Monday, November 19, 2007

Day of Remembrance or Day of Opportunism?

“How dare you think you can take advantage of our community’s tragedy! Who do you think you are? You think you can waltz in and capitalize on this? This is our community’s issue not yours! In case you haven’t figure [sic] it out yet, Matthew Shepard is not transgendered, he’s gay!” — Mario H, formerly of a Houston HIV charity organization.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea! … Actually, I foresee a day when our movement starts achieving its goals of equal rights, and it’s very possible the voice leading that charge could be transgendered.” — Harry Livesay, of a different wing of the same organization in response to Mario.

The two quotes above at first glance a non sequitur on an article about the upcoming International Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’ll be explained more later in this entry.

For now, the ninth DOR celebration (tenth if you count the initial ones in San Francisco and Boston) is upon us tomorrow night, November 20. The first ones in Boston and San Francisco were an initial response to a tragedy within the transgender community – again in a tragedy-overflowing community in seemingly liberal Boston, MA. Some of the highest profile murders, indeed both of the murders determining the initial and subsequent date of Day of Remembrance were both Boston-area transgender hate murders.

After the commencement memorial, cities across the nation began observing Day of Remembrance the following year – cities like New York, Philadelphia, Columbus, Atlanta and Houston. Many of these cities were locales that had their own ignominy as being cities with inordinate numbers or high profile cases of bias-based murders on trans people.

Today, cities across the globe observe the now international Transgender Day of Remembrance. Many localities even have more than one observance in different locations. One such locale is Washington DC, where the transgender community will be meeting with Earline Budd and Us Helping Us in Washington’s near southeast side, and another coordinated by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) at their headquarters in trendy DuPont Circle. Last year, Mara Keisling and Dana Beyer of NCTE helped them coordinate their event, though it’s unknown if they will attend this year.

I reside in the latter of those first cities involved in DOR after going national: Houston. Our only awareness of hate victims has been in recent years. But of all cities involved in DOR, Houston alone has had at least one if not two victims in every DOR except for two. Some cities have had more in one year – Rio De Janeiro and Washington DC both had four in one year. But none have had the notorious consistency of Houston – something that continues to bedevil us.

We’re also a city whose homegrown state senator was the author of the nationally noted James Byrd Hate Crimes Bill passed in 2001. It’s a bill that has no coverage for transgenders. It seems that presidential aspirations in 1999 of our then-governor George W. Bush, and claims of subsequent usage of transgender inclusion sinking any future bill killed any hope with the author in 2001’s bill and eventual enactment into law.

Houston’s a great town to live in if you’re transgendered, with an active community and even an inordinate number of national-level activists and community leaders. But along with this we have an ever-present backdrop of violence. It was reported to me that two of Houston Transgender Unity Committee members were attacked this year, one beaten so bad that according to HTUC’s Cristan Williams her face appeared shredded afterwards. It’s sad, but not surprising. Think of an industrial, blue-collar version of Dallas with lots of smog. Or perhaps, more appropriately, a Texas version of Los Angeles: that’s Houston.

We’d like to play up Houston’s better aspects – community pride and all. Ultimately it is Texas, with all its revelry in its own mystique, and it’s underlying culture of brutality as machismo. Violence is. You live with that the same way people living next to the refineries live with the fact it will either take their lives in a spectacular catastrophe, or at least lead to a gradual shortening of their lives due to the toxicity belched forth daily.

One of this year’s victims, Bret Turner, was a crossdresser who’d moved from Houston a year earlier to what would seem more friendly environs: Madison, WI. College town, seemingly more progressive – what would seem a nice place to escape? Bret was found stabbed fourteen times in her own home in Madison – not Houston. Perhaps there is no easy escape from this problem.

Ultimately, we need to find a fix to the problem that can only come from legal protection (or a uniformly understood, codified deterrent). One disagreement I’d had with Cristan earlier about DOR was about politicizing the event – this immediately before they brought in the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) as a co-sponsor. Last year, I quietly but firmly boycotted the Transgender Day of Remembrance in my own town.

Meanwhile, HRC continues to do what it can to sponsor, and finagle its way into Transgender Day of Remembrances around the country. Why, you may ask? It’s one of the precious few things the transgender community has done for itself that has struck a chord with straight America, as well as gay and obviously transgender America. Most of the folks in straight America who have gotten this message and participated have been youth – high school and especially college youth.

And HRC, being the professional organization it is with an eye always to both fundraising and getting active volunteers to be their extra foot soldiers and help magnify their voice, sees this as a good thing. A good thing for HRC – a gay and lesbian created, fed, led and staffed organization.

Notice that there’s nothing in the above paragraph about transgender. We trans folk weren’t there to help create the HRC. We weren’t there to staff it over the vast majority of their history. We were never part of their legislative push until the last couple of congressional session. In fact we weren’t part of their mission statement until it was made clear to them that the trans community was going to demand its own voice (something they felt was out of their control and which they needed to stay ahead of). Even their mission expansion didn’t occur until 2001.

However, HRC has long known the trans community is cash-poor, intently non-opportunistic on our community issues – especially tragedies such as hate crimes – and they can’t let good opportunities go to waste! We saw this rather blatantly in 2001 with then-HRC Exec. Dir. Elizabeth Birch’s speech at a vigil for transgender hate crime victims Stephanie Thomas and Ukea Davis when she took the opportunity to use that most evocative of tragedies to push for passage of the pending Hate Crimes Bill in Congress. What wasn’t said was that Birch, HRC and others (including the majority of the trans community) were well aware of the exclusion of coverage for transgender.

To try to draw a correlation, think of a trans person pushing for passage of trans only legislation while speaking at a vigil for Matthew Shepard – a victim of an anti-gay hate crime.

Maybe individual HRC members would have no problem with that approach. “Hey, take whatever opportunity you can, and if you can cash in, even better” – or something to that effect. Somehow though, I doubt that.

Somehow I think some segment of the gay and lesbian community would take umbrage at the exploitation of their own community for the benefit of another segment that treats them as lesser beings, that perpetuates the aforementioned perceptions and that mines their tragedies as fundraising tools for much less needy organizations such as Concerned Women for America or Focus on the Family.

Which all brings me back to the quotes I prefaced this with. The first quote I withheld the last name of the first and organization of both individuals, as I did not have their permission of either of the two, much less their current contact information.

What inspired the first quote was my outrage at the beating of Matthew Shepard and my initial reaction upon reading the details. An ad-hoc list of Houston activists and leaders sprung up in the wake of the initial news of the attack in Wyoming. To the list I proposed a march on Austin to push for a Hate Crimes Bill in Texas in light of the Shepard beating a few days before his death. (This was October 1998 – three years before Texas would enact an actionable law punishing for hate crime enhancement.)

In response, there were (if memory serves) nineteen Emails in favor of the proposal and two opposed. One of those was the visceral first quote from Mario, who began his rather rambling post with the words “I hope you fall flat on your face! I hope you fail miserably. How dare you ….” It was pure invective and pain.

That, of course, drew Harry Livesay’s response (surprisingly someone affiliated with the same organization) to my defense.

I learned something from both posts actually. From Harry I learned there is hope in some circles out there, and even some who have confidence in our abilities, even allowing us a voice of our own.

Mario’s response, however, was a sudden direction-change from being a community tragedy to being one that was undeniably an attack directly on the gay community. What initially infuriated me was Mario’s snap presumption that this was my attempt to opportunistically seize upon the tragedy for my own gain. Nothing could’ve been further from the truth – no more than, say, the people who sparked the makeshift altar and vigil in the median of Montrose Blvd. after Princess Diana’s death initiated by members of Houston’s Gay and Lesbian community.

As I tend to do often, I walked away from the initial post and re-read it twice more before replying. Ultimately I decided not to respond at all. Yes, I could defend my motives and explain myself adequately – but would that necessarily change his perception? Would it instead come across as appearing defensive?

When I dug into Mario’s response, there was something more key that was overlooked. It wasn’t simply about ownership or proprietorship of a tragedy. This was a community that was at the time still struggling for acceptance in society and had just suffered the most brutal of symbolic crimes, one that needed to be vented and made public. However, it didn’t need just anyone drawing the public’s attention. It needed to be their community’s voice expressing the anguish, the pain, the outrage. It needed to be their energy leading to doing something proactive for their own.

As a transgender my organizing or leading on this issue would’ve been viewed by some as interloping or co-opting, regardless of my motives.

A few days after my comment, Matthew Shepard died in a Wyoming hospital. After his death, a natural vigil sprung forth and I volunteered to help. Indeed, I made effort not to lead but to assist, and not to take a prominent role. The vigil was beautiful, well-attended, and everything came off without a hitch.

In recent years, I wish I would’ve met Mario personally and to be able to speak with him today. One thing I’d like to point out is the coming to fruition of transgender issues. I’d also like to point out the faces and the organizations that are that are leading this charge, that are reaping the lion’s share of the press for themselves and that are even prominently noting their involvement in their transgender community events in fundraising efforts.

I’d like to ask Mario his opinion of these unfolding of events. I’d also like to point out that I haven’t similarly eviscerated these individuals or organizations for capitalizing on this sudden awareness of transgender issues. In my mind, I wonder if Mario would be interested in responding to these of his own community with such vitriol he reserved for me? Or would he be okay with such a personal double standard?

Ultimately, we all need to be our own heroes and experience our own victories. When the time comes that we suffer such heinous loss, we need to suffer our own tragedies as well with our own words and our own sentiment. The last thing any community needs – especially the neediest among us – is to have what voice we should have ripped away from us and used as a megaphone for an outside individual or organization’s grandstanding and profiteering. This not only does not help, it steals from those who already suffer.

Yes, HRC will be holding a Transgender Day of Remembrance this year, with or without NCTE, at their national headquarters. Many in the transgender community see it as a clever way for them to make more money for themselves. Meanwhile, a number of national level transgender members will be going in to Washington and observing the Day of Remembrance with Earline Budd and UHU in the gritty and tragedy-wrack southeast side of the nation’s capital.

As a post-script, I attended this year’s weekend event for the Day of Remembrance in Houston – not the one I’ll be organizing tomorrow night on City Hall steps, but the HTUC version at the Holocaust Museum. Contentious as the discussion may have been, they’ve decided it best to remove HRC as a sponsor of their event. Until the day that we in the Transgender community considered equals to HRC, may it ever remain that way. Amen.

“[Y]e whose hearts are moving with a power that ye know not, arise, wash your hands of this innocent blood! Lift your voices, chosen ones; cry aloud…” — from the Gentle Boy, Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Pain is meant to wake us up. People try to hide their pain. But they're wrong. Pain is something to carry, like a radio. You feel your strength in the experience of pain. … Pain is a feeling. Your feelings are a part of you. Your own reality. If you feel ashamed of them, and hide them, you're letting society destroy your reality. You should stand up for your right to feel your pain.” — Jim Morrison of the Doors

1 comment:

Dana Beyer, M.D. said...


I hope you're well, and I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving.

A few points of clarification, if I may.

This year's DC memorial was not in the gritty neighborhoods of Southeast nor trendy Dupont Circle but in NW at the Whitman-Walker Clinic. 150 people attended the event organized by Earline and Ruby Corado, including Mara and I.

I was the one who organized the HRC event last year, and this year's as well. I canceled this year's and we attended the Whitman-Walker event instead in a gesture of reconciliation for all of us. And next year's event will be hosted by Mayor Fenty on the steps of the Wilson Building on historic Pennsylvania Avenue.

I said that I organized them -- not HRC. I did so as a member of HRC as well as of NCTE, Equality Maryland, the Task Force and other organizations. Not because I'm shilling for HRC, or trying to divide the community, but because I'm trying to build bridges. I don't know many trans people (I hate the word "transgenders" used as a noun) who want to keep the TDoR exclusively to ourselves -- what would be the point? In my Jewish tradition we always mourn as a community -- it is a legal requirement. We need to mourn our trans dead not as just the trans community, nor just the LGBT community, but as the American and global community. Separatism will get us nowhere, especially at a time when many trans women still find it too dangerous to be out, and most trans men assimilate and disappear. We need to encourage alliances, not spite and division.

Last night's DC event was a terrific step in the right direction, and I will be working assiduously to make sure we continue.