Tag Archives: Transgender Day of Remembrance

A Very Good Place to Start: On Teaching for Respect

“Excuse me, ma’am?” I turned to see a woman approaching me as I sat working at Rao’s coffee shop. “Yes?” I said. “Can you please give me directions to (we’ll say it was La Veracruzana)?” I did, and she thanked me, acknowledged my “You’re welcome,” and turned and left. Clearly, she was either open or oblivious to the contrast between whatever it was about my appearance (hair? clothing? something else?) that had caused her to “ma’am” me and my baritone voice. Myself, at this point in my life, I respond naturally to either “ma’am” or “sir,” reasoning that in either case, someone is addressing me respectfully.

Respect is the key word here. It’s what underlies most successful human interactions, and what is most often missing when dysfunction takes over. It’s a firm underlying principle in each of my classes. I expect respect not only for each other (which they almost invariably show anyway) but also for fictional characters, reasoning that if we are generally talking about them as if they were real, we might as well carry it to the logical extreme.

Of course, respect for people who are transgender or otherwise gender transgressive is not an automatic given in this world. Indeed, as of 2012, transgender people were 28% more likely than cisgender people to experience physical attacks, and the situation was even more dire for trans women of colour, who make up a wildly disproportionate and depressing 87% of the cases where those attacks escalate to murder. (Bolles) Many white people who are members of or allied with the transgender community recognize and deplore this fact.

International Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place on Nov. 20 and once again, I attended the Northampton service. In welcoming us, Yohah Ralph acknowledged the difficulty and weight of the accumulated tragedy of over 220 transgender people having been killed this year, some of whom were never identified, some of whose families never knew or cared. He asked that, to keep the atmosphere from weighing us down too much, each participant in the service speak about their dream for the future. Most said their dream was for everyone, regardless of gender, to be able to live freely and without fear as their authentic selves.

That shouldn’t be asking too much.

The Stonewall Center of the University of Massachusetts was a co-sponsoring organization of this year’s TDOR, and the Director, Genny Beemyn, said that their own dream was that we wouldn’t be gathering together next year. They acknowledged that was virtually certain not to be, nor was it likely to be for many decades to come.

You may have picked up on the use of the pronoun “they,” and that is indeed Genny’s preferred pronoun. In Humanities 7 class one day, the question of whether “they” could be singular came up. Some students were firmly advocating that it had to be plural, while one other was quietly if hesitantly demurring. Thinking that she might possibly know a trans person (here in the Valley, the odds are definitely higher than in many parts of the country) who preferred the pronoun “they,” I stepped in to support her, stating that while “they” had traditionally been plural (this to acknowledge the good intentions of students arguing that point), people of different genders were in fact increasingly choosing to use it as a singular pronoun. She smiled back at me as several other students paused to give me a curious look. I nodded to affirm my statement, everyone relaxed, and we all moved on.

If we are truly to work toward a world that embraces people of all genders, it will be built through the gradual accumulation of respectful calls for respect, respectfully received. Hopefully, my students will help lead the way as they grow into adulthood and find their place in the world. It would not surprise me for a second if they do.

After all, living life as your authentic self is at the core of our mission, and respect is at the heart of each element of our honor code.

That is a very good place to start.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

A Path to Comfort

You’re in the arms of the angel. May you find some comfort here.
– Sarah McLachlan

When my alarm went off this morning, it was perfectly timed for the beginning of the beautiful last line of Sarah McLachlan’s song, the perfect way to begin this 16th Transgender Day of Remembrance. In 1998, Rita Hester, a young African-American transgender woman, was murdered in Allston, Massachusetts. A candlelight vigil organized by Gwendolyn Ann Smith and attended by several hundred people was held in her memory, and the occasion inspired the international Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Last night in Northampton, Massachusetts, a small gathering of people huddled near a fire for another candlelight vigil. The mood was surprisingly light, even when the college students in attendance began passing out candles along with cups to shield the candles from the wind and our hands from the hot wax. As we sang “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine…” softly at first but with growing strength and volume, the minister in attendance lit his candle from the fire, and the flame was passed from person to person. No one seemed to know who was stepping out first to lead the way to the Unitarian Universalist church where the service was to be held, but gradually, a consensus emerged that it was time to move forward together, and we did.

Once in the church, as I was rubbing my hands together and attempting to warm up, another college student asked if I would be willing to read the name of one of the dead from the previous year. Though she was not my student, she was a student, and I quelled my nervousness at the thought, smiled, and said, “Of course.” She handed me the name of Terry Golston, and I looked down at the little piece of paper, thinking about this person I vaguely remembered hearing about at the time of her death but would never know, reflecting on how her life was now inextricably bound to mine and what that might entail.

When my turn came to read, I looked down at the paper and said, “Terry Golston,” and paused for a brief moment of silence as requested. “Died September 6, 2013 in Shreveport Louisiana. Terry, 44, was a cross-dresser. She died after being shot three times. Another trans person with her survived (I emphasized the affirmation of hope in the word) the shooting. The police say that robbery may have been a “motivating factor” (and the tone of my voice noted the quotation marks without dwelling on them), but neighbors believe that they were targeted for being trans.”

28 names in all were read – the 18 trans* people who were murdered this year in the United States, most all of them trans* women of colour, plus 10 representative trans* people from other countries. Immediately before the reading, Yohah Ralph, who was presiding at the service, offered anyone who wished to leave for this part of the service the chance to go wait downstairs or in the vestibule. I could see why. It is tough enough to read these stories. It is excruciating to listen to them, and I periodically heard gasps as people took in the brutality and raw hate of many of the crimes being read in studiously but shakily neutral tones by reader after reader.

Immediately prior to the ritual reading of names, the father of Eric Collins spoke to us. His son was a transgender boy who died on February 7, 2013 at the age of 14. Bullied relentlessly both at and away from school, buffeted by body dysphoria as doctors refused to give him the surgery he so desperately wanted until he grew older, Eric (the name he chose to replace his birth name) developed an eating disorder that caused him to lose over 60 pounds. Wearing a jacket that read “Eric’s pride” and showing his son’s face over a pair of wings, his father, in a voice suffused with bitterness at his own actions, noted that the whole rest of his life will be one long “woulda, coulda.” And this was a man who pursued every avenue he could think of to try to learn about transgender people, to try to understand what made his son feel the way he did, to seek out how best to be supportive.

I looked up Eric’s obituary online when I got home, and sent it to Tod. I had seen a poster outside his office earlier in the day offering to bring students to the Greenfield Transgender Day of Remembrance on Wednesday evening, and I wanted Tod to be prepared to support our students for what was to come. Whether or not Eric’s family attended this ceremony, his name was bound to come up as a number of people in the Greenfield TREE (Trans Rights, Education, and Empowerment) group knew him, and I knew they had grief counselors and other support staff at the ready. As the organizers of the Northampton TDOR had done.

Near the end of the service, during a time for participants to raise their voices if they so chose, one person in attendance read the Kiddush. Though I don’t speak Hebrew, the sound of Jewish prayers always has a comforting effect on me, and as the service concluded, the person behind me commented that the same was true for her.

May Eric’s family and those of other transgender people dead this year and in years past find peace. May the souls of those people rest in peace. And may we all join together to reshape the world so that one day Transgender Day of Remembrance may be just a footnote in history books.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender