Transgender Day of Remembrance and the Question of Time
Author: C. Riley Snorton
November 20, 2017
When Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) founder Gwendolyn Ann Smith held a vigil to honor her friend Rita Hester in 1998, she could not have predicted our current times, marked by a continuity and even escalation of anti-trans violence but also an increased visibility of transgender people–sometimes referred to as the “Transgender Tipping Point”–and the emergence of several openly trans celebrities in our contemporary media landscape. Observed annually on November 20, TDOR is the culminating event of Transgender Awareness Week, which aims to bring visibility to the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming people around the world. Typically, TDOR activities include a vigil to mark and grieve the premature deaths of trans and gender non-conforming people–to say the names of those slain by anti-trans violence that year. That ledger overwhelmingly includes black and brown trans women. Some transgender community members, advocates, and allies have adapted the event to include a memorialization of the dead as well as a celebration of the resilience of the living.
As news from the U.S. midterm elections circulated earlier this month, media outlets remarked upon the irony that the very legislator who penned an anti-trans bill lost his seat to an openly trans woman. The recent elections of Andrea Jenkins and Philippe Cunningham to the Minneapolis City Council and Danica Roem to the Virginia State Legislature increases a sense of palpable incoherence, raising the question: how do we make sense of the unique issues that trans and gender non-conforming people confront in an environment of unprecedented visibility and unprecedented violence? One answer is “intersectionality,” a term first coined by Kimberly Crenshaw in an essay from 1989, in which she described how a host of factors–structural, institutional, and representational, among others–contribute to a “problem space” that defines and limits the life chances of black women, as they negotiate their everyday lives. This is certainly the case for black and brown trans and gender non-conforming people. And yet there is also another way to address this question–a supplementary response–that gestures to the limited frames that have come to represent anti-trans violence.
In Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, I wrote about different registers and scales of violence that have affected black and brown trans and gender non-conforming people across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My aim was twofold: to revive strategies for living from the past as well as to provide a vocabulary of black and brown trans life in the present. Part of this vocabulary requires thinking about scale–to name, grieve, and resist the various ways gender, which has always been a racial construct, is violently experienced. Take for example, the cases of CeCe McDonald and Ky Peterson, both of whom were imprisoned in 2012 for defending themselves against physical and sexual attacks. Taking a longer view of the present, we could connect McDonald and Peterson’s stories to Ava Betty Brown (1957) or Mary Jones (1836) who were routinely arrested for daring to survive. On this TDOR, I hope that within and alongside the process of collective mourning for those lost to anti-trans violence, we also take this as an opportunity to continue a conversation about what we mean when we say their names–to actively resist the structural, institutional, and representational factors that contribute to the criminalization and other delimiting forces that shape black and brown trans life.
The problem considered here is one of time.
—Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
In 2015, while garnering publicity for the feature film Grandma in a live interview with Robin Roberts on Good Morning America, actress, artist, and advocate Laverne Cox expressed a public grief:
We in the transgender community right now are reeling. Just yesterday we found out another trans woman was murdered—Tamara Dominguez, and that makes a total seventeen known transgender women who have been murdered in 2015 alone. It really is a state of emergency. Your life should not be in danger simply for being who you are. We have to say these people’s names. I think the reasons why trans women experience so much violence has to do with employment, housing, health care, etcetera, so we need to make sure that trans lives matter.
Tamara Dominguez died on Monday, August 17, 2015, in a Missouri hospital after sustaining injuries from being struck repeatedly with a sports-utility vehicle in a church parking lot in northeast Kansas City. According to her boyfriend, “She had been living as a woman in the United States for at least seven years . . . after leaving her native Mexico to escape discrimination for being transgender.” “She had a lot of dreams,” the unidentified boyfriend told the Kansas City Star, invoking a familiar mythology of the hopes, dreams, and promises of different experiential modes of freedom possible in the United States. The framing of her death in such terms underscores the failed promise of the nation-state, as it also calls attention to what Enoch Page and Matt Richardson describe as a state technique of “racialized gender” that produces “gender-variant social formations as an excluded caste.”
According to an article published on Advocate.com under the headline “Victim Number 17: Trans Woman of Color Murdered in Missouri,” information regarding Dominguez’s death came on the heels of news about “three African-American trans women [Amber Monroe of Detroit, Michigan; Kandis Capri of Phoenix, Arizona; and Elisha Walker of Smithfield, North Carolina] . . . reported murdered just in the past few days.” The recurrent practice of enumerating the dead in mass and social media seems to conform to the logics of accumulation that structure racial capitalism, in which the quantified abstraction of black and trans deaths reveals the calculated value of black and trans lives through states’ grammars of deficit and debt. As Katherine McKittrick explains about the longue durée of slavery, “This is where we begin, this is where historic blackness comes from: the list, the breathless numbers, the absolutely economic, the mathematics of unliving.” This mode of accounting, of expressing the arithmetic violence of black and trans death, as it also refers to antiblack, antiqueer, and antitrans forms of slow and imminent death, finds additional elaboration in what Dagmawi Woubshet refers to as a “poetics of compounding loss,” which he defines as “a leitmotif of inventory taking; the reconceptualization of relentless serial losses not as cumulative, but as compounding . . . with the subject’s loss both object and subject, past and prospective, memory and immediate threat.”
From this vantage point, consider how Cox’s designation of a “state of emergency” to refer to the killings of trans women, most of whom were black and brown, sharpens the distinction between the state’s rhetorical use of that phrase and the real state of emergency that surfaces as a matter of history. As Walter Benjamin writes in his eighth tenet in “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “[T]he tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” Benjamin continues: “We must attain a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.” To put it differently, a real state of emergency occurs as a rupture in history to reveal, as Homi Bhabha has written in his foreword to Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, that “the state of emergency is also always a state of emergence,” in which the event of struggle challenges the “historicist ‘idea’ of time as a progressive, ordered whole.” As such, Cox’s gesture toward the numerous structural factors and institutional practices of racialized gender that delimit black and brown trans women’s life chances expresses territories of violence, sites of vulnerability and precarity, and scenes of slow death to which one might read into the “et cetera” the prison system, asylums, and detention centers. These institutions and their emplacement within current biopolitical and necropolitical orders bear upon the problem of history as a mode of organizing time according to antiblack and antitrans “rule.” They perpetuate racialized gender as the norm and as the necessary and naturalized consequence of the current order of things, the experience of which Kara Keeling describes as a spatiotemporal concern, as that “intolerable yet quotidian violence” that functions as “the historical index . . . [of ] belonging to our time.”
Cox’s comment, which emerges as an interruption in the flow of entertainment news to inhere within the disruptive temporality of mourning, is articulated within the persistent tense of the present, as another indication of its break with teleological time. Her articulation of loss on behalf of the transgender community intimates an understanding of what Frantz Fanon wrote, in relation to the colonial state of emergency that produces black alienation (black grief ), was more than mere individual concern, and into that political and epistemological aporia famously expressed that “besides phylogeny and ontogeny stands sociogeny.” As Keeling explains, “Fanon’s own interest [is] in exploding the temporality of the colonial mode of representation of otherness and in revealing a temporality that raises the possibility of impossibility within colonial rule, black liberation.” The sliding indexicality of Cox’s “we” seems also to gesture toward the temporality of sociogenesis, in the form of a plea (or, better yet, a prayer) for a different future to begin now. The named “we” of the transgender community that opens Cox’s expression feels different from the undesignated “we” in the concluding flourish, which invents an intersubjective community called forth by the urgency of “trans life matters,” in which one can hear as an echo from the future what Cathy Cohen carefully elaborated in a question about the “radical potential” of a queer politic based on analyses of power rather than a fraught sense of shared identity. This, too, is what Kai M. Green and Treva Ellison describe as “tranifesting” as a politic and epistemic operation that attempts to bring forth “forms of collective life that can enliven and sustain us in a future worth living.” It is in this sense that Cox’s final rhetorical flourish—“we need to make sure that trans lives matter,” which indexes without citation the Movement for Black Lives—does not sound wholly appropriative and becomes an opportunity to hear that there is no absolute distinction between black lives’ mattering and trans lives’ mattering within the rubrics of racialized gender.
I think a lot about Blake Brockington, a black trans man who garnered national attention in 2014 as the “first out trans homecoming king in . . . North Carolina.” He was nominated by his classmates at East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, but he also earned his title by raising money ($2,555.55 out of the total $3,203.22 collected) for the school’s selected charity, Mothering across Continents, a Charlotte-based nonprofit that focuses on youth development in South Sudan, Haiti, South Africa, and Mexico. Before moving to Charlotte to live with his father, Brockington grew up in the coastal city of Charleston, South Carolina. I grew up in inland South Carolina, near the state capital, Columbia. By the time he was made king, Brockington had already moved in with a foster family. Life with his father and stepmother became untenable after he came out as trans, in the tenth grade. In an interview with the Charlotte Observer, he explained, “My family feels like this is a decision I made. . . . They think, ‘You’re already black, why would you want to draw more attention to yourself?’ But it’s not a decision. It is who I am. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”Suffice to say that I understand his family’s reaction. The sensibilities expressed by Brockington’s family, particularly in the use of “already black,” underscore how blackness and transness are tethered in the contemporary landscape in terms of visibility, in which the form of “attention” directed at black and trans people is frequently articulated through policies, such as House Bill 2 (HB2), which passed on the one-year anniversary of Brockington’s death, on March 23, 2016. Sometimes referred to as the “transgender bathroom bill,” HB2 prohibits city municipalities from defining LGBT people as a protected class while simultaneously eliminating any state modes of redress for workplace discrimination based on the narrowly prescribed rubrics of difference (race, religion, color, national origin, age, handicap, or biological sex) it purportedly protects. Media focus on transgender people’s abilities to use the bathroom of their choice obscures a more urgent conversation about what modes of dispossession are possible under the ruse of state inclusion.
Brockington, however, described the attention he received after his homecoming win as the hardest part of his trans journey: “Really hateful things were said on the Internet. It was hard. I saw how narrow-minded the world really is.” He elaborated in the short documentary BrocKINGton: “I’ve had people call me a tranny, a dyke. I’ve had people call me he-she, it, thing. You know, they called me homecoming thing and called me a pervert and an abomination. Different things, I’ve gotten a lot of different things.” The list of “different things” echoes what
Hortense Spillers has described as “a meeting ground of investments and privations in the national treasury of rhetorical wealth,” in which the preponderance of terminology is a testament to the need of the nation-state and national culture to invent such a thing into being. This list also expresses the imbrications of antiblack and antitrans animus, as each entry materializes a history of racialized gender denigration. As Spillers writes in reference to the “particular figuration[s]” of the “black woman,”
Embedded in a bizarre axiological ground, they demonstrate a sort of telegraphic coding; they are markers so loaded with mythical prepossession that there is no easy way for the agents buried beneath them to come clean. In that regard, the names by which I am called in the public place render an example of signifying property plus. In order for me to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meanings, made in excess over time, assigned by a particular historical order, and there await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness. The personal pronouns are offered in the service of a collective function
For Brockington, that “truer word” seems to have been “human,” against its biocentric determinism or ethnocentric overrepresentation as “Man” and in all of the richness of meaning that Sylvia Wynter has imbued to the term, as a form of praxis. In an interview, Brockington related, “I’m still a person . . . [and] trans people are still people. Our bodies just don’t match what’s up [in our heads]. We need support, not people looking down at us or degrading us or overlooking us. We are still human.” The frequency with which he availed himself of interviews and participated in Black Lives Matter rallies and events associated with Transgender Days of Remembrance is perhaps the evidence of an impetus to replace one collective function with another. In one of a number of photographs taken at a rally in late November 2014, Brockington is positioned between two signs, which read “I have the right to be alive” and “I am not a criminal.” The photograph occurs as an afterimage, what Kimberly Juanita Brown defines as “an ocular residue, a visual duplication as well as an alteration,” in a riff on Audre Lorde. Dressed in all black, Brockington wears a shirt that bears a list of names conjoined by ampersands and “finished” with an ellipsis: “Emmett&Amadou&Sean&Oscar&Trayvon&Jordan&Eric&Mike&Ezell&…” A few months later, his own name occupied the elliptical space.
An article published on Advocate.com on March 24, 2015, the day after Brockington’s death, notes that “Brockington’s death [was] the sixth reported suicide of a trans youth in the U.S. [that] year, in an ‘epidemic’ that trans advocates say sees far more casualties than are noted by the media.” In an online search for “Blake Brockington,” one finds that his Wikipedia entry appears under the heading “Death of Blake Brockington.” Its first line narrates the international media coverage of his suicide. The international circulation of news of Brockington’s death reiterates what Jin Haritaworn and I have raised elsewhere as “the need to think transgender both transnationally and intersectionally” in the “current globalization of hate crime activism,” antidiscrimination advocacy, and other modes of organizing for state-based inclusion projects.
There, we asked, “What are the seductions for a trans activism for [which] traumatized citizenship is more than merely an identitarian pitfall . . . , and is rather a key condition of its own emergence . . . ?,” and, “What would a trans politics and theory look like that refuses such ‘murderous inclusion’?” To emphasize a dimension of our initial critique, I would add a reformulation based on another thinker and artist whose work on the mathematics of black life has framed much of my thinking here. On his track “Mathematics,” from the 1999 album Black on Both Sides, Yasiin Bey explains, “Numbers is hard and real and they never have feelings/ But you push too hard, even numbers got limits.” In relation to matters of black trans life, I read Bey’s description as an invitation to consider the theories and politics that emerge at the limits of current operations for making biopolitical and necropolitical sense of black and trans death.
In the introduction to her award-winning memoir Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love, and So Much More, Janet Mock explains that some of the impetus to write her story came from living with survivor’s guilt. I feel that, too—deeply—and, as it relates to Blake Brockington, it moves me to consider the conditions in which he would be understood according to his self-definition. Keeling is again helpful here, as she distinguishes the politics of “looking after” from the politics of “looking for” in an analysis attuned to the temporalities of emergence, articulated as a question that I bring to the figures in this book as when they might be—a question that suspends ontological assumptions—rather than where they were and are. From this view, the connections within blackness and transness gesture to what Fanon described as the “real leap . . . [of ] introducing invention into existence” that constitutes being to the degree that it exceeds it. This book is principally concerned with the mechanics of invention, by which I mean that I am seeking to understand the conditions of emergence of things and beings that may not yet exist; to imagine temporalities in which saying their names—Tamara&Amber&Kandis&Elisha&Blake& . . .—occur as ways to destroy the meanings those names have been accorded by states’ grammars. Against and pressing beyond the instrumental materiality of black and trans death, Black on Both Sides is an attempt to find a vocabulary for black and trans life. In this sense, it works to do more than provide a “shadow history” of blackness in trans studies or transness in black studies. For many, it will not be understood as history at all, but, as with Fanon, the problem under review here is time.