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November 20th, 2020

OUR FLOWERS WHILE WE’RE HERE: Trans folks reflect on Trans Day of Remembrance and beyond

Trans communities across the world have had to do the work of holding their own memory for a long time. November is the month of Trans Awareness and today, November 20 as the last day of #transawareness week we observe Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR). In conmemoration of this month and TDOR in particular, we spoke to trans artists, organizers, archivists, sex workers and educators throughout Abya Yala. 

Odalys Elizabeth Cayambe Bustamante and members of Vivir Libre, Ecuador.

HISTORY

Trans Day of Remembrance started in 1999 by a transgender activist named Gwendolyn Ann Smith. It started as a vigil in honor of another trans woman who was murdered in Allston, Massachusetts in 1998. Her name was Rita Hester. “The press covered her death as the death of a man and they did not use her name, but rather her legal [dead] name,” says Cecilia Gentili, (42) transgender rights activist and storyteller born in Argentina and based in New York. 

Gwendolyn started a website called Remembering Our Dead, which memorialized people who had died as a direct result of gender-based violence. The list now lives on the Trans Day of Remembrance website

Cecilia, also known for her iconic role as Miss Orlando in the series POSE, shares that as a child she was very queer. “My mother says that at three, three and a half years old, I told her that I was not a boy. I didn’t tell her that I was a girl. I told her that I was not a boy.”

Cecilia Gentili, photo by Serena Jara, New York.

When she was five years old in kindergarten, they had to call her into a meeting and explain that she couldn’t use the girls’ bathroom. Cecilia recounts, “and I said ‘but why?’ and they told me, ‘because you are not a girl’. And I said, ‘but how am I not a girl?’ and well, they showed me photos and everything. And I think that was the first time that I learned to negotiate with the rest of society and I said well, if you want, I’ll go to the boy’s bathroom.” She laughs, “sometimes I had fun in the boys’ bathroom.”

As trans people, memory, dissidence, refusal and action for our community are things that traverse us everyday since childhood, not just once a year. 

“It feels like these days [Trans Day of Remembrance, Trans Day of Action…] are supposed to remind cis people that we are here, that we exist. Because as a trans person, my trans community is in my head at all times.” says Librada Gonzales Fernandez (26), a trans woman, independent archivist creator of Cubane Cuir and pajara Cubana currently based between Hialeah and Brooklyn. “It is what I am enraptured with when I am researching.“

Cisgender people have some morbidity around these days. “It seems to me that they love to listen to stories of pain, regret, uprooting and violence,” shares Cecilia. For her, it is important to make an effort on this day to remember that our community is “resistant, strong, unique, very united, and generous.” While she takes the time to talk about the grief of losing so many people in the community to transphobia she also makes time to talk about the beauty of the community.

REMEMBRANCE

“Each life, each death means a step of resistance, a step of struggle for our freedom, that is why it is important to remember them,” says Santiago Balvin Gutierrez (31), a non binary transmasculine activist based in Huancayo, Perú part of the collective, No Tengo Nombre. “Because their life meant for other trans people, a space to be recognized, to be understood, to find space in a world that does not allow us to be.”

In Peru, when a trans person dies, there is never justice for their death. And even in death the name and pronouns of the person is often not respected, especially if it makes the news and often by family members. 

“It seems crucial to me to have a memory of who they were, because trans people are murdered with impunity, they are murdered and there is no justice for them, there is no reparation for their deaths,” says Santiago. “A sister dies and is forgotten, a week ago Shisha, a trans woman from Huancayo died and like others who died like Sandy or Denisse, their deaths have not had justice, nothing has been done to find her the culprits. Justice will not only be just for them, but for all.”

From Mexico we spoke to Lia, who is a siren. “When I say that I am a siren, I mean that my voice is the center of my existence. My voice that speaks, sounds and shouts to demand justice in this country so full of pain, desolation and forgetfulness: Mexico,” she says.

Lia is 31 years old, and was born and raised in Mexico. “Water gives me everything because the sea brings everything and takes everything away, that is my connection with trans memory,” she says. “A sea full of names, lives and voices turned into echo – memory of all of us who, even without a body, are life because we remember them and they live in us.”

Lia, photo by Kanllo, Mexico.

Trans people have always been at the forefront of movements. From anti-racist, anti-fascist to of course LGBTQIA movements; and yet have rarely been acknowledged for their legacies and certainly not been afforded the same opportunities that were born of these struggles as cis LGBTIA people have across the world. In Ecuador, the story is similar. 

“Trans people, gender non-conforming people were mainly the ones who put their faces, bodies, to repeal of subsection 1 of article 516 that criminalized homosexuality with 4 to 8 years in jail,” says Victor Garcia (25), a nonbinary queer person always in resistance and part of Guayaqueer, a queer activist and artistic platform based in Guayaquil, Ecuador. “And they were the ones who suffered the most harassment, the ones who were disappeared, who were killed, tortured, thrown into the rivers.”

Homosexuality was decriminilized in 1997, but there were crimes against humanity that happened as trans folks continued fighting. Victor tells us that it was trans folks also who  managed to articulate as the first collective and community organizations for trans women and sex workers.

“When I think about trans memory, I think about that path that was traveled. I think of the suffering, I think of the victories. I think of the community,” he says.

We also spoke to Odalys Elizabeth Cayambe Bustamante, a trans woman who promotes rights in defense of trans LGBTI people through her organization, Vivir Libres in Ecuador. “How do I connect to memory from memory itself? Because I am a victim, I am a victim of the nineties, I am forty years old, I have been in sex work since I was eleven years old.”

Odalys experienced all the discrimination in the face of decriminalization. “I am a woman who went to jail since I was 12 years old, regardless of my childhood for practicing sex work, for being a trans woman. For living in a space that society considered was not my own and was not mine.”

As an archivist of queer histories, Librada experiences a range of emotions in encountering the stories of Cuban queer people. “I think remembrance has a specific significance in interpretation or re-interpretation rather. How are queer people in the past, asking for us to take their stories, especially trans people, how are they asking us to take their stories and look at them for the first time through a trans lens?” 

Librada at the Queer Liberation March, 2019, New York.

So many stories that Librada has found in her research of Cuban Queer History, have been coded as stories about homosexual men and not of trans women. “And that’s the part in which I’m crying, and the part in which I’m laughing is because I finally found my community, through some kind of temporal connection,” she says. “I am connecting with Cuban queer people through space and time through people that are on the island. And also through people who are not here with us anymore, who are in the past and who I feel a strong sense of community with.”

ACTIONS

“I see it as a day full of love,” says Joanna Cifredo, a 33 year old trans woman organizer, comedian and lead visionary behind Camp Albizu who is based in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. 

Joanna Cifredo, Puerto Rico.

“Where my trans family gathers. Although it is a day of mourning, that love that I feel for my sisters is what fills my soul and sustains me and keeps me in the fight.”

Today in Puerto Rico, Joanna tells us that there are several actions happening including “un grito” in front of the Capitol at 4 which will continue into the night as well many services and vigils today in some churches that affirm the trans community. 

In New York, Cecilia shares that there’s a lot of virtual events. She’s personally attending 3 virtual events in the day time and going to an in person, socially distanced event in the Bronx called “Courageous Conversations: Trans Day of Remembrance,” with BAADBronx. “And then, I’m going to come home and I’m going to take a hot bath with my little candles and my little things, and maybe a little wine with a Xanax and relax.”

Today is also an opportunity to celebrate lives, she tells us. “Give us our flowers when we are alive. When I am dead I will not be able to smell them because I am already dead…Now is when I will be able to enjoy them,” says Cecilia. 

One of the things she likes to do is always send flowers to her friends, especially her Black trans friends. In the US the vast majority of murders of trans people have been of Black trans women. According to Cecilia, there have been 34 murders of trans folks that we know of in the U.S. this year alone. 

She says it’s not a coincidence that Black trans women are the most affected. “Because it is not just transphobia, it is a mixture of three intersections which are transphobia, misogyny, and racism,” she says. “The hatred of freedom this person experienced when they decided to try to make that transition.”

Similarly in Argentina, beyond the progress, the establishing of the 1% quota for trans workers in civil service jobs, the violence continues. There were 69 hate crimes in just the first half of this year, 32 of which were murders committed by both civilians and state forces. Cecilia shares that most of these murders are of Indigenous trans women such as Tova women, and migrant women from Andean regions of South America like Bolivia and Peru. 

Santiago Balvin Gutierrez, Peru. 

In Peru, Santiago is organizing a virtual event called YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO FORGET US, which will be live at 4pm EST on the Facebook page of Chola Contravisual. This conversation gathers trans folks from different regions of Peru such as Cusco, Arequipa, Huancayo, Ica, Trujillo and Lima. Other actions that are being carried out is wheatpasting posters with the faces of our dead in public places throughout Peru. 

“Trans people are fighters and resilient, much of it for resisting in a world that does not want to see us live,” says Santiago. “That is why continuing to exist means telling this Cis-tem that it can’t mess with us, that we will continue to love each other and remind each other, that our motivation is to destroy and transgress what they imposed on us.”

In Ecuador, Odalys is organizing the First National Trans March with support of Victor from Guayaqueer and other organizations. Odalys tells us that the trans march is an initiative that comes from trans folks within the prison system, and that they’ve been planning for over a year with her organization, Vivir Libre. 

“We started to realize that the LGBTI Pride issue was completely lost,” says Odalys. “In other words, LGBTI pride worldwide is a “pride” that only makes visible the brands, club owners, etc… We forget Stonewall, we forget true remembrance. We forget that 51 years ago in New York, they were fighting for the right to life, a guarantee of life.”

Posters for the First National Trans March in Ecuador by Guayaqueer.

For Lia and Librada, it’s a day to also spend gathered with loved ones. “The first action happens in the heart, because we remember with the heart rather than with the mind,” says Lia. “Mexico is the second country in Abya Yala to kill more trans people. Remembrance is daily but today is an even more special day, of direct action: virtual and street protests to shout Justice and name our own: Alessa, Paola, Itzel, ItzaYana, Patricia, Carmen, Raúl, Cheva, Lorena, Fernando , diva, Tiney and more and more names.”

In Hialeah, where Librada has been pushed to return to her family’s home due to the pandemic, there have not been many events, although yesterday she attended a virtual event, she doesn’t think it should be limited to one day a year. “I think we should be constantly organizing to remember trans people, to keep trans people, to remember the legacy of trans people in our history, especially in culture,” she says. “So what are the events that are happening? The same events that are happening everyday; my community and my friends that I hang out with, trans people who support me and who I support, it’s my community, the one that’s always there, not the people that show up once a year.”

RAGE

“I think of myself as a young person who reviews the past and realizes everything people before us didn’t have, all the things that people who have really helped us have gone through,” says Victor. He says that it’s like the memory of those people, the LGBTQ people who are no longer with us, is inside of us. “We feel them when they insult us, we feel it when they yell at us.

This emotional charge that we carry is within us.”

Despite these situations, trans communities have still fought for self-determination, to create communities across Abya Yala. Today during the National March in Ecuador, Victor and his friends have made a mini church and mini prosecutor’s office that they plan to burn in public.

Victor Garcia, photo by Sara Donoso, member of Guayaqueer, Ecuador.

“So it’s like a transformative rage. It is not a rage like the rage of machismo that only destroys. It is a feminist rage that helps you,” Victor shares. He has a friend that says, “It is like a rage that helps to break down walls and does not dig holes where other people can fall.”

Anger must be shown. Cecilia screams alone when she’s in her house, “I yell at anyone,” she says, “or I yell at the television.” She often asks herself, what do I do with all this anger and pain that I have inside? “Anger, as long as it moves you and as long as your voice moves anger from the inside out, can be a very constructive thing,” she tells us.

For Lia, it is important to transform her anger into radical tenderness, because she believes violence must be transgressed with affection. “The affection that they denied us, that they took from us and that hurt us so much,” she says. 

And for Santiago, his anger used to be sadness. “My sadness turned into rage.” Trans folks are in constant survival mode and Santiago uses the rage now to survive. “Anger is living, before a world that wants us to die,” he says.

DREAMS

Joanna: “I dream of a future where trans people are occupying spaces of power, that we are making decisions. Because I believe that the future is non binary, the future is trans and I feel that there is a revolution happening in humanity. I mean, queers are rising up everywhere. And I feel a strong femme energy, a trans femme energy.”

Odalys Elizabeth Cayambe Bustamante, photo by Vivir Libres, Ecuador.

Odalys: “What do I dream of? Oh God! I dream of serving in a public office. I will fight to the end for my people until a legal guarantee is fulfilled. I don’t want anything to happen to them that happened to me. And if at some point I acted in a bad way in life, it is for my whole life that I led in the streets and that nobody can blame me for, nobody. But we are all entitled to a second chance and I asked for it. And society blamed me and I paid for it. So, what I aspire to and want for my colleagues, the street sex workers, a regularization like there is there in Colombia, on the street for sex workers, to protect us from violence. I have to fight to the end for sex workers. I have to seek education so that the new generation begins to educate themselves. And above all, that they be honest in their truth, and in their principles.”

Santiago: “The future I dream of for me is to continue sharing and expanding the feeling of not remaining silent in the face of violence. It is to continue spreading the importance of ourselves, not to remain silent or satisfied with what we have to live for being trans people. I would like that in the future we can continue organizing together to resist, that we be more in this fight, that precariousness is not something that prevents us from being, living, but that it unites us to resist. Let being on the sidelines be our form of resistance and transgression, from there to burn any form of oppression, from there, to seek our happiness, among ourselves. Sometimes I think we can’t handle something as big as these structures, but we can destroy part of them. I don’t know if I will see a change for us, but I know that we are building that path for those who follow, so that other trans people can rise up in the face of the unfair context that touches them.”

Victor: “First, the State of Ecuador must apologize, it is necessary for the State to ask for a pardon and give reparations to trans people who are gradually disappearing without taking anything, no recognition or anything. It’s time for this historical apology to exist. I dream that there be streets, squares, monuments with names of important trans people so that all people in society know that trans people are also part of us, of our city, of our social fabric, of our culture, of our context. It also sends a message to the new future generations of the present that they are being taken into account, not because we care about the opinion of the State or anything, but because it is very significant. I see the future as an inclusive, intersectional future, where we all just develop and do our best. For a common good, because trans people are capable of doing everything, to study, to work, to show themselves as they really are.”

Librada: “A future in which trans people are not just phenomenons to be studied but are afforded instead the humanity that cis people are afforded everyday. I do not want trans people to just be part of an infographic or a moniker for people performing social justice on social media. I want us to be able to access housing, to be able to access basic human rights. I ask that the cis community and our allies trust us to tell our stories. Trust us to demand what we need. Trust us to lead the way and the path towards our own liberation. To stop telling our stories as if they understood everything about being trans to stop creating infrastructure and laws for trans people with such a paternalistic approach, to let us lead the way. Let us talk for ourselves. And the liberation of trans people is intrinsically tied to the liberation of Black folks, Indigenous people, people of color, disabled people, of sex workers, etc. Trans people have had to remember their own histories for the longest time. We are the ones that are going to preserve past generations’ stories and past generations’ struggles and we need to trust the future to do the same with us. We have always been safekeeping our own legacies, which is why we have to work in communities. Because our own communities are who is gonna project us into the future. And on this day of TDOR I make space for the trans people who historically have not had the resources that they deserve to thrive. So that we may reclaim queer histories and reinterpret them through our own trans sensitivities and that the same is done for us.”

Cecilia and friends from Transgrediendo, New York.

Cecilia: “I dream of safety. And safety is different for everyone. For example, for me, safety is to walk quietly in the street without anyone bothering me or saying anything to me, or shouting at me. Safety means a house for other people. Safety means an inflow of money for other people. Safety means a healthy relationship. We all have different ideas of safety, but most of the transgender and queer people in my life have never experienced an ideal sense of security. Many of us have not known what it feels like to feel safe. And it is something that everyone should have the opportunity to experience and maintain throughout their lives. But most of us have never met safety and are used to living without it. Sometimes I don’t even think about being happy. But I always think about being safe and I believe that when one, in my case, when I feel safe is when I feel happiest. So I never ask for happiness. I always ask for security. Because security gives me a peace of mind and it makes me feel at ease. And when I’m at ease, I feel happier. And happiness is the goal right? And I dream of a community that can flourish and thrive and get to experience all the things that they want in life. And that’s what I want.”

Lia: “I daydream because I already see it! I dream that we continue to advance like elephants, giants hand in hand, opening cracks in this cis-tem that is so lethal for our trans*cestral lives, because we have always existed. I dream that we turn on lights to illuminate more roads rather than on photographs of another murdered. I dream of seeing more children smile for the joy of being recognized. I dream of making only beginnings and no more endings. Remembrance is also to say that we are alive, that we exist and resist and that together, from the skin, we will make the state tremble, because justice is not expected, it is woven and the justice that is woven, is found. Everything we trans people do is historical because we are cracks in a world of structures. We were, are and will be trans resistance. The affective is the effective. Radical tenderness is transformation.”

Special thanks to xime izquierdo ugaz for highlighting various TransLatina activists in Latino America.

Paid for in part by Mijente PAC, 734 W Polk St., Phoenix, AZ 85007, not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.