From the Editor: Trans Day of Remembrance Reminds Canada to Look Back and Move Forward
Columns / December 2, 2018
Warning: This article includes information about violent hate crimes committed against members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Each year, on the twentieth day of November, the world is asked to acknowledge the lives and struggles of transgender people, to learn about their community’s history, and to pay respect to those whose lives were taken from them as a result of systemically supported hatred and ignorance.
Although it was founded in 1999, Transgender Day of Remembrance is new in Canada, held for the first time in Vancouver in 2002. It debuted in Prince Edward Island for the first time ever this year, and is now celebrated in 29 countries around the globe.
The day was created by a transgender woman named Gwendolyn Ann Smith following the murder of Rita Hester, a Black transgender woman from Allston, Massachusetts. Grieving the loss of Hester, Smith stepped forward with a plan to ensure that there would be a date for memorializing trans victims of hate crimes and for striving to prevent more lives from being taken.
Over the past 12 months, 369 trans and gender-diverse people—most of whom were migrants and sex workers—were killed globally, according to the Trans Day of Remembrance website. The two most well-known trans murder victims in Canada are Sisi Thibert and Alloura Wells, two women in sex work who last year were killed at the ages of 26 and 27, respectively.
Thibert was stabbed to death in her Montreal apartment on Sept. 18, 2017. Wells, who went missing in Toronto in July and wasn’t found until August, was a homeless woman of mixed race who was not reported missing by the police until November. This incited outrage and controversy, culminating with calls for the Toronto police department to apologize and take action to prevent delays in cases like Wells’ from happening again.
These are the most publicized cases in Canada right now, but by no means are they the only ones. Canada does a very poor job of tracking statistics related to the lives and deaths of its transgender citizens. Statistics Canada does not keep information on the crimes committed against transgender folks, and the federal criminal code’s Human Rights Act only began to include trans people with the passing of Bill C-16 in 2016. The Canadian census will not use language which accommodates trans and gender-diverse people until 2021.
When our governments and police fail to listen to and help trans Canadians, the responsibility of doing so falls to the public. That effort can be furthered by the work of self-critical and well-intentioned allies. To read a list of tips for how to be a good ally, you can visit the “Tips for Allies of Transgender People” page on the GLAAD website.
For inspiration, here are a few transgender Canadians who’ve helped change their country for the better.
British Columbia’s own Jenna Talackova became the first trans woman to compete in Miss Universe Canada after initially being disqualified for her gender identity in 2012. The first trans mayor in Canada was Julie Lemieux, who was also the first female mayor elected in her small town in Quebec during 2017. Kael McKenzie became Canada’s first transgender judge in 2015, and two-spirit politician Brielle Beardy-Linklater became the first trans woman to sit in the House of Commons last March.
Close to home for KPU students, trans scholar and sociology professor Aaron Devor is the chair of transgender studies at the University of Victoria—a program which he helped launch in 2016. Devor has been making incredible strides for trans students in B.C. for years, launching UVic’s Transgender Archives in 2011 to store literature documenting trans history from the past century and holding the first Moving Trans History Forward conference in 2016.
Here’s one story that has always stood out to me, although it took place in the frigid, faraway province of Alberta. Colombian-born Canadian Estefania Cortes-Vargas, currently 27 years old, became one of three LGBTQ+ people to be elected to Alberta’s legislature in May 2015. Then known publicly as a lesbian, it wasn’t until December that Cortes-Vargas came out as genderqueer—which they did in the middle of a debate in the legislature about trans inclusion in the provincial human rights code.
If that power move isn’t enough to inspire you to keep doing your own research on trans public figures, I don’t know what is.