The Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is an annual observance of people lost to violence—primarily trans women of color who were murdered. Because we don't hear about these women until they die, we only know them in numbers on a rising toll. Their deaths overshadow their lives. We're beginning to understand the statistical risks of being trans, but too often these conversations are had in the wake of extreme violence. On TDOR, their names are invoked at candlelight vigils. By intentionally remembering that these women were here, that they had names, dreams, and a right to live without fear, prejudice, or violence, we refuse to forget them.
In 2014 there were 12 reported murders of transgender people in the United States. This year, that number has increased by 84 percent. A startlingly majority (19) of the 22 victims in 2015 are women of color. The violence facing trans people in the United States is a product of intersecting, structural inequality and prejudice. The FBI released its annual Hate Crime Report (2014) on November 17, showing that reported hate crimes against transgender people tripled last year.
I want people to understand that transgender people are not disposable, and that we all have a right to live.
Gwen Smith has been a trans rights activist since the 1990s. She says the trans community was far more insular back then, and less likely to speak out. "There were still plenty of murders, mind. They weren't often reported, or when they were, it was 'man dressed in women's clothing' or 'bearded lady' headlines. There was very little community awareness."
In 1998, Smith founded the Remembering Our Dead project, which ultimately became the Transgender Day of Remembrance. "It was originally formed as a reaction to the death of Rita Hester, a trans woman in Allston, Massachusetts." When Smith spoke with natives of the state about Hester's murder, she began to notice similarities in her case and the killing of another transgender woman, Chanelle Pickett. But even though Pickett had died just a few years before the death of Rita Hester, no one knew anything about it. "I took that as a reason to address the issue of anti-transgender violence, and raise awareness," Smith says.
"Initially, all I hoped for was visibility." Smith hoped TDOR would bring awareness to the issues facing trans people, including the violence and their unrecognized right to exist. "Over time, the latter has become far more of a driving element. I want people to understand that transgender people are not disposable, and that we all have a right to live. I want those who we have lost to be remembered and honored."
Read More: The Violent Reality for Trans Women of Color
Based on the statistics that we have, two of the most significant factors that contribute to the violence are inequity in class and race. A great majority of violence is targeted at trans women of color. According to Injustice at Every Turn, a report by the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, transgender people are 400 percent more likely to have an annual income below $10,000, compared to the general population.
"I would contend that there has always been an intersection between anti-transgender violence and issues of race and class," Smith says. "Both Chanelle Pickett and Rita Hester were young, African-American trans women. The majority of anti-trans murders are people of color, largely black, and largely from lower socioeconomic classes. That is how it was when the project started, and as it is now."
On Tuesday, the LGBT Equality Caucus within Congress formed a Transgender Equality Task Force to address the violence and discrimination facing transgender people in the United States. A congressional forum was held at which activists, community members, and policy advocates testified.
Even the FBI will admit that the data are collected and reported so inconsistently as to render them almost meaningless.
Harper Jean Tobin is the Policy Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "We're here today, just before the Transgender Day of Remembrance," she said during the task force meeting, seated before a semi-circle of elected officials. "Each year remembers and honors those who have died by violence. What other community even needs to have a day like this?"
"This year we've seen more reports of murders than any year our community started counting almost twenty years ago. While it's not clear if the actual rates of violence have surged, or if it's just being reported more often and more accurately, or both, the impact on the community is undeniable. We all feel it. There is significant trauma and fear, especially among the trans communities of color who are most likely to see this crisis face to face."
Tobin then outlined the difficulties we face addressing the issues. She assured Congress that violence is a complex problem with complex causes. But the path to correct it is unclear, in part because we still lack basic information about both the transgender population and the violence itself. "No one has really seriously studied it," she said. "The federal government hasn't really studied it, in fact we don't really know how many trans people there are. We have rough estimates that suggest there are probably about one million trans identified people in the U.S., but we don't really know because the federal government has been almost entirely negligent in studying us. The lack of research means we don't even know the extent or the nature of the problem."
"Just today the Justice Department released its annual hate crime statistics. This is the second year with gender identity statistics. They reported 98 reported incidents of bias motivated violence around the country last year against trans and gender nonconforming people." But, she explained, those numbers pale against the reality. They are far higher. "Even the FBI will admit that the data are collected and reported so inconsistently as to render them almost meaningless. This is a serious public health crisis, and a serious public safety crisis, and the government is not really studying it."
It's hard to say if the problem is getting worse because it reached a crisis point decades ago. We're only paying attention now. These numbers may be almost meaningless, but they are useful because they serve as irrefutable proof of a problem that has long been ignored. The deaths of, and violence facing, transgender women of color are barely studied. Their deaths are reported on marginally, with minimal on the ground investigation or original reporting. These women's deaths are sensationalized, complained about, but not prevented. The statistics are numbers, but there are real people behind them and they deserve more than to be tallied. They deserve the life that was denied to them.
An earlier version of this article stated that the reported murders of transgender people increased 184% this year. They actually increased 84%.