February 2011, and summed up the results as follows. “Trans people face injustice at every turn: in childhood homes, in school systems that promise to shelter and educate, in harsh and exclusionary workplaces, at the grocery store, the hotel front desk, in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, before judges and at the hands of landlords, police officers, health care workers, and other service providers.”
We have done injustice to them by XENOPHOBIA. 7% of trans people have been physically assaulted on the job, and 6% have been sexually assaulted at work. But the rate triples for undocumented noncitizen trans people, who are at more three times the risk. And they have no recourse: they can’t go to the police or bring lawsuits except at grave, unacceptable personal risk to themselves.
We have done injustice to them by YIELDING TO DESPAIR. We get locked up with inaction. We wring our hands and wonder what we can do, and wait for other people to make things better.
We have done injustice to them by treating liberation as a ZERO-SUM GAME. Only when we realize that no one is truly liberated until all people are liberated will real change start to happen and there will be cause for hope.