Rainbow Rant: What I'm remembering on Transgender Day of Remembrance

Joy Ellison
Protesters gather and fly the transgender pride flag in front of the White House in October of 2018.

Who we’ve lost

Kiki Fantroy was loved. Her mother, Rhonda Comer, remembers her as “having a heart of gold.” When Fantroy was found dead earlier this year, Comer told the Miami Herald, “This feeling is indescribable. The pain. The void. You know that feeling after losing a child. ... My understanding was she was killed because of her desire to be a woman.”

Today Fantroy’s name will be raised, whispered, cried, chanted and yelled at events across the country. Today she will be remembered, alongside other transgender people who have lost their lives this year, because today is Transgender Day of Remembrance.

At least 25 transgender people in the United States have died in anti-transgender violence this year. Most, like Fantroy, are black women.

Many other transgender women have taken their own lives this year. Countless still have been placed in the position to die easily: left homeless and hungry, denied adequate healthcare and subjected to discrimination of all kinds. Transgender Day of Remembrance honors people who were treated as though their lives did not matter.

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The statistics about violence against transgender women are overwhelming, but they don’t begin to capture the reality of this epidemic of violence. They say nothing of the way my heart pounds when I’m waiting for a late friend, wondering if something happened to her. They don’t record how many times I’ve called my loved ones because I know they’re suicidal. They don’t describe the fear that makes me write text messages that read, “Just tell me that you’re safe.”

How we live

Elisha Stanley’s nickname was Diamond, and she was precious to the people who called her that. She worked in mental health services and filled her social media feed with pictures of herself smiling. Earlier this year, she took a trip to visit her family in Pittsburgh. There, police found her dead.

How can we remember Stanley’s smile properly, especially if we were not the people who made it spread across her face? What memorial could adequately honor her life, not just mark her death? Transgender Day of Remembrance is a tricky event, because statistics and lists of names can’t capture the joy of transgender lives.

Far too many organizations speak of transgender women of color only on Transgender Day of Remembrance, when they are dead bodies who can no longer talk back. An organization like that is vampiric. It uses transgender death as a resource, instead of treating transgender people of color as leaders.

Every Transgender Day of Remembrance must be a day of action.

The future we want

In the end, Layleen Cubilette-Polanco’s life came down to $500. In June, she was held in pre-trial detention because she did not have money to pay her bail. Prison officials placed Cubilette-Polanco in solitary confinement, allegedly to protect her from transphobia. There, alone in a cold cement cell on Riker’s Island, she had a seizure. She did not survive.

Since her death, transgender women of color in New York City have been remembering Cubilette-Polanco by organizing to ensure that no one else dies like she did. Cubilette-Polanco was a member of the house of Xtravangaza, and her house family is honoring her memory by sharing knowledge and resources within their community, as Cubilette-Polanco did in her life and as transgender women of color have long done. Activists with No New Jails NYC and the Anti-Violence Project are calling for an end to cash bail and solitary confinement. They want Riker’s Island to be closed and no new prisons built to replace it. Cubilette-Polanco’s loved ones are turning dreams into demands.

In a poem honoring Cubilette-Polanco, Benji Hart writes, “We have never asked permission to sing.” On Transgender Day of Remembrance, may we sing not only songs of memory and resilience, but also songs of justice.