By Krista Hessey
At noon last Friday, the Student Learning Centre fell silent as Ryerson students and staff paused to remember those lost to transphobic violence this year.
“Ending anti-trans violence starts with all of us and with each of us changing the way we think, the way we act, and even the institutions that we work within,” said Markus Harwood-Jones, who also goes by Star, of Ryerson’s Trans Collective.
The collective hosted the memorial for the first time and did it differently.
The Trans Day of Remembrance has become an international memorial since American activist Gwendolyn Ann Smith first founded the event in 1999.
Traditionally during the event, a list of names of transgender and transsexual people who have died as a result of violence would be read.
“The list of names is never complete,” said Ben Peto, director of finance and administration at the Faculty of Communication and Design and one of the first staff members at Ryerson to openly transition while at the university. “It is also limited geographically since the information is predominantly from the U.S. so there is no connection to our community.”
Friday’s memorial focused instead on a couple of deaths that occurred in the Toronto community, followed by a moment of silence and musical performance by “-C-” a local Toronto artist from the band I. M. Brown. The event also aimed to start a discussion about the relationship between anti-trans violence and other systemic issues the organizers say affect the trans community, such as racism, patriarchy, homophobia, heterosexism, ableism, capitalism and colonialism.
“We are unable to account for unreported or unknown deaths or systemic deaths related to poverty, homelessness, health, or even self-inflicted death,” said Harwood-Jones.
Earlier last week at an event hosted by the collective, panellists discussed what they call the politics of memorials. They said there is a need for a time for mourning but also a celebration of the lives of trans people.
“People reading names one by one and ringing the bell for two or three hours leaves people walking out depressed,” said Rosalyn Forrester, a transsexual woman of colour and a co-ordinator of LGBTQ community services at The 519 Community Centre, a charitable organization in the Church-Wellesley Village. This year’s memorial at The 519 featured multiple speakers and a musical performance. “I like it as a way of celebrating the lives of those people who we lost,” said Forrester. “The names are there, but we are also doing other things.”
Ki, who goes only by one name, is a black, queer and transmasculine person who has organized trans days of remembrance events in Peterborough, Ont., in recent years. Ki commented on the challenges of creating an event inclusive of every voice within the community. Transmasculinity refers to transgender people who were assigned female at birth, but identify with masculinity more than femininity.
“Mostly transmasculine, mostly white or cis allies gather for remembrance and stumble over names of trans people of colour. It was really uncomfortable,” said Ki. “So we started to have silent vigils. People would say a few words, share some poetry and facts around local trans violence and then hold a moment of silence. To me, that was really powerful.”
“It really was a lot of who was co-opting who was actually lost because you have mostly people of colour who are suffering,” said Forrester. “(Smith) neglected the fact that majority of people on her list were of colour or people that did sex work, so for me, that was a really important thing to have out there and I’m seeing that more and more.”
But Peto warns against moving too quickly toward celebrating the lives of trans people due to the ongoing violence and discrimination the community still faces.
“There is still a need to mourn,” Peto said. “People are still getting violently killed or committing suicide because of transphobic violence.”
In his speech at Friday’s memorial, Peto relayed a quote from labour activist Mother Jones to the audience.
“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
This article was published in the print edition of The Ryersonian on Nov. 25, 2015.