It’s been seven years since Rita Hester was stabbed to death in her Massachusetts apartment building and, like so many other transgendered or transsexual murders, the case remains unsolved.
But Hester’s death was different. Her friends and community refused to let her murder go unnoticed. There was a candlelight vigil held in Hester’s name in San Francisco a year after she was killed. A few years later, the annual vigil had transformed into the internationally recognized Trans Day Of Remembrance, a day dedicated to the memories of victims of transphobia.
On Nov 20, cities throughout North America, Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe will hold Trans Day Of Remembrance services. Ottawa will be participating for the third year in a row.
Lenore Newman is a member of Ottawa’s Trans Day Of Remembrance organizing committee. She says the day is crucial within the trans community.
“It’s important for us to remember that we’re not alone and that we have each other. There’s a certain feeling of outrage that goes along with the event that is important to keep in mind,” she says. “We have to remember the reason this event is going on. It’s because we’re killed at levels unheard of anywhere else in society.”
Newman says trans murders are not only more frequent, but particularly gruesome.
“The murders of trans people are usually extremely violent. They usually involve multiple people or acts of mutilation, really horrible deaths.”
Newman says the murders are usually a result of people finding out victims were born one way but present in another.
But the ongoing threat of physical violence is only part of the intolerance trans people face. Not every trans person will face physical harm, but it is almost impossible to meet a transgendered or transsexual who hasn’t faced some sort of outward discrimination.
Denial of service, whether at a hospital or a restaurant, is something most trans people have faced, says Newman. Employment is also a huge challenge because so many trans people are laid off during their transition period.
“It’s hard to have trust in basic social structures when you’re so excluded,” says Newman. But Newman also says the annual Remembrance day is an important step in raising awareness around her community’s issues.
“The public face of Trans Day Of Remembrance is important. I like to think it makes the public more aware that we’re a group that’s being systematically abused.”
Ottawa’s ceremony has grown significantly over the last few years. Melanie Pasztor organized Ottawa’s first Remembrance, and continues to play a lead role in this year’s event.
“This year will definitely be the biggest event Ottawa has ever had,” says Pasztor.
This year’s organizers have decided to mix the sombre nature of the memorial with a celebration for the progress that has been made within the trans community.
One of the most important steps forward has been the introduction of BC NDP member of parliament Bill Siksay’s private member’s bill to amend human rights legislation to include gender identity and gender expression.
“For the first time a federal politician has attempted to introduce some legislation that has to do with us. It’s not that such bills stop violence, but they bring attention to it. I think it’s a positive step,” says Newman.
Local trans activist Jessica Freedman agrees that there are reasons to celebrate, but she also says there is a lot more work to do. Freedman says the day is both an event to remember victims of violence and an opportunity to raise awareness.
“I increasingly find recognition and acknowledgement, and a will to include trans people,” says Freedman, “But there’s a long way to go. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but the future is not black.”
While the first two ceremonies and vigils were outside at Ottawa’s human rights memorial, this year’s event has moved inside Jack Purcell Community Centre. “We’re expecting 200 people throughout the day this year, compared to about 50 people who attended the first and second events,” says Pasztor.
This year’s event will host information tables from a number of organizations. There will also be more speakers than ever before. Confirmed speakers include Helma Seidl, a social worker who has worked closely with trans people; NDP Ottawa candidates Paul Dewar and Rick Dagenais; Egale Canada’s executive director, Gilles Marchildon; and Ariel Troster, the capital region board member for Egale.
The day will begin with refreshments and speeches. Then the names of murdered victims of trans violence will be read, and a moment of silence will follow. The event will finish with an open-mic session where anyone in attendance is welcome to share their thoughts or experiences.
As well as the expansion of this year’s ceremony, Freedman, with help from Pink Triangle Services, has organized two events leading up to the weekend Remembrance service.
The first event, a film screening of the National Film Board documentary In the Flesh, will be at PTS on Nov 15. The film documents the lives of four transsexuals as well as their views on relationships, family, sexuality and self.
Two nights later, a panel discussion at Sandy Hill Community Centre will feature Seidl, Dr Norman Barwood and Siksay. Freedman will also join the panelists to speak about male-to-female transition and Alex Adams will discuss female-to-male transition.