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“Let their passing fuel every other day of the year,” Says Gwendolyn Ann Smith, TDOR Founder

 

Without Gwendolyn Ann Smith, Nov. 20th might be just an ordinary day on the LGBTQ calendar. But Smith, an out and proud transgender woman and journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area, was moved to action by the fact so few people knew about the violence being perpetrated against the trans community back in 1998.

 

Smith felt there needed to be a day to commemorate those murdered because of who they are, and the bold lives they lived. Because of her pioneering efforts, the LGBTQ community comes together for vigils, services and ceremonies all around the world every Nov. 20th, for the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Here’s how that came to be, along with some personal remembrances, from the woman who started it all: Gwendolyn Ann Smith:

 

#BOOM: This year’s commemorations will be the first since COVID-19 vaccinations became available. How will they compare to last year's?

  GwenSmith1

Gwendolyn Ann Smith: While COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters now are within our grasp, at least here in the U.S., I am still recommending virtual events. The pandemic isn’t quite over yet, and while we may see an end in sight, now is also when we’re most likely to get careless. I, for example, am participating in a virtual one as well this year, rather than being out and about. Hopefully things will change on that front for 2022. We shall see.

 

#BOOM: How and when did you first realize or know you were trans? What action did you first take toward living authentically?

 

Smith: This is a lot, and not because it’s somewhat personal, but because it’s hard to say, “well, this one, specific moment was when I realized things.” It’s more like a series of moments. Like, I knew around age 3 that I wasn’t like the other girls I knew of at the time, but I don’t think that’s exactly it. 

 

I know that around age 7 or so, I first heard of the transgender people on an old AM talk radio show in my parents’ old 1963 Dodge Dart, way back then; Mom and dad up front, me in the back. It was a weird moment, to sit back there and simultaneously hear all about my own feelings, while also hear my parents discuss how hard it must be for a parent to deal with that.

 

Then I also think about first reading the 1975 Wendy Carlos interview in one of my dad’s Playboy magazines, or hearing about Renee Richards in 1976. Those two were also part of my own personal realization.

 

I do know, however, that it was 1991 or so when I realized that the path I was on wasn’t working, and I needed to finally learn more. I went to the library near college and got anything I could get my hands on. I started to look for support, which was a challenge in pre-World Wide Web times. I came out to my then-fiancée, and begin to work out what was going to be next for me. Coming out to all of my friends and family came a couple years later, with me starting transition in 1995. 

 

#BOOM: What can you share of that first experience in 1998, creating, organizing and finally seeing the event that led to TDOR in person?

 

SMITH: TDOR came “Remembering Our Dead,” a web project where I was chronicling those we’d lost due to anti-transgender violence. That came about because I was very angry one night, realizing that our then very new community had no sense of this history. 

 

I’ve told [the story] a lot, about how it was formed just after Rita Hester’s death, when I found out that those in our community, including those in the greater Boston area, did not know of the Chanelle Pickett murder that took place just a couple of years prior. The court trial for her murderer, William Palmer, had only concluded some 15 months before Hester’s death. Yet people seemed to not have a memory of this, and like the George Santayana quote, we were doomed to repeat this history.

 

Early the next year, 1999, a short-lived San Francisco trans rights collective, TG RAGE, held an action around the documentary, “The Brandon Teena Story,” using the data from “Remembering Our Dead” to highlight the ongoing deaths within our community — pointing out that Brandon Teena’s death was just one of a great many. In the wake of that event, Penny Ashe Matz, a Boston-area trans activist, as well as myself and others in San Francisco, formed the first Day of Remembrance on the 28th of November that year. 

  

It was really something to see it come together in those early days. As I mentioned, things started because I was upset that our community seemed to forget those we had lost, and this was leading us to remain ignorant to the issue. So, to see a mass of people coming together to remember those we had lost, and seeing that grow and grow in subsequent years, was beyond anything I had expected. Honestly, I really thought I would be shouting into the void.

 GwenSmith2

At the same time, all these years later, I find myself often worrying if I did the right thing. I do feel it is important to pay attention to this issue, don’t get me wrong on that — but was I the right person to be involved with it? Should things have been formed differently? I don’t know. I am glad it exists, but I know the event itself can be hard for so many in our community, and the focus on our losses can be seen by many as negative. 

  

#BOOM: This is such a fraught time for the transgender community, and I can't recall a worse time for girls like us, especially those who are Black and brown and living on the margins. Do you have hope this will turn around? Or are you concerned for the future of our population? 

 

SMITH: Gods, I hope so. I feel it worth noting that Black people, and other people of color, have always been disproportionately affected by anti trans violence. While anyone can be subject to anti-trans violence, regardless of how one identifies, it is key to note that the vast majority of anti-transgender murders are Black trans women. The first two cases I chronicled as part of Remembering Our Dead were trans women of color, and the majority this year is as well. You simply cannot look at anti-trans violence in a bubble, without looking at other oppressive forces at play. 

 

Do I hope things will turn around? Best way I think I can put it is that I have to. If I don’t try to keep hoping, then what is the alternative? I feel like that would only lead to despair.

 

Yet I cannot look at where our society is right now and worry. This year far out paced last year, and 2020 outpaced 2019. The number of anti-trans violence deaths has skyrocketed. 

 

On top of that, much of the media is portraying transgender people as the threat, not our killers. We even saw a recent BBC article that paints trans women as all seeking to rape lesbian women. You also have politicians seeking to make transgender people their latest cause célèbre, attempting to pass law after law against our participation in society at large.

 

Oh, yes, and you have comedians like Dave Chappelle targeting trans identities, and getting paid millions to do so. 

 

Now, I’m not saying that Chappelle himself is out there murdering trans people. But he is part of a culture that is getting harder for trans people — again, predominately trans women of color — to survive within. We are, quite simply, under threat. 

 

#BOOM: Is there anything you can point to, specifically, for this year's spike? 

 

SMITH: So much of the political forces in this country are so busy looking for groups to hate — and here we are. That we also allow for so much hatred at Black people and other people of color, as well as loads of trans misogyny, just seems to sweeten the pot for our detractors. 

 

#BOOM: What's the message TDOR sends to young trans and nonbinary folks? And are you confident they're listening? 

 

SMITH: I hope they will, but I’m not sure. I worry that the day has been co-opted under Trans Awareness Week, and the importance of remembering those we’ve lost might once again be forgotten —and I know that a memorial is a lot harder to focus on. Perhaps it would have been better to see those as separate entities, for the good of both. 

 

#BOOM: As a journalist, how do you deal with the stress, dysphoria and hate we cover that can sometimes hit too close to home? 

 

SMITH: That is a tough question. Sometimes you don’t. I know several years ago, as I covered the Gwen Araujo murder trial, it was extremely hard to balance my work as a journalist and my own feelings. It did not help that I shared the same first name, that she grew up in a community similar to the one I did or how close I became with Gwen’s family over the course of the trial. 

 

I do try to have outside interests to focus on, too, and try to keep myself balanced when I can. I do a lot of work in virtual worlds and other pursuits, and I have both a spouse and a feline I can come home to at the end of the day. Yet, it is still very hard. 

 

#BOOM: Are you happy?

 TransOpEdwindow

SMITH: Now that is an interesting question. In my personal and professional life, by and large I am. Am I happy with my own journey as a transgender woman? Yes. That was just the right move overall for me. Are there still things I wish to conquer? Absolutely.

 

That said, do I still wake up in the night with night terrors over some of the activism I have done? I do. This isn’t easy work, and it can sit very heavily on one’s soul. I’m not the same person I once was. 

 

#BOOM: I always ask this question at the end of every interview: Is there anything I didn't ask you were expecting me to ask? Anything you want readers to know that I didn't ask you about? Anything you'd like to add? 

 

SMITH: Oh, I already knew you weren’t going to ask me the same questions I always hear from the non-trans press about TDOR, which tends to focus way too much on personal identity and not enough on the issues surrounding anti-transgender violence! 

 

I think the only thing I would want to add is this. When you attend a Transgender Day of Remembrance, honor those we have lose. Say their names. Feel their loss. At the same time, let their passing fuel every other day of the year. Fight back. Be strong. Survive. Be resilient. Organize. Create a world that is better.

 

Or, as Mother Jones put it, “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!”

 

This interview was lightly edited to tighten some quotes and for space.

 

Gwendolyn Ann Smith is the subject of a biography: Trans / Active, and her column, Transmissions, appears in the Bay Area Reporter.

 

Dawn Ennis (she/her/hers) is an award-winning journalist for Forbes.com, The Daily Beast, Senior Executive,CTVoice Magazine and StarTrek.com. She is also the sports editor for the Los Angeles Blade, an on-aircorrespondent for “CTVoiceOut Loud” on WTNH-TV and hosts the “RiseUP With Dawn Ennis” talk show.In 2013, Ennis was the first transgender journalist in the U.S. to come out in network TV news.

 

*Trans Day Of Remembrance St. Charles, Mo. Event 11/20

Starting at 4 pm, 1(815 Booneslick Rd, St. Charles, 63301), organized by PFLAG Greater St. Louis. Outdoor event, under/around the gazebo behind the building.

 

*Trans Day Of Remembrance St.. Louis, Mo. Event 11/20

Starting at 5:30 p.m. gather at MTUG HQ (3133 Oregon Ave.) Then at 6:15 p.m. walk as a group from HQ to MTUG's Trans Memorial Garden (2800 Wyoming). Vigil will take place at the garden and will start at 6:30 p.m.

 

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