By Ezgi Taşcıoğlu
On 28 November 1998, Rita Hester, a Black transgender woman was murdered in her Massachusetts apartment. The outpouring of grief over her murder led to a candlelight vigil that would soon turn into a global day of commemoration: the International Transgender Day of Remembrance. Each year on November 20th, trans people and their allies from all over the world join in this collective act of remembering and honouring the lives of transgender people who were killed due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice.
Little has changed in more than two decades since Hester’s murder. The recently published Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide research project update reveals a total of 350 trans and gender-diverse people registered murdered between in the year ending 30 September 2020. This number represents a 6% increase in reported murders from the previous year, highlighting the increasing threat of hatred and violence targeted at gender non-conforming people. 98% of those murdered globally were trans women or trans feminine people. Among the murdered trans people for whom an occupation is known, 62% were sex workers. Black trans women like Hester make up an overwhelming proportion of the victims in the US, where 79% of murdered trans people were people of colour. Within the fortress of Europe, 50% of trans and gender-diverse people murdered were migrants.
We know very well that these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. Buried below are the conditions which deem trans and gender-diverse people unworthy and disposable – including the gendered, sexualized, classed, and racialized structures that normalise violence. Legal institutions that have long played a key role in governing non-normative genders and sexualities are complicit in this degradation, exclusion, and erasure. Not only violence continues without accountability, but the law carries an often-unscrutinised violent legacy that (re)produces unjust lives for gender non-conforming people.
Walking while transgender
You are walking on a road full of broken glasses. You don’t have any other way. You have to walk on those broken glasses. You cannot even feel if your foot is bleeding or falling apart. But you are walking on that road. And even at the end of that road full of broken glasses, you enter a clean road, the wounds on your feet never heal. Still, it is those steps that take you somewhere.
In 2012 and 2013, I conducted life story interviews with trans women of Istanbul to uncover the multiple layers of their entanglement in legal regulations in urban Turkey. LGBTI identities have never been formally criminalised by law in Turkey nor have they been offered any recognition or protection in legal texts. Marginalisation, injury, and exposure to premature death structure their living, and far from offering protection, the law exacerbates the conditions of violence that has routinised and solidified in their daily lives. Most starkly, trans women are frequent targets of the disciplinary and exclusionary interventions of legal institutions. Just walking —walking home, walking to work, walking to a grocery store— can turn them into unlawful occupiers of the public space in the practice of Turkish police forces. This exclusionary process of law, so pervasive that it has been called “walking while transgender” in the US, traps trans women in a cycle of surveillance, criminalization, and confinement.
Yet it would be wrong to assume that trans women are mere objects of the law. On the contrary, they actively engage, transform and subvert the terms of the multiple powers attempting to erase and banish their existence. Walking while transgender, trans women rethink, reframe, and rebuild the social, cultural and political structures they (we) inhabit from the law to the family, from the market to our bodies, and show us the way of building alternative forms of knowledge, solidarity and resistance.
Remembering our dead
We are living through an extraordinary moment in the midst of intersecting crises. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated long-standing structural disparities and injustices, worsening the livelihoods that were already in the margins. Against value regimes that distribute worth to certain lives over others and distinguish between lives that are ‘grievable’ and those that are not, opening ourselves to mourning as a way of imagining and creating new possibilities seems as inevitable as ever. We can no longer afford to ignore the spectres of our past or the demands of our future that bear upon the present.
Last week I received the news of the loss of a friend and much beloved trans mother from Turkey. Gül Anne was born in Yozgat in 1956 and was raised in Istanbul, where she spent most of her life as a loved and respected member of the trans women community. She was a volunteer at Lambdaistanbul LGBTI association and became a member of the theatre group ‘Group Opal’ in 2009 to finally indulge her long-time passion for the theatre. I know that I will miss and remember her with her humorous spirit, nurturance, and ever-persevering strength.
 Quote from Gönül Anne (a pseudonym), one of the trans women who shared her life story with me.
About the author
Ezgi Taşcıoğlu is Lecturer at the School of Law, Keele University. Her work is in the field of socio-legal studies, with a particular focus on law in everyday life, the regulation of sex, gender and sexuality, and more recently, intellectual disability.