Transgender Day of Remembrance kindles sadness, celebration

Marchers listen to speakers at the march.
There were 57 reported transgender homicides in the U.S. in 2021, according to Human Rights Watch.
Ellen Schmidt for MPR News | 2018

Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20 honors the memory of those killed in acts of anti-transgender violence worldwide. That violence is an increasing problem in the U.S., where 57 transgender people died by homicide in 2021, a record. Many were women of color.

“This is a hard week for many trans folks because that violence brings an increased visibility. They are often very afraid for young people, and that fear is not unfounded,” Alex Iantaffi, a Minneapolis family therapist who works with transgender people, told MPR News host Cathy Wurzer Thursday.

“It is a tender conversation about holding space and support for people to process the impact of systemic violence, as well as to be reminded that as a community, we also have beauty, resiliency and mutual support.”

According to the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, the day of remembrance began in 1999 as a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was killed in Boston in 1998.

While there are a few local events scheduled in Minnesota, Iantaffi said the day can also be celebrated alone, honoring those lost.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: This is Transgender Awareness Week. The week leads up to Transgender Day of Remembrance, which honors and memorializes victims of anti-transgender violence each November the 20th. Last year showed a record high of 45 transgender homicides. The vast majority? Transgender women of color, according to the organization Human Rights Campaign

Alex Iantaffi is here with us. Alex is a family therapist who works with trans adults and children as well as their families in Minneapolis. Alex Iantaffi is also the host of the Gender Stories podcast. Welcome back to the show, Alex. How have you been?

ALEX IANTAFFI: I've been OK. Thanks for having me on the show again, Cathy. I really appreciate that.

CATHY WURZER: Good to have you here. How and why did this Day of Remembrance start?

ALEX IANTAFFI: Absolutely. It started about 23 years ago, so at the very end of the '90s, in Massachusetts. And a small group, including Gwendolyn Ann Smith, wanted to memorialize the murder of a Black trans woman in Allston, Massachusetts. And the Black trans woman was Rita Hester.

And since then, really, this movement has grown internationally. So now Transgender Day of Remembrance is honored on an international level. And unfortunately, we keep memorializing the too many deaths of trans folks-- and, like you said, especially transfeminine people of color.

CATHY WURZER: Do we know why trans people of color specifically have been murdered at such a high rate?

ALEX IANTAFFI: It really is part of that intersection of transphobia and systemic racism, and especially for Black trans women, that transmisogynoir, so being impacted not only by transphobia, but also by misogyny and racism. And unfortunately, the trans panic defense-- so the idea that somebody finds out that a potentially sexual or romantic partner is trans-- still stands in far too many courts.

And so part of Transgender Day of Remembrance is also memorializing people as kind of thriving trans folks who have a life, and they unfortunately are still kind of killed a far too high rate because of the systemic violence of our system.

CATHY WURZER: Because you are a therapist who works with many trans kids and adults, how do you talk to your clients about this violence?

ALEX IANTAFFI: Absolutely. This is actually quite a hard week for a lot of trans folks because there is an increased visibility that is brought to that violence. And also, families of trans youth often are really afraid for their young people, and that fear is not unfounded, right? It's not just kind of individualized murders, but it's also systemic harassment and discrimination.

And so the conversation is a tender conversation in therapy, and it really varies from family to family and person to person. But a lot of it is kind of holding space and support for people to be able to process the impact of the systemic violence as well as to be reminded that, as a community, we also have beauty and creativity and resilience and mutual support.

CATHY WURZER: We should say leading up to this Day of Remembrance is the Transgender Week of Visibility, right? Visibility is important, but it seems like it's a double edged sword. If you're visible, you're also quite vulnerable.

ALEX IANTAFFI: It truly is. I feel the trans community has been increasingly visible. And while that has been wonderful for people to be able to see themselves and find themselves-- and we know how important representation is for minoritized people-- it has sometimes also made us a target.

And what is scary is that at the moment, our children and youth-- trans and non-binary children and youth-- seem to be targeted by so much anti-trans sentiment across many states legislature. And so it very much is a double edged sword. Then, people have all sorts of conflicting feelings around Trans Awareness Week within the trans community because it is not an easy week.

It feels almost like a spotlight is put on us in ways that might highlight just the trauma in our community rather than kind of our creativity in our participation, in our communities, in so many different ways.

CATHY WURZER: By the way, how do you celebrate yourself and other trans folks on this Week of Trans Visibility?

ALEX IANTAFFI: I don't know if it's just this week. I like to think that I celebrate myself and trans folks every day. One thing that I have done is provide a workshop for therapists on how to work with families of trans and non-binary kids because I think that education piece is important.

But mostly, I try to love myself and my family and my community as best as I can and try to lift up trans voices whenever possible and make sure that folks in our community feel loved and supported and cared for.

CATHY WURZER: It was great talking to you again, Alex. I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

ALEX IANTAFFI: Thank you, Cathy. Really appreciate your time, too.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to Alex Iantaffi. They are a family therapist who works with trans and queer adults and kids as well as their families in Minneapolis. They also host the podcast Gender Stories.

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