The Origins of Transgender Day of Remembrance
On November 20, 1995, Chanelle Pickett, an African American transgender woman living in the Greater Boston area, was murdered. She had been strangled. The Transgender Community Forum, a chat room on America Online (AOL), reported Chanelle’s death. The director of AOL’s Transgender Community Forum was Gwendolyn Ann Smith.
Three years later on November 28, 1998, Rita Hester, another African American transgender woman, was also murdered in Boston. She was stabbed 20 times. Gwen went online to chat with friends. She talked to others in the community and there was an air of sorrow that a Black trans women had been murdered so brutally, but though another Black transwoman was killed in the same month, in the same city, no one remembered Chanelle Pickett.
This lack of community memory frightened Gwen. She felt a, ”sense of frustration, seeing our community not seemingly having any idea of these murders, and feeling that they might not even care.”
So, Gwen began researching transgender deaths-by-violence. She launched the website Remembering Our Dead in late 1998. In March 1999, a fledgling trans rights group, called TG Rage, planted the seed for what would become Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR). During a showing of “The Brandon Teena Story” at San Francisco’s Castro Theater Gwen and about 50 others held a vigil, holding candles and signs showing the names Gwen had collected. Gwen said a few words.
That autumn Gwen and Penni Ashe Matz decided to hold the first TDoR observances on November 20, 1999, in Boston and San Francisco. About 70-100 people gathered in the rain at Harvey Milk Plaza in The Castro for the first TDoR candlelight vigil.
Their sign read:Sunday, November 28th, 1999, will be the one year anniversary of the death of Rita Hester. Rita was stabbed to death in her own apartment.
Remembering Our Dead and TDoR began as one person’s quest to preserve transgender history and to memorialize those who died by violence year after year. And though other communities celebrate holidays born from a spirit of joy or liberation, the first holiday the transgender community put on the calendar is a solemn observance, a plea to respect human life.
The TDoR Website reports that there have been 386 recorded violent deaths of trans people worldwide. The true number is certainly higher, as many deaths go unreported, the victims misgendered and dead-named by family and media. In the United States, the Human Rights Campaign has reported 32 murders of trans people in the United States since last November 20, the majority of whom were trans women of color.
Remember their names.
Text by Ms. Bob Davis
Art by Robyn Adams