Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Journey For Social Change



By: Pauline Park

Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), vice-president of the board of directors of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund and president of the board of directors of Queens Pride House (a center for the LGBT communities of Queens). In 2005, Park became the first openly transgendered grand marshal of the New York City Pride March. She was the subject of “Envisioning Justice,” a 32-minute documentary about her life and work by documentarian Larry Tung that premiered at the New York LGBT Film Festival (NewFest) in 2008.

The Transgender Day of Remembrance was started by activist Gwen Smith to mark the death of Rita Hester, a transgendered woman murdered in Boston in November 1998. This year, the 12th annual TDOR is observed in hundreds of cities and towns around the country and around the world, from Poughkeepsie to Perugia, from Salt Lake City to Sydney, from Tacoma to Tel Aviv.

In November 2009, I was honored to give the keynote speech in observance of the first TDOR in the state of Iowa, standing with members of the Iowa transgender community in front of the state capitol in Des Moines. Closer to home, in November 2006, I spoke at the TDOR on Long Island. On both occasions, I spoke about the work of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, an organization that I lead and that I co-founded in 1998. NYAGRA is best known for having led the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002 and negotiated inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in the Dignity for All Students Act, a safe schools law enacted by the New York state legislature in June 2010 – the first statute enacted by the state legislature that includes gender identity and expression. NYAGRA is also a founding member organization of the coalition that is working to secure passage of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) currently pending in the New York State Senate. But if NYAGRA is best known for its legislative work, some of the most important work that we do is the transgender sensitivity training that helps educate health care and social service providers, corporations, government agencies, and community-based organizations about the pervasive discrimination and violence faced by transgendered and gender-variant people in this society.

On a solemn occasion such as the Transgender Day of Remembrance, when we remember those we have lost to violence and hate, it is important to understand what legislation and law can and cannot do. Non-discrimination laws can help protect us from discrimination, but they cannot eliminate discrimination. Hate crimes laws can help reduce hate crimes against transgendered people — at least those that include gender identity and expression, unlike the hate crimes law enacted by the New York state legislature in 2000 — but hate crimes laws cannot eliminate hate crimes.

We must recognize that law is an important but a weak tool of social change. It is only through a change of hearts and minds that we can substantially change the grim reality that greets many members of our community as they try to make their way in a still-hostile society. But what law can do is to send a signal to those who would commit
discrimination and hate crimes. In addition to providing legal recourse to the victim, law sends a signal to a potential perpetrator as to what society finds acceptable or unacceptable, and so enactment of transgender-inclusive statutes can powerful influence the governing discourse of social relations with regard to how to treat transgendered and gender-variant people.

NYAGRA’s philosophy is to view law as a tool to educate the public as well as a means of providing transgendered and gender-variant people with legal redress. Just as we must pursue legal change — such as the addition of gender identity and expression to Nassau County human rights law — to protect transgendered and gender-variant people from discrimination, we must use legislation and litigation to educate the public so that members of the public understand the pervasive discrimination and violence that transgendered and gender-variant people still face, even in those cities, counties and states with transgender-inclusive non-discrimination and hate crimes laws.

The challenge for us is not only a political challenge of getting legislation through city councils, county and state legislatures, and Congress; it is also the challenge of winning the hearts and minds of our family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and fellow citizens. And so when we commemorate the Transgender Day of Remembrance, we must join together in re-committing ourselves to the task of transforming society’s understanding of gender in order to make our world a safe one for all people regardless of gender identity or expression.

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