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A Short Post on Transgender Remembering

2011 November 10

This weekend is Remembrance Sunday, and I’ve been umming and ahhing as usual about whether to wear a red poppy/a white poppy/no poppy. Whatever your personal poppy choice, I think most people would agree that there’s value in the remembering.

The memorialising of the First World War is long established and institutionalised, to the extent that no politician will be photographed poppyless. But remembrance can also be a deeply political, even radical act. Especially if you’re remembering people that many would prefer to forget.

In a couple of weeks, on the 20th November, it will be the 13th International Transgender Day of Remembrance. Before I started blogging at BadRep this wasn’t a big date in my calendar, but two moving posts by other team members last year made me realise that it should have been.

Why does it matter? As Gwendolyn Ann Smith of the Remembering Our Dead project puts it:

The Transgender Day of Remembrance serves several purposes. It raises public awareness of hate crimes against transgender people, an action that current media doesn’t perform. Day of Remembrance publicly mourns and honors the lives of our brothers and sisters who might otherwise be forgotten. Through the vigil, we express love and respect for our people in the face of national indifference and hatred. Day of Remembrance reminds non-transgender people that we are their sons, daughters, parents, friends and lovers. Day of Remembrance gives our allies a chance to step forward with us and stand in vigil, memorializing those of us who’ve died by anti-transgender violence.

Photo showing descending rows of small candles in glass and gold holders. By Flickr user jjpacres, shared under Creative Commons licence. There’s another kind of remembering which needs to be done. I’m a big gender history nerd, and although I’ve spent years reading about changing gender roles and expectations; women in history; gay, lesbian and bisexual history, there’s are gaps in my knowledge around the experiences and heritage of the transgender community.

So I went along to a recent talk by Juliet Jacques at Westminster Skeptics in the Pub about transgender history from the 19th century onwards. My ignorance was laid bare. I knew about the 2004 Gender Recognition Act – I was working at the Equal Opportunities Commission helping to implement it in 2005. But I’d never heard of the Compton Caféteria Riot in 1966 (there’s a documentary) nor of Boulton and Park, James Barry, Lili Elbe or Magnus Hirschfield. (Fun fact: most of the pictures of Nazis burning books show the bonfire that took place at the Hirschfield Institute.)

Jacques’s talk is available as a podcast here and here are a few other quick history resources: a brief history of trans people in the media on Jacques’ blog, a trans timeline here, and this nifty interactive LGBT history timeline which includes a lot of dates and events significant to trans history. I also found this post on film representations of transsexuality interesting.

Recording, recognising and remembering the histories of marginalised groups might seem like an academic endeavour, but it has a vital political function. The stories of transgender, gay and bi people, of disabled people, of women, of ethnic and religious minorities, of the poor, have been both accidentally and deliberately erased over the centuries. By remembering, we can restore these missing voices to history, and we have ammunition when we’re told that x behaviour or y social group is a modern scourge, that they’re unnatural or against tradition, or that this is the way things have always been.

Note: Between writing this post and publishing it I also found out about the International Intersex Day of Remembrance, on 8 November.

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