nihil de nobis, sine nobis: Latin for “Nothing about us, without us.”
as i’ve remarked before, i come from the disability rights movement, where we talk frequently about trying to navigate the map of inclusion at the table in matters affecting our basic rights and dignity, since we often find ourselves excluded from that proverbial table. as trans women of color, we similarly are occupying a place of exclusion in something that deeply affects us: Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day which was unquestionably started with the best of intent but ends up with the worst of results, namely that it’s about us (trans women of color, the majority of the names being read), without us, because we are shut out from involvement in the “trans community” in life at every turn, but y’all have no problem claiming us once we’re dead.
it’s disappointing to see that there is little to no mention of race on the official TDOR site other than in raw statistics. trans women of color have met with everything from passive-aggressiveness to outright ignorance when attempting to deal with the folks who run TDOR. long ago and far away, Gwen Smith was unwilling to talk about the realities of race when it comes to violence against trans women back when TDoR was her one-woman show; the current volunteers are no different. (the extent of Ms. Smith’s involvement at present is unknown, but she is credited repeatedly as the “owner” of TDoR; see http://www.transgenderdor.org/about-2 for an example) so this leaves no question as to why TDoR is so, well, uh, *white*; there is an unchecked/unquestioned monoculture at work. i’m sure the intent of the volunteers who run TDoR is not to create such a monoculture, but this is how it ends up, and the expectation seems to be that TDoR is by its very nature exempt from accountability for being such a monoculture, especially when most of the stories they’re telling, and too often mistelling, are about dead trans women of color.
i do understand that TDoR events are organized locally and can vary from place to place, and that this is the responsibility of the local volunteers. however, given that many trans women of color seem to express the same experience regardless of where they are, chances are that the local example of TDoR is probably pretty common, namely that an overwhelmingly white cadre of men is reading the names, with a token trans woman or two thrown in; make sure they’re always older and white, because when practicing that type of tokenism it’s critical to present trans women as all the same since that is what many transmisogynists, especially those within the queer community, use to justify their transmisogyny. when troublesome patterns seem to be repeated in many places, it points to two possible kinds of systemic failure: passive failure, where the result is unintentional, or open disregard, where the failure is intentional. i posit that this is passive failure in most cases rather than open disregard, but either way the end result is the same.
the organization of TDoR in every case i’ve ever seen or heard reported is done by a closed ecosystem; to be able to participate, you have to already be a known quantity; locally, for women, you must be previously known to the transfundamentalist support group, and for men to the local trans guy group, which is far less malignant in terms of who it lets in, but it is open only to trans guys, so that does no good for the rest of us, and it would be wrong to invade that space. i don’t know if the tokenized inclusion of trans women is intentional, because visibility is very dangerous for trans women, or because the transfundamentalists being given the ability to decide who can participate ends up self-selecting, but the end result remains that the people up there butchering the pronunciation of the names of a bunch of dead trans people, a group which is overwhelmingly trans women of color. how is this providing a fitting memorial to these people?
the intersection of whiteness and trans identity is invariably part of the problem here. i’ve talked about the mechanics of exclusion/derision of trans women of color before; the “trans community” basically requires Caucasianness, tokenism, or importance to enter, and given that some of us arrived too late to be tokens, aren’t famous (…and don’t want to be), and aren’t white, you’ve got a recipe for how you can keep the monoculture going. you can keep all sorts of trans/genderqueer people of color out all the time, so why should TDoR be any different?
the reality is that though trans identity is not limited to white people, the hurdles that we as people of color are expected to be able to clear to be “trans enough” are higher hurdles. people who play the “trans enough” game almost always come from a position of financial privilege; much as it might seem to be pretty obvious, this is rarely acknowledged when it comes to the “trans community” and its enforcers. like many trans people of color, i transitioned outside any of these structures and don’t really understand things like being expected to talk forthrightly about what surgeries i’ve had when asked by a complete stranger inside trans space; this isn’t the kind of thing anyone asks me when i’m walking down the street or sitting on a train, but the changed spatial context means that i’m supposed to tell you about the butt lift i’ve never had? yeah, i don’t think so. most of us who are trans people of color, especially trans women of color, cannot clear the hurdles of “trans enough” and are thus disregarded by and excluded from the “trans community.” the fiction that there is some magic parallel universe for trans people of color, by the by, is just that: fiction. we might organize informally in small groups, but we don’t have secret meetings of the Black trans woman junta in the basement of the AME Church down the way.
because trans identity is so caught up in Caucasianness, a new problem emerges with both the claiming of dead trans people of color altogether: if we weren’t “trans enough” in life, why are we suddenly being counted by the same people who wouldn’t have us once we’re dead? it’s because the idea that it’s dangerous to be trans has to be sold somehow, given that cis people generally ignore violence against trans people regardless of what color we are, and i do have no doubt that it seems like a good idea to use all these names. the trouble is that when this happens without any discussion of race, class, and how violence is often linked to certain types of work, reading our names uncritically is appropriative and using the deaths of people you didn’t care about in life as a vehicle for activism in death. i get that this has to be sold as a concept because cis people are often willfully ignorant that we’re getting killed out here. thing is, there are ways to sell this concept and be conscious of the racial/class/social politics involved herein. i see what the point of TDoR is in terms of public relations, but it isn’t so invaluable that the problematic things about it should go unchecked.
i had initially set out to say we should boycott TDoR as trans women of color and our allies. but let’s be honest, we already aren’t there to start with, so a boycott is meaningless; we’re going to be tokens in TDoR at best no matter what until the trans community stops enforcing a standard based on Caucasianness on everyone. however, the reality is that TDoR needs to include more discussion of race, gender, and violence because what it’s talking about is people who are dead because of the confluence of race, gender, and violence. i suspect that the same reason the trans community is so viciously exclusive of trans women of color is the same reason this doesn’t come up: it requires discussing uncomfortable realities, especially given that the trans community is shamefully complicit in considering trans women of color disposable…until one day in November, when y’all care about us if we’re dead.
TDoR is hopelessly broken in how it fails trans people of color as it stands, but if you’re involved with TDoR, it’s time to seed some change. even in a monoculture, there are ways one can promote respect and accountability. mention how many of the people whose names you’re reading are dead trans women of color. try to get our names and pronouns right, something i can’t believe is actually a problem inside the trans community, but apparently it is…part of that is knowing how to pronounce a name before you read it. if you’re organizing an event, actually bother pointing out how overwhelmingly Latina and/or Black and female the names of the dead you’re reading are…and think about how to include on a more broad-based basis rather than letting it be run by closed social groups. be accountable for how racist the trans community is, and think about that doubly so when trying to include tokens rather than actually opening it up to all of us. don’t exclude people for who they are so long as they identify as trans (if you’re doing an all-trans reading; don’t exclude people at all if not.) don’t get huffy and angry when someone points out the reality of how TDoR works; rather than getting passive-aggressive or trying the “who the hell are you” angle, two things that are you telling that person their concerns don’t matter, listen and figure out what you can do to work with them, if there is anything that can be done. remember that what might seem like anger is often a direct response to the fact that we’re shut out wherever we go in the trans community, it’s not anger at you. add in that the people who organize TDoR nationally, volunteer or not, don’t want to talk about race at all, and we have a pretty good recipe for what’s happening.
we’re not looking for pity or to be placated with words that don’t mean anything; we seek sincerity and maybe someday inclusion. right now, though, November 20th is coming up, and i implore you to work for us even if you’re working without us and to think about how to break down the whiteness of the trans community…or don’t, and keep making it an othering experience for people you’re not even including and then wondering why we don’t feel welcome. nothing about us, without us indeed.