The Day of Remembrance, which we commemorate tomorrow, is a time of mourning for transgender people, a time to honor the lives tragically cut short by another person’s hatred or fears. It is also a time to look at how we can have fewer and fewer deaths to commemorate on this day in years to come.
Each year as I look at the names and faces of those we have lost, they touch me profoundly and they also call me to a renewed commitment to the work ahead of us. We have to use every tool available to us to stem the tide; one of those tools is federal law.
A full year has passed since the passage of the first federal law to offer protections to transgender people-the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. While the law certainly won’t end the problem of hate crimes, it does provide new avenues to address violence when it occurs. For the very first time, the Department of Justice and federal law enforcement officials have been authorized to take action to address the violence that transgender people face. And, while it’s easy to be cynical about the government, there are people in law enforcement who are truly and deeply dedicated to working with us to address the violence.
We’ve been at the table with the FBI and other departments as they’ve worked to update their training programs to include explicit information about gender identity and change the way they record information so we gain vital knowledge about the extent of the problem. I know, paperwork doesn’t seem like it will do anything. There is something very important about seeing the word “transgender” there in the manuals and forms because it means that the federal government is making a record and taking notice of the horrific violence we as a people face. It is information they can use to prosecute a crime and ensure that local law enforcement takes violence against us seriously. It will also help formulate violence prevention programs.
But there’s also something awful about knowing that those forms will record the terror of victims of hate-motivated violence. Law enforcement officers will note down the weapons used, the damage done and the derogatory words that are said to harm a transgender person-someone’s child, or partner, or parent, or loved one.
One of the reasons that we don’t use the word “tranny” at NCTE is because we’ve heard too many stories of violence. We know that when someone hears that word, it often heralds the beginning of an attack. And words matter when we look at hate crimes; the language used is, in fact, part of how we determine if something is a hate crime, because words are one of the weapons used to hurt the target of the violence. Because in a hate crime, damage is done to hearts and spirits as well as to bodies-and sadly, that’s the perpetrator’s point. We hear regularly, especially over the past few weeks, from transgender people who tell us that “tranny” is a word that feels hostile and hurtful to them. We shouldn’t use words that cause pain to others, especially when the word is one that, horrifyingly, transgender people hear as they are being bludgeoned. We have to use our words differently than that.
This week, the Department of Justice brought federal hate crimes charges under the new law for the first time, against white supremists who attacked a developmentally disabled Native American man in New Mexico. Disability was one of the other new categories added to the hate crimes laws, along with gender identity. It is a reminder that violence to any of us hurts all of us.
There are many more cases that are currently in the midst of the legal and investigative processes that have to happen before charges are filed. Each of these cases makes a statement that hate crimes are intolerable and illegal.
But we also have to keep our eye on our goal-ending violence against transgender people. We do this by educating people about the realities of our lives and by asserting our human rights to express who we are and to live in safety. To make this a reality, we have to build a climate of acceptance, free of derogatory words and angry fists, and filled with respect for the differences among us.