By Jaan Williams
This year has been one of the most violent in recent history for the transgender community. Washington, D.C., where I live, in particular has witnessed the murders of two transgender women and violent attacks against at least six more since July. The severity of these attacks, including two incidents where off-duty D.C. police officers assaulted transgender women, has finally prompted widespread media coverage of violence against the transgender community. This coverage, and hard work by local advocates, has brought the issue to a flash point, forcing law enforcement, policymakers, and elected officials to address the rising levels of violence.
On Sunday, Nov. 20, Transgender Day of Remembrance, while we honor those we have lost in this senseless violence, we must also look forward. Remembering those who died prematurely is a tribute in itself, but there is also an opportunity to use their stories and lives to change the climate of violence.
This weekend also marks the anniversary of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. One hundred and forty eight years ago, he stood at the battlefield where the greatest number of lives had been lost and asked people to give meaning to the deaths of those that had died there—giving what he termed the “last full measure of devotion”—by finishing the work that they died advancing.
The people Lincoln described were soldiers; the victims of violence we remember today were not. And war between armies is obviously very different from the everyday lives of people who are simply walking home, going to the grocery store, to work or to visit friends when they are struck down in egregious acts of brutality. As we honor and give meaning to these deaths, we fight for the most simple and fundamental struggle of those in a marginalized community—to live our lives openly and freely without fear.
History remembers Gettysburg as a turning point in the war, and we have seen the tragedies of this year in D.C. begin to usher in a familiar sense of urgency to address and ultimately end this violence. The media attention generated by this violence has given more weight to the efforts of local groups, like the D.C. Trans Coalition (DCTC), as they urge D.C. law enforcement and elected officials to end this violence, and as they encourage law enforcement to increase its efforts to solve violent crimes against transgender victims and address police bias and brutality.
Just last week, the White House convened a meeting of transgender activists and high-level White House staff to talk specifically about violence against the transgender community and the Administration’s role in keeping the community safe. A wide range of staff attended, including people focusing specifically on issues of racial justice and violence against women and women’s health. This indicates a profound and important understanding that violence in the transgender community must be understood as a women’s issue, it must be understood as a racial justice issue, and it must be understood as a fundamental threat to public health and safety.
The lives we remember today were tragically short. As we honor those we’ve lost, we must work to ensure they did not die in vain, and that the world, while it may little note nor long remember what we said here, will never forget them.
Learn more about Transgender Day of Remembrance.