If watching folks gobbling down turkey on Thanksgiving caused me to further lose faith in America, the sharing of lighted candles at the Transgender Day of Remembrance restored it.
Several weeks ago, I went to Raleigh with my husband to attend the international Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil hosted by Equality North Carolina. The event took place in front of the State Capitol. When we arrived, I was delighted to see that the vigil occupied the same section of sidewalk that Occupy Raleigh demonstrators had claimed.
The Transgender Day of Remembrance memorializes those who have been killed due to anti-trans violence. Held every November, it honors Rita Hester, an African-American transgender woman, who was murdered in Allston, Mass., on the 28th of the month in 1998. Although the name of the event says transgender, it recognizes many people who are transsexual, cross-dressing or otherwise gender variant. Having attended vigils over the years, I find them personally challenging. But they are also signs of hope, like storm-battered trees pushing out new shoots.
We formed a small circle, and slowly our circumference grew. Each of us held a candle while names of people who had died this year were read aloud: Luisa Alvarado Hernández, Krissy Bates, Tyra Trent, Shakira Harahap, Ramazan Çetin ... Listening to the names and their stories, you can't help but notice that trans-people live at the intersections of societal oppressions. All of these women were economically underprivileged, while some also faced racial discrimination. This year, the majority of the recognized victims were from Latin and South America, the U.S., India, Europe, Indonesia and Turkey.
Most of the women murdered were from Honduras, a nation with which the U.S. has bilateral relations. Perhaps it is too simplistic to suggest a correlation between U.S. involvement and the economic vulnerability of these women, but the popular notion is that U.S. policy toward Honduras tries to promote democracy and human rights. Certainly the U.S. benefits from the relationship. With more than 150 American companies and franchises dominating local economies, Honduras appears a de facto colony. Rather than advancing democracy, the U.S. has enabled economic disparities between poor and wealthy, which has forced many transwomen into tenuous situations.
All the murders are grim: bodies stabbed 20 or more times, burned, decapitated. It's as if their assailants wanted to obliterate these women. Or perhaps their killers don't even recognize them as human, but as indeterminate "its" or somehow nonhuman.
Just as the mood darkened, several of the Occupiers joined our lit circle. People handed over their candles, allowing others to glow while they slid into the periphery. A vivid prompt, if even for a moment, of solidarity and the potential of conjoined political energies, it was beautiful: Occupiers protesting the crimes of global capitalism finding fellowship with a group of transgender activists and allies. When the vigil ended, individuals from our original group walked back with the Occupiers to talk gender politics and economics.
A few days later, still glowing, I attended a Thanksgiving dinner. To be honest, I have long been ambivalent—some might say a wet blanket—about this holiday with its celebration of turkey slaughter and football. (Though slaughter is really a euphemism for what happens to these industrial birds.) But my friends were happy to include vegan options: red chili-roasted carrots, mushroom gravy, field "roast" with fresh rosemary and a remarkable apple pie. A turkey was still served, deep-fried, so I took it as an opportunity to talk about President Obama's pardoning of "Liberty," the turkey, and how turkey consumption solidifies national identity. Indeed, the mass production of turkeys—their extreme living conditions and the artificiality of their flesh—could be interpreted as a bleak sign of failing capitalism.
Vegans and omnivores together, we gave thanks to one another, to the food and to autumn. Certainly part of the origin story of Thanksgiving is a harvest feast celebrated in 1621 at Plymouth between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims. But often the story is gilded, framing the American fantasy of the melting pot. The less-remembered origin of Thanksgiving is the 1637 proclamation by Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop who called for an official day of thanksgiving to memorialize the massacre of the Pequots at Mystic, Conn. Unfortunately, the first origin story elides the second so that giving thanks becomes a way of forgetting.
To remember is to bear someone in mind by making a gift or provision for them. Remembering is how we are thankful. And remembering can be a mixed-hearted thing because sometimes it entails mourning, recalling sacrifices and paying respects.
In November, I try to remember that trans-people live courageously in dangerous times, that our national day of thanks is born out of colonization, and turkeys suffer for some of us to give thanks. It may sound like I am pouring on the negatives, but simply heaping up miseries is not a very nourishing meal. How do we maintain gratitude and thanks in the face of cruelty?
I offer as an answer the connection between Raleigh Occupiers and Rememberers. There, thankfulness and remembering found a shared home. The Occupy Wall Street movement is an interesting hinge for both transgender and indigenous activists. Inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, OWS is a refreshing critique of major banks and multinational corporations over democratic processes. Advocating economic justice, OWS inspires us to understand how unbridled capitalism intensifies the vulnerability of populations.
Though the verb "to occupy" unfortunately evokes Colonial efforts in the Americas—indeed Occupiers are still occupying stolen land—on Columbus Day of this year, Native American activists joined Occupiers to highlight the connections between colonialism and corporate greed. Similarly, while trans-women protesting with the Occupy movement have experienced transphobic exclusions by radical feminist Occupiers, OWS has prioritized safety for its LGBT members.
Not a utopian movement, OWS has its problems, but it does highlight the effects of economic disenfranchisement. And economic injustice certainly shapes the lives of trans-people, Hondurans, indigenous peoples, debt-strapped Americans and, if you will allow me, turkeys. We still need a way to be thankful for the changing leaves, the withered tomato plants that fed us during the summer and our cat's thickening fur as the temperature drops. But this kind of gratefulness is best served with a dollop of remembrance. Seeing the tangled relationships between struggles is a form of respect, and building coalitions across seemingly disparate issues is a practice of remembering and, I think, an act of loving.