“You Did Not Know That We Were Seeds”: The Spirit-Power of Gender Non-Conforming People
Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle, Brite Divinity School
[Nota Bene – Fort Worth, Texas – In conjunction with DFW Trans-Cendence, Brite Divinity School opened its doors to a full house to remember historic high numbers of transgender murders during the past year, especially transgender women of color (TWOCs). Here in full are the remarks Dr. Sprinkle made at this year’s TDOR.]
Tonight is unlike other nights. Tonight, transgender and cisgender people alike sift for hope in the ashes and plant seeds in the ground, in anticipation of a harvest of hope that will come tomorrow. For tonight we mark the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Our Jewish sisters and brothers yearn for and proclaim their liberation from slavery once a year, too, and have done so in good times and bad for thousands of years. Jews around the world call their commemoration of the Exodus “Passover.” On Passover when the Seder meal is set and the family and their guests are all seated at the table, the youngest child capable of reciting it asks the ritual question, “Why is tonight different from all other nights?”, and an elder of the community answers the child by asking another question, “What differences do you notice about tonight rather than all other nights?”
So, like a child, I ask you a similar question that I hope will lead you into the spirit of curiosity and ritual power. “On the
Transgender Day of Remembrance, why does this night differ from all other nights?” As on Passover night, that child-like question is the Gateway of Life from the past and present into a future that is still forming. Like a child, then, I, a cisgender ally of the Gender Non-Conforming Community, ask all of you, the gathered Transgender Nation, what is the answer to my question? How can a somber memorial to fallen Transgender sisters and brothers like this instruct all of humankind in the ways of transcendent life, even in the very face of violent death?
Well, as you can see, I am no longer a child, at least in years, and in experience as gay man. You will allow me, I hope, this one speculation, at least: the answer lies somewhere at the intersection of life and death, and then in life beyond death. It lies, I submit to you, in the motif of overcoming death, of dying and rising that is so familiar to all the great religions, and so personally part of the daily lives of all queer people, especially in the lives of our transgender sisters and brothers—and all those as well who transcend the arbitrary binaries constructed and policed by normative culture and society.
The first answer to my question about the Spirit of the Transgender Day of Remembrance comes from transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith, the founder of TDOR. She established this night in memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman killed in 1998, to commemorate all gender non-conforming people whose lives were lost to violence during the previous year. Gwendolyn Ann Smith answers my question this way: “The Transgender Day of Remembrance seeks to highlight the losses we face due to anti-transgender bigotry and violence. I am no stranger to the need to fight for our rights, and the right to simply exist is first and foremost. With so many seeking to erase transgender people — sometimes in the most brutal ways possible — it is vitally important that those we lose are remembered, and that we continue to fight for justice.” So says the founder of this memorial day.
Yes, we gather tonight to remember and to mourn historically high numbers of transgender people cut down this year by unreasoning hatred, ignorance and fear. More transgender women and men died this very year, according to the records kept in this country and around the world, than at any other time since the earliest time transgender deaths by violence were officially recorded. You and I understand, of course, that even these stunning numbers of the fallen are a severe undercount, with many, many, TOO MANY more unreported and therefore unnamed tonight. And we can no longer, leave out the commemoration of the many transgender youth and adults who died this year from suicide, driven to take their lives by despair, and discrimination, by the rejection of their families and one-time friends, and by the feeling that nothing could ever get better. Nevertheless, in the spirituality of overcoming despair, the names of the women and men we know stand for all the least, and the last, and the lost. Like Gwendolyn Ann Smith taught us, we name the names we know, one-by-one, and our tears push us to the work of justice.
This year, a new acronym entered our vocabulary to describe the decimation of the Transgender Community: TWOC, “Transgender Women of Color,” in order to acknowledge how the intersection of ignorance, racism, misogyny, and patriarchy issue into an even more sinister form of transphobia, the irrational attempt to erase the lives of African American and Latina Transgender Women, many of them still in their teens and young adulthood. We have particular reason to mourn two of these TWOCs this year. They are Texans, Ms. Ty Underwood, 24, of Tyler, Texas, found shot to death in her automobile after it crashed into a light pole in January, in all probability as she attempted to flee from her assailant; and Ms. Shade Schuler, 22, whose badly decomposed body, dead of gunshot wounds, was dumped, ironically enough, on a side street near the Medical District in Dallas, Texas to roast in the late July heat of the Lone Star summer. By the time Ms. Shade was reported murdered in Dallas, the 11th Transgender Woman of Color, and the 13th murder of a transgender woman overall, more transgender murders were on record by July 2015 than all the recorded transphobic homicides the entire previous year.
The second answer to my child-like question, “Why is tonight different than all other nights?”, is that we meet tonight in the eye of an unprecedented storm in the unending contest between justice and injustice, between heteronomative desperation to hold onto control of human lives, and non-normative struggles to attain some measure of equal treatment under the law. We gather tonight in the midst of unprecedented social change. This year, the bent arc of history toward justice has heartened some of us, frightened others, and unleashed a fury of transphobia and violence against our transgender friends and family.
Like a Texas Two-Step danced in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the U.S. Supreme Court Marriage Equality decision in June was counterpointed earlier this month by the defeat of the Houston HERO equal rights ordinance in a deeply transphobic vote. An apathetic majority of eligible Houston voters stayed home, and allowed a screeching, well-funded few to demean and scapegoat transgender women, and in the devil’s bargain, to shatter the fragile sense of security so important to the whole transgender community.
Those of us like me, cisgender allies, must face up to the added responsibility we bear to our sisters and brothers who refuse the restrictions of binary society. Yes, same-gender couples, lesbians and gay men, can now marry in all fifty states. The Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, struck down a major obstacle to equal treatment under the law, and we still celebrate that milestone in the human rights struggle. But if that means that cisgender gay men and lesbians can enter legal marriage (as if all of us wished to, anyway!) while ignoring the travesty visited so continually upon the trans community, then we deserve none of the rights that judicial decision gave us. What about the “T” in “LGBT”? Are transgender and intersex people, such vital allies of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual communities, no more than an afterthought or a bargaining chip in the battle for the right to marry?
Gay men and lesbians, who bear the majority responsibility in the coalition of LGBTQIA people, have to understand, that none of us are free and equal until ALL of US are free and equal! Transpeople have fought for liberation since the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. They are our “Marine Corps.” Transpeople stormed the Stonewall Inn along with the queer homeless street kids of Greenwich Village in a struggle that gay men and lesbians were too timid to initiate by ourselves. That is history, and we are accountable to that history of liberation today. No one is safe and secure until all of us are safe and secure, and surely gay men know that above all, since only gay men continue to be murdered at the same rate in this country as transgender women of color. Check the statistics if you doubt it. The most endangered queer people in America today are gay men and transgender women. We cannot, must not forget our allies in the transgender community.
The third answer to my question about the difference of tonight among all other nights is that, even in the face of such unprecedented violence and bigotry against the transgender community, there is much to celebrate and much hope to share. We cannot remember all this pain and woe without also marking the advances that have been so hard won since 2009. I will list six of these positive milestones briefly:
- The 2009 “coming out” of transgender celebrity Chas Bono, the child of pop idols Sonny and Cher.
- The star power of Laverne Cox, transgender woman of color on the hit 2013 television show “Orange is the New Black,” and her 2014 cover photo on Time Magazine titled “The Transgender Tipping Point.”
- President Barack Obama’s executive order on July 21, 2014 making it illegal to fire or harass transgender employees of federal contractors, for the first time explicitly protecting transgender people in the federal government.
- The much publicized transition of Olympic triathlete Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner in July of this year.
- The White House announcement on August 19, 2015 that it had hired its first transgender staff member, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, as Outreach and Recruiter Director for Presidential Personnel.
- The launching of the first U.S. House of Representatives Taskforce on Transgender Equality, along with the first-ever Capitol Hill forum on violence against transgender people, this past Tuesday, November 17, 2015. The Taskforce will be chaired by Rep. Mike Honda (D-California), proud grandfather of an eight-year old transgender granddaughter, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), whose son is transgender. Anti-transgender violence, said Chairman Honda, “is a national crisis. …After 21 deaths of transgender individuals because of violence this year alone, Congress must take notice and act.”
There are actually four questions the youngest child asks of Jews and their guests at the Passover seder, questions that flow from the child-like question that started it all. By now you know I have crafted my offering to you tonight along the same lines: four questions and four answers. Questions and Answers building to a climax of liberation and hope, no matter the darkness of the night. So, here is the fourth answer to the question, “How is tonight, the Transgender Day of Remembrance night, different from all other nights?”
Tonight, you see, is not just a night of mourning and lamenting, or of outrage and somber celebration, though it is also these things, as well. This night of the Transgender Day of Remembrance is a ritual night when the Spirit-Power of All Gender Non-Conforming People is summoned and renewed, giving strength for the struggle ahead.
Transgender people possess a Spirit-Power, one they must never surrender—one that they have to share with all humanity. Transgender people know about change, transformation, transition, and new creations by experience of themselves. The Transgender community as a collective has amazing strength, developed in the face of adversity, a tenacity and zest for life that cannot be contained, you see, in only one lifetime. Though external transphobia strikes down so many, and internalized transphobia even more through personal trauma and suicide, the heartbeat of the Transgender people is strong and enduring, as only a people acquainted with oppression can fully understand. It is as old as the aboriginal recognition of Two-Spirit people among the indigenous tribes of North America, as world-loving as the Pagan faiths, as wise as the great religions of the East, and as time-honored as the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—but it is not limited to any of these. It is a spirituality that understands in the marrow of its transgender bones how a person cannot be other than they truly are, that appearance and reality are not necessarily the same, and that living and loving are more powerful and enduring than anything that adversity can send against what is authentically humanity.
At the vigil for Ms. Shade Schuler in September of this year, a white gay man, Ted Van Trabart said, “We’re here today to say that black lives matter and trans lives matter, and we’re all children of God, and there’s equality in that.” Then, according to the report in the Texas Observer, Minister Carmarion Anderson, a black transgender activist, showed the gathering a small piece of wood she had retrieved from the spot where Ms. Shade’s body was found, where she and Dr. Jeff Hood, alumnus of this very school, carried out a service to lay her soul to rest. Minister Anderson said, “Each time I look at [this piece of wood], it empowers me to keep going, even when I want to give up.”
Yes, the Spirit-Power of Transgender people transcends the bondage of gender conformity and all constraints placed upon the human spirit in favor of a new and more promising Exodus for themselves and for all humankind. Slavery is over. Freedom has come. Where we live, according to our Transgender Friends, is in this awkward, difficult, promising time between the already and the not yet. It is just a matter of time until justice comes, and in the mean time, liberty will not wait. The Observer reported that someone else was carrying a sign at the vigil for Ms. Shade that night, one that read, “You Tried to Bury Us/You Didn’t Know We Were Seeds.”
Tonight is different because we announce that what we have sown in sorrow are the seeds of a new humanity, transitioned by love, transcending despair, raised in hope, stronger than death. The lyrics of The Hymn of Promise, (Copyright Hope Publishing Company) penned in 1986 by Natalie Sleeth before the death of her spouse, best answer the child-like questions we bring forth on this night of nights for me, and I offer them to you in closing:
In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free! In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be, Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody; There’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me. From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity; In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity, In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory, Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
Doane College Alumni Reunion, First Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska, Feb. 3, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Gndx39q7QM