Guest Blogger

Remembering Self-Violence on the Transgender Day of Remembrance

Filed By Guest Blogger | November 18, 2010 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: gender identity, self-violence, suicide rate, Transgender Day of Remembrance, transgender suicide

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Pete Subkoviak is a policy coordinator at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC) where he works on health care access and other AIDS policy and advocacy.

As I enter my 30th year of life, something is happening to me that I never thought would take place: I'm getting older. Subkoviak.jpgThe hair atop my head is thinning; the creases around my eyes are deepening, and the love handles simply won't go away, no matter how hard I hit the gym.

It's a fact of life I never imagined I'd have to deal with because, simply put, I thought I'd be dead by now. Grim I know, but keep reading - it gets better.

November 20th is the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, which pays homage to transgender individuals around the globe who are murdered for being who they were born to be. Fourteen were murdered this year in the United States and Puerto Rico alone, including Sandy Woulard, who was murdered right here in Chicago.

While I believe violence is an unbelievably important issue in the transgender community, I think it is important to broaden this commemoration to include victims of self-violence, as transgender individuals are much more likely to die by their own hands than by another's.

Suicide is a huge issue in the trans community, and a recent survey by the Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality elucidates this more clearly, finding that 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide (compared to the 1.6 percent national average).

I'm a transgender man - born physically female though I never thought of myself as anything but male. I grew up a child of the 80's in a quintessential wholesome Midwest family. My well-meaning Catholic parents did the best they could to raise me to be a pretty in pink little girl, but when, from the age of three, I kept telling them I was a boy, they soon realized that this kid was totally off the rails. From then on my entire childhood was riddled with ignorant and incompetent medical and psychological professionals, trying in vain to change an immutable fact of my life. This was back in the 80's and 90's, but frankly many health professionals are as clueless today as they were back then.

By the age of 10 I was suicidal. I had identified as male for my entire life, but as I aged, I started to realize that my body was not going to change to fit my mind. It's a boggling place for a ten-year-old kid to be in, such a monumental quagmire with no way out. And so while I could not imagine growing up, I could definitely imagine ending it all.

I don't know how, but I stuck it out. At the age of 17, after 17 years of waiting, I finally got a diagnosis, something that despite my display of classic symptoms of transgenderism from the age of three, no doctor or psychologist believed to be a real-enough medical condition to address. Even the therapist who eventually diagnosed me didn't take it seriously, so I had to drive two hours from my home to find a therapist who had experience treating people with gender identity disorders - and the drive was well worth it. My suicidality disappeared the moment I began to transition at the age of 18. My grade point average jumped from a 2.5 to a 3.7, I was happy for the first time in so many years and I finally started believing that I might have a future.

I've been quite lucky in my path because I had understanding family and friends, enough money to pay for my own medical costs, and found a provider familiar with transgender issues. Others are not as fortunate. Kids are disowned by their parents before they are a teenager. They might live in resource-poor families. They might go without competent providers. And nearly no insurers will cover transgender-related care - not even for mental health care.

Still, I am quite optimistic and I'll tell you why: if there was one thing that saved me, it was the undying love and support from my family, friends and community. Sounds hokey but, goddamn, it it's true. There are tons of structural reforms that need to be made to our government, society, and medical community to address the health and safety of transgender individuals, but it's the people around us that will most impact our lives.

One way you can start to help support transgender people is by participating in the 2010 Transgender Day of Remembrance activities in Chicago. There will be a vigil at the James R. Thompson Center Plaza on Saturday, November 20th at 5 p.m. Check out the Transgender Day of Remembrance website for events in other cities.

A little kindness goes a long way. Actively supporting, defending and caring for people that are transgender will have an enormous impact on their survival, so I encourage you to do what you can.

And as a little aside, thanks Mom and Dad, for saving my life.


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Pete, I really do appreciate your wonderful post about suicide and the TDOR. However... I disagree with you about broadening the scope of the commemoration. To do so would take focus away from those parts of the trans community which clearly experience the most violence: trans women of color. This group needs to have the highly specific violence against them centered.

It's my feeling that much of the resistance to the TDOR is because it's so focused on murdered trans women, especially those from communities of color. This is a community which is clearly not valued by much of the LGBQ coalition and little valued by many parts of the trans community as well. Which means... this is where the commemoration needs to be focused.

I have suicide in my own family, attempted it myself as a 12-year old and have worked for prevention hotlines... it's a crucial issue for our community (and not just youth, but for those of all ages). But we can't afford to 'water down' the message of the TDOR because not only are the issues it raises not even close to being addressed but the very discomfort about the commemoration (and who those photos are of) means it's doing what it needs to do and getting some place which shouldn't be rerouted by other equally valid concerns.

Kathy Padilla | November 18, 2010 2:55 PM

I agree. It seems as if every year there's a resistance to the focused purpose of the event - people trying to use it for fundraisers, trying to stamp their own organizations name on the event, trying to have TDOR events that have little to do with a memorial for people who lost their lives due to hate violence - like T Dances. It's hard not to think that who the victims are influences the discomfort.

It's also hard not to think that orgs try and co-opt the event precisely because it's such a successful grass roots effort. No one owns it - no one fund-raises around it - and the folks who coordinate it around the globe are often those who wouldn't be allowed a seat at the board room table. And people like Ethan & Gwen don't see a dime.

Pete, thank you so much, it remains an honor to work alongside you in Chicago. I'm glad that you spoke up on this subject, and while I have to admit my own thoughts on the subject weren't fully formed heading in, I'm willing to learn and expand my conception of who TDOR remembers, and glad to have learned so much from you here.

Kathy, I can't stress enough how much I agree. One of the huge problems we had here for far too long was the attempt of one organization or another to "own" TDOR. Now that it seems as if Chicago TDOR is liberated from all of that, I think we instead have the happy outcome of many organizations and many individuals working together to observe the even on its own terms.

Take the sweep of events scheduled around TDOR in the Windy City, which are not fundraisers for anyone, but are all about raising awareness. Tonight, the Center on Halsted hosted the Night of Fallen Stars, an arts performance event to honor the lost, and which owes so much to the efforts of local organizers like Lois Bates and June LaTrobe. Tomorrow, Genderqueer Chicago is putting together an event aimed at fostering intergenerational mentoring, so that trans elders and trans youth work together to disseminate learning from experience, in part to learn about how to avoid a lot of the dangers run by those who have gone before. And on Saturday, folks from across Chicagoland and across every splice of gender identity will be participating in a candlelight vigil to observe TDOR downtown in the Thompson Center Plaza, in no small part because Pete has helped make it happen.

Which might sound like a lot of promotional talk, but I think it speaks to the need we all feel, to sanctify loss, but also to work and share and build together. Loss does not bow us or break us.

Pete,

First, I am a big supporter of recognizing that transgender women of color have the highest murder rates. I have asked Marissa Richmond how I can help support all transgender women of color.


BUT,
I got the same type of negative answer when I brought up the same question over at PHB about adding suicide to TDOR.

I then suggested we needed a new day SuicideTDOR, but that was a non-starter. Donna Rose pointed out that those committing suicide were in fact recipients of violence and thus should be counted along with the other murder victims.

If people will remember, a mother was tried for murder after posing as a friend to a female teen that was a onetime friend of her daughter, then bullying her over the internet until the girl committed suicide. So bullying can be seen as a type of violence that can kill people. Not as quick as a bludgeon, but just as deadly.

I say yes to including suicides as part of TDOR. They can be a subheading under the Direct Physical Violence and covered further down on the page, so that murdered transgender people, mostly women of color, have the top billing.

And I still believe that the second coming of Christ will have Christ being a transgender woman of color.

"“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I can honestly say that I have been involved with TDOR longer than most people around. I started pulled the statistics off of Gwen's list in 1999 and kept it up until I passed it onto Ethan 4 years later. Atlanta was one of just 16 cities that participated in 2000, the 2nd TDOR, before it became an international event. I chaired six of the Atlanta events and was a keynote speaker in San Diego one year.

I bring this up because I know that adding suicides has been a discussion I have had many times with Gwen and Ethan. Yes, it is true that many face violence before committing suicide, but the primary focus for TDOR has always been those trans people who had no choice in the matter.

There are a handful non-trans people on the list who have been killed. Private Berry Winchelle is on the list because he was dating a trans women. There are a few more on the list like him. Another man was just holding his girlfriend's purse while she was in the restroom and a man killed him for that. And, there are a handful of baby boys killed by their parents for either having ambiguous genitalia, or the parents thought they were acting like a girl. There is a 16-month-old on the list this year.

And, there is one suicide on the list. I asked Gwen why she included that person that year. Gwen said that this person was raped, beaten and when she went to the hospital, she was neglected and mistreated. After that, she went home and finished the job. It is an extreme case, but where does one draw the line? Ask Ethan.

I have had four friends commit suicide and one was murdered. The one who was murdered is on the list and the other four aren't. My personal opinion is that those who have committed suicide should be on a separate list and should be remembered separately. Why? Because we are seeing an increase of murders AND suicides.

The numbers are a lot higher then anyone knows. An international organization has a list of names for this year that is at 175. Ethan's list had 29 when I did my video on the 15th. Mixing the two large lists together would make an event that is already emotionally hard to get through even worst. I want the people who have committed suicide remembered like everyone else, but on a different day. This TDOR has always been a day to educate. We need more days that do the same thing.

Kathy Padilla | November 19, 2010 9:44 AM

One of the other prime reasons for TDOR is not just memorializing & grieving over these murder victims, but seeking justice for them. So many of these crimes - the majority remain unsolved - often due to neglect or complicity by the authorities. It's one day a year to remember these folks and this issue in a focused manner. And to push for the authorities to resolve these cases.

Aside from the issue of counting that's been brought up - how do you do the obverse of this - how do you include these murder victims in say, the It Get's Better video's?

I didn't. I made two separate videos for these two separate events.

I agree that the day should be seperate, because the violence *is* different, it is an issue that need immediate legal sanctions, and recognition as such by society.

Your thought that suicide often is a form of violence against the self that reflects outer violence is important though.

Admittedly, I have no say in the matter. But I tend to agree with Pete that it seems perfectly reasonable to include those who've committed suicide. The problem becomes, how do you count them? So many people commit suicide without saying why.

If you deprive a plant of sunlight, water, warmth, will it grow? If you provide it darkness, subject it to intense thirst, and cold, does it continue to live? If people knew the damage they do to others by their belief they can force change by depriving people of those things all need to survive, then and only then will the deaths of those they deprive end.

Melanie Davis | November 19, 2010 9:24 AM

I believe that to create a separate day for victims of suicide would serve to dilute the whole event's meaning, as would creating divisions within the name-reading. I understand the belief that it seems more tragic for someone who didn't see it coming to be murdered in cold blood than for someone who planned out their own demise, but I don't agree with it.

We already have so many divisions within our community, and this fractured identity is not helping any of us. Yes, transwomen of colour are at a much greater risk than white transwomen, and that can be pointed out during the reading of the names. I didn't hear any segregation in the reading, though, that did this. Everyone's name was read together, and the only way you could even guess at someone's ethnicity was by their name.

Likewise, to place a value judgement on the quality of violence directed at a person when those roads converge in death, seems wrong. Everyone takes stress differently. Everyone has different circumstances that inform their decisions, their health, and their ability to cope. Violence from bullying may not be as immediately savage as a homicide, but it's result is the same. To intone that the victim of suicide was either weak, or had some choice in the constant assaults being visited upon them, or that their death was less of a tragedy because it was a choice is damned cold.

Our dead are our dead. Whether their throats were slashed, strangled, burned, or driven to suicide is irrelevant. The awareness should be brought upon the whole cycle of violence directed against us. Was that person who murdered a transperson also someone who bullied them before? I don't know, but it seems likely. Does the suicide victim who is beaten repeatedly and verbally abused in their own home and at school over the course of their childhood experience violence less or more than someone who was shot in the head, in her car, at a red light? Who are we to judge that one death by hate-motivated violence is more deserving of recognition than another?

I am conflicted about including self-inflicted violence on the List. Should there be another list? - those who have succeeded at suicide? Those of us who have attempted?

I suppose part of the conflict (for me) arises from not wanting to seem a victim. I'm not - any longer. There was a time however, when I truly didn't see any way out of the spiritual chaos I lived.

Like many others, my first experience with violence surrounding transsexuality came from my family. When, at a tender age, I tried to express the confusion I felt, my mother's reaction was nothing short of vicious. That "lesson" drove me into myself and perpetuated and sustained cycles of self-destructive rage and self-inflicted harm that continued for years. It wasn't until I somehow found the strength (well into my 40's) to transition that the anger subsided.

While it probably isn't appropriate to add suicides to the list, Day of Remembrance provides a great opportunity to explore the effects of violence on and within our community from many other perspectives.

Angela Brightfeather | November 19, 2010 1:09 PM

I think that it is to simple to just leave suicide victims on any list that singles them out as Transgender and that in fact there does need to be another list created and memorialized each year, but it should include all identified GLBTIQ people who have died due to suicide.

This is one time that we should try and pull all of our losses into one spot and make them known by others, so they can see the general violence that breeds self violence and such levels of despair and desparation to people.

Leave the TDOR to Trans people who have been killed violently due to the inexplainable hatred that is generated by discrimination directed right at the Transgender Community....but create an observance that draws the entire GLBTIQ Community together to remember those who could not stand to suffer in this life any longer.

Angela,
I agree with Monica, your comment makes a great deal of sense.

Students and seminar or workshop participants are always completely astounded when I relate what the suicide rate is for transpeople.

I wonder what the numbers for violent+suicide deaths look like for a combined universe of all lgs/gd people? Contexualized, various derivatives of these numbers are undoubtedly compelling. For instance; (and these are just guesses) it is probably more likely that a transperson will die from violence or suicide than it is for them to be gainfully employed or, die from a heart attack or, for transsexuals, it is more likey that they will suicide than fully transition.

Angela Brightfeather | November 21, 2010 12:26 PM

Amy,

Perhaps the most ironic thing about formulating and beginning a Day of Rememberance for GLBT suicide victims, would be that it springs fromt he example of the TDOR and could be started and encouraged by Transgender people, rather than by an organization like HRC or NGLTF. Personally, I think it is past time that in some areas and issues of the GLBT community, that Trans people finally start to lead the way and set the example.
By expressing ourselves regarding only the TDOR (which is monumentally imapcting and important in many ways) we should not limit ourselves to the other recognition that we are a part of a larger minority called the GLBTIQ Community.

Angela,

You make a terrific point about trans folk needing to "lead the way".

I think the transgender community has a more significant contribution to make (to the equality movement) than we are sometimes viewed as capable of providing. Any opportunity for us to lead should be eagerly welcomed.

Angela Brightfeather | November 22, 2010 9:42 AM

Amy,

I have to laugh a bit at your remark about Trans people being able to make a more signifigant contribution....
The truth of the matter is that there are enormously resourceful, intelligent and fully engaged Trans people today, and it goes without saying that there are amny "survivors" who have run the gauntlet of society and come out stronger than before after finding their true nature.

Very few people understand the dedicated drive and intensity that Transgender people must have, just to survive. Whether it is to change your body to conform or your relationships with others, the challenges are endless and if applied to the right thing and set in motion, there is little they cannot do when it comes to creating changes.

They should be leading the way to help create and recognize the survivors and memorialize those who were unable to survive the test of societal pressures and discrimination.

Angela,

I was trying to be polite by merely hinting at the discrimination we sometimes face within the equality movement. I often find myself shaking my head and thinking: "it doesn't need to be this hard" when my opinion is dismissed. My contribution overlooked and our needs disregarded. I know it is not like that everywhere but, there are too many transpeople with great things to offer who are told, subtlely or, overtly that they are not welcome as decision makers, leaders or public figures.

Sometimes, it feels as if we must fight our way into the conversation. I in no way intend to give up. However, it becomes tiresome seemingly needing to prove my worth-over and over, again.

Every time we are able to take-up the reins, we grasp an opportunity to work for the full inclusion of all in our community.