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December 7, 2006
RICHARD J. ROSENDALL
For the fallen: a vigil and a duty
The following is adapted from remarks I presented at a memorial vigil in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 30 for victims of anti-transgender violence.
We say never again, yet the vigils keep coming, because our transgender brothers and sisters continue to be targeted for hate violence. We continue to see the telltale signs of overkill. We continue to hear of illegal profiling by police. We continue to see teenagers thrown out of their houses to face homelessness, survival sex, disease, addiction, and violence.
We hold these observances not out of morbid obsession but because we owe it to the fallen to mark their passing, to honor their courage, to repeat that the violence and hatred are not acceptable, and to recommit ourselves to changing our society one mind, one life, one relationship at a time.
Diversity is not a value to be promoted. It is a reality to be faced. Simply by going about their lives, transgender people say many things to the wider society. They say, “I exist. I am a human being and a citizen of this country. My life has as much value as yours. I demand my birthright of equal justice under the law. And I refuse to disappear.”
In the Nov. 12 issue of New York Daily News, James Kirchick wrote that “allowing people to change the sex on their birth certificate even if they have not had gender reassignment surgery is nothing less than a call for falsifying government documents.” Kirchick also writes, “Gender identity is a sensitive issue, and basic decency demands that we treat it as such.”
Basic decency demands a constructive proposal and not just a statement of opposition. Many transgenders cannot afford gender reassignment surgery. When people routinely face discrimination because their gender expression conflicts with the sex on their legal identification, they deserve better than a denial or dismissal of the problem.
There is nothing sacrosanct, at least in theory, about what is put on IDs issued by state motor vehicle departments. If there is objection to changing birth certificates without gender reassignment surgery, driver’s licenses can be changed to specify gender instead of sex, which will make no difference to most people. Transgender applicants can then be required to submit an attestation of their gender identity. Let the lawyers work it out. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Transgender activists are concerned that the REAL ID Act of 2005, an anti-terror measure which sets national standards for state-issued driver’s licenses, may make it harder for transgender people to obtain legal ID with their correct name and lived gender, and create additional barriers for asylum applicants. As the National Center for Transgender Equality warns, if the law (whose full impact is not yet known) fails to distinguish between legitimate suspects and gender minorities, it will needlessly scapegoat immigrants, burden state budgets, and make life more difficult for transgender citizens.
There are signs of progress, but we have a long road ahead of us. This year, for example, the District of Columbia joined the eight states (Massachusetts not among them) that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression, yet anti-transgender hate crimes continue. Translating policy reforms into reality on the street is hard to do.
We can find encouragement in incremental steps. There is a good chance that a transgender-inclusive hate crimes bill will pass in the new Congress. In Washington, D.C., Mayor-elect Adrian Fenty promises to appoint a new chief of fire and emergency medical services who will “root out the Department’s entrenched homophobia and transphobia.” Other police departments around the country are looking to the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, whose staff includes a transgender retired police sergeant, as a model of innovative community policing.
Much is needed. Transgender homeless need more than shelter – they need job training, drug treatment and mental and physical health services, along with less tangible things like encouragement and a sense of security. Service agencies need staffing that better reflects the population being served.
Working for change is difficult. We will inevitably have differences over policy details and strategy. To move forward we need to find ways to further discussion rather than shut it down, to build productive relationships rather than throw up walls of distrust.
Two qualities that have deeply impressed me about friends who confronted HIV and AIDS are courage and grace. I see the same qualities in my transgender friends. To endure intolerance on a daily basis just to go about your life with integrity, just to defend your abiding sense of who you are, takes extraordinary grace and courage. Part of why we honor those who came before us is that their strength in adversity inspires us to find our own sources of strength. They remind us that we are not isolated creatures, but heirs of a tradition and participants in a greater struggle.
Each of the fallen, like each of us, was a precious, irreplaceable child of God. We honor them and will not forget them. We can ensure they have not lived in vain, not by reciprocating the violence of others, but by fostering understanding. We can teach our nation’s children to respond to the rich variation of the universe not only with fear, but with wonder. That could lead to a new discovery of America – an America that was always here, but that many are seeing for the first time.