On Thursday 17 November we held a vigil at our Colchester Campus to support our trans community and remember the trans lives lost due to oppression and violence. Here are the speeches we gave at this event.
Transgender Day of Remembrance is a day when people and organisations around the world mobilise to counter the anti-trans violence we face every day.
I am here today to stand in solidarity with our trans staff and students.
We shouldn’t need to have events like this. As a criminologist, I have researched violence, including violent victimisation, for over 20years. There are violence research centres all over the world, with more opening all the time. When I read about openings and inaugural events at ‘new’ violence research centres, I’m struck by the feeling that, in a better place and time, we would be closing these centres, not opening them.
And so it is with events commemorating the victims of violent prejudice, discrimination and hate. These events are powerful in their capacity to generate a sense of collective energy, community, understanding, even pride as we gather and stand together. But they are also a time for solemn reflection, and a time to recognise that we live in a society where, for some, the risk of violent victimisation remains a daily concern.
I am the Inclusion Champion for members of our Essex community who are trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming. I am proud to represent senior colleagues and the University here with you today. I am simultaneously saddened by the need to do so, and hopeful that, in the future, the ever-lengthening list of names of the victims of anti-trans violence will stop growing so quickly, that the celebration of diversity will triumph, and that these gatherings will focus more on increasingly distant memories, and less on continuing fears for the present and the future.
23 years ago, on 20 November, the first of these candlelit vigils was led by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith in San Francisco to honour the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender African American woman who was brutally killed in 1998. We’re here to commemorate all transgender people who have lost their lives to violence since Rita Hester. This important tradition has become the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, taking place during the week of 20 November.
At Essex we are proud to stand together to remember and to mourn those who have lost their lives simply for being themselves.
As an institution and a community, we celebrate diversity, we actively promote inclusivity and we take a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination and harassment. We want everyone joining us tonight to know that you are valued and supported.
It is a privilege to be here with you all, connecting with other vigils up and down the country and across the world, to condemn anti-trans hate, prejudice and violence.
I have heard a question before; thrown around as a fun idea, often to get people to talk about the joys of being queer. It is often celebrities, or people in the public eye, who are asked if, given the chance, they would choose to not be a member of the LGBTQ+ community. And this is their moment, to claim that of course they wouldn’t. That despite all the hardship, being queer is a beautiful experience that has made them stronger, and that they wouldn’t change it for the world. And being queer, and trans, is beautiful. I believe that so much I bought a jumper with it on! But that doesn’t mean I want to be trans. That doesn’t mean I like being trans. I take pride in my community and I see the beauty in it and I will do everything in my power to protect it. But, given the chance, would I choose to not be trans? Absolutely I would. If, given the chance, would I choose to not hide in toilet cubicles until everyone else has left? If, given the chance, would I choose to not have to brace myself every time I go on the Twitter trending section in case there’s a ‘debate’ around my existence (spoiler alert: there usually is)? If, given the chance, would I choose not to be hyper-aware when holding my boyfriend’s hand in the street? I don’t know, that answer seems kind of obvious to me.
And bear in mind, I am not the most at-risk here. Trans people of colour and trans women are disproportionately targeted by violence. For trans women, this is routed in misogyny, and the fact that cis, straight men are so desperate to not be seen as gay that they would rather kill a trans woman than be laughed at by their mates. Because femininity is something to be ridiculed, hated, and suppressed with violence and anger. I will never know what it’s like to be a trans woman of colour, and have to face those multiple yet intertwined levels of discrimination every day. I mean, just consider the fact that every Trans Officer at this university so far has been a white transmasculine person. I have the privilege of being able to be vocal about my transness, although I am still putting myself at risk by being Officer. Everyone now has access to the information that I am trans. But for some people, that thought is simply not an option to them.
But let’s unpack this more. Because all of the reasons I don’t want to be trans – are they issues with me being trans? Or are they issues with the way our society is viewing me as a trans person? Do I not want to be trans, or do I not want to be trans in our society? Yes, it would be nice to not have to go through surgeries to feel like I have a physical body, but that’s my reality. It would be nice to not be a scapegoat for bigots to weaponise my identity against me.
You have heard a lot this evening about the recent ways our leaders have decided to attack the rights of trans people. And I hope you were horrified, all of you. Because someone has to be. You know how I felt? Numb. Numb to my core. I am so desensitised to this stuff by now. I have heard people talk about how awful it is, how shocking, ‘how can politicians be doing this?!’ But I’m not surprised in the slightest. In fact, I was expecting it. And that’s what being trans is. Constantly waiting for the next blow, the next thing to come along and numb you even more, to the point where you don’t want to yell about it anymore, because clearly no-one is listening. What’s the point in screaming until our throats are raw if everyone just walks by? What’s the point in pouring your heart out when people just nod and then move on? What’s the point in putting yourself in such a vulnerable position for it to be worth nothing?
But what else can we do? We’re told that we need to ‘keep people on side’, that if we get too angry or aggressive or emotional or try to imply that anyone is guilty of anything, we won’t be listened to. But what’s the alternative; asking nicely?? Isn’t that what we’ve been doing for the past however long? Trans people show up to talk shows, they do interviews, they try to calmly explain their point of view and their experiences. And they get laughed at, shouted down, ignored, belittled. Either way, people don’t care. We may as well let some anger out while we slowly drown in front of an audience of blank, uncaring faces.
The reality of it is this. As members of a minority group, we need to get used to the harsh truth that, at any minute, our rights could be taken away. The fact that we have specific clauses and legislation which gives us rights makes it all the easier for anyone in power to take those and overturn them. And this isn’t just the case for trans people, although it can be clearly seen in certain Acts which are being revoked currently. The Roe vs Wade case in America is a prime example. You can’t just say, ‘well now you have rights, what more do you want?’ Because after a hard struggle to get abortion rights in the US, it was overturned so scarily easily. As one article stated, ‘The decision dismantled 50 years of legal protection’.
We will never have that instant feeling of security, or the privilege to never consider what we must do if our rights are taken away. I have had to think long and hard about what steps I will take if I need more official identification that I am trans and the implications of that, just as I have had to have conversations with my boyfriend about what we can do if queer couples, or potentially trans people specifically, are ever not allowed to adopt children. Our lives are constantly swinging a hundred feet in the air, and they may stay hanging, but at any minute an aspect of our lives we hadn’t even considered could come crashing down around us. This fear is constant.
Thank you everyone for attending tonight. I hope you think about this event for weeks to come. I hope this inspires change in you, that you actually take something away from this.
If you would like to hear a few more trans voices, I have been posting some articles from other members of the community on the LGBTQ+ Community Hub on the SU website. They are all a really interesting read. This could be a good place to start if you’re wondering what to do next as an ally.
Going forward, listen to trans people. Be open to education and correction. Stand up for trans people where it may be difficult for them to stand up for themselves.
Now, more than ever, we need people. Anyone who will listen. I know it can be scary to speak up when you fear you might get something wrong or offend someone. But if your intentions are pure, you will be corrected where you mess up, and you can then learn from that. It’s not worth not speaking up because you’re unsure on how to speak about us. I beg of you to speak to your peers, to continue to uplift trans people and prove that trans really is beautiful.
Because it is. And I would like to live in a society where that is a widely known fact. Where I don’t have to say that I’m not sure I want to be trans. And I don’t think that will happen in my lifetime. But sometimes it’s nice to pretend like it is possible. And if we say that it’s not possible, that’s admitting defeat. That doesn’t help motivate anyone to make change. So maybe, if we really do all band together, I don’t have to hold my label with a heavy weight. Orion won’t have to worry about their friends dying, Riley won’t have to fear for their sister’s safety. We won’t have to carry this weight with us all the time. We will be lighter, freer. We will be able to live full, long lives, where being trans is just one beautiful, treasured aspect of that. One day, we might get there. And I hope that when we do, you can all say that you did what you could to aid that.
For anyone who is struggling right now to process the information that has been presented to you this evening, that’s understandable. For anyone who needs it, we will be holding a Wake in The Atrium. Will will be going down there now, so feel free to follow him. If not, that’s okay! Go off and contemplate what you’ve learned. To the trans people present, make sure you are around others and take as long as you need to process. Your community is here for you when you’re ready.
Sam is the Trans Students Officer at our Students' Union. As Trans Officer, Sam represents all transgender students at Essex by attending Student Parliament to express their views on key issues. Sam strives to maintain a sense of community on campus, running events and making sure people are connected by keeping up communications and checking in on the community.