Culture

Here’s Why The Trans Day Of Remembrance Is So Crucial In Australia In 2020

In Australia, trans people are increasingly under attack.

Trans Day Of Remembrance

Mhelody Polan Bruno died what was reportedly a violent and brutal death in Wagga last year.

She was a transgender woman of colour, on holiday from the Philippines, enjoying her visit, enjoying her life and about to return home to her family.

After she died, the one person arrested in connection with her death was released into the community on bail.

Released, in fact, into a community still feeling the shock and horror of losing another trans person to violence.

We have seen transgender deaths from violence, and in particular the deaths of trans people of colour, over and over and over again.

November 20 is recognised as Trans Day of Remembrance, a time when we honour and grieve for the transgender and non-binary people who have died through violence, and died because of who they are.

— Article updated November 2020

Trans Day Of Remembrance In Australia

Trans Day of Remembrance has been held since the death of an American transgender woman, Rita Hester, who was murdered in Massachusetts in 1998. It is observed and marked now throughout the world, paying respect to transgender people.

It’s a day of sorrow, but for many it’s also a day of anger.

A day when we look at the progress that transgender people have made in fighting for our rights, highlight that the progress has been minimal and incremental, and always a struggle and a fight, and understand that trans people remain a community who are at risk.

In Australia, trans people are increasingly under attack; even as we grieve for our dead, and grieve for Mhelody Bruno, we are faced with ongoing vilification from media outlets such as The Australian, whose “roving editor at large” Bernard Lane has waged a one-fedora war on trans kids.

We’re faced with ongoing vilification from commentators and ill-advised and ill-educated political figures, like Pauline Hanson, and even from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has a documented history of criticising transgender rights — and just this year personally intervened to remove signage in a government building that encouraged transgender people to feel safe while simply using the bathroom.

It’s a climate of persecution that, while never defining transgender people or defining transgender lives, certainly throws any violence that we experience into a context where it is almost inevitable.

And it makes recognition of the violent outcomes of transgender discrimination more important than ever.

Why Is This Day Important?

There are some elements of Trans Day of Remembrance which we have to remain critical of.

As a public day of recognition, it centres trans people on our murders, and on the macabre obsession that popular culture has with transgender people as being two-dimensional victims — rather than human beings.

And as it does so, and as it recognises the disproportionate numbers of transgender people of colour who have been killed, there can sometimes be a distinct tendency for white transgender people — including, in this case, myself as a white trans writer covering the day — to become commentators explaining non-white deaths into which we, without being beholden to the violence of systemic racism as it relates to trans violence, have limited insight and no ownership or right to be the sole storytellers.

But it’s still an opportunity for us to shine a light on the reality of trans lives in Australia, and across the world.

A reality that we live with constantly.

Remember Mhelody Polan Bruno

In Australia, there are only a handful of confirmed and officially recognised trans deaths; but in the community, there are stories and names that we share among ourselves, of people who slipped through the cracks and were forgotten, perhaps not recognised as transgender in their deaths, perhaps buried under the wrong name and the wrong gender — perhaps never noticed as missing at all.

A NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into gay and transgender murders was re-opened, and will hopefully lead to a greater recognition and understanding of the violence that the community has faced, weathered, and survived.

But regardless of its findings, we have to be cognisant of the violence that exists today.

This Trans Day of Remembrance, we have to light a candle and think about Mhelody Polan Bruno and others like her — a woman who died a terrifying death, whose life was so much more than her end, and whose dignity deserved so much more too.

But we should also take a moment to celebrate trans lives, to celebrate transgender people today.

Ultimately, the discrimination and violence is not the story of our community — and it is not the story of any one of us. We are a community who have joy, who love being transgender, and who refuse to see it as a curse or a tragedy or a source of pain.

We are people who have lives that are full of love, happiness, creativity, energy and empathy. And we need other people to remember that our happiness in who we are is as real as any struggle that we face, and it is valid.


Joan Westenberg is a Sydney based writer and a proud transgender woman.