*Content Warning: This post provides context and history for Transgender Day of Remembrance, please be mindful of your capacity when clicking on source links—some of the linked sources contain graphic detail surrounding hate crimes against the transgender community.*
To date, the legal system has not only failed to protect the safety and welfare of transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming persons, it has also engaged in active fear mongering to perpetuate the unjust exclusion of these people from the legal community.
In 1999, Gwendolyn Ann Smith held the first Transgender Day of Rememberance vigil in memory and honor of Rita Hester. Rita Hester, a Black transgender woman, was brutally killed inside her home in 1998. In the days that followed Rita’s death, the media belittled her identity by misgendering her and putting her first name in quotation marks—her murder has yet to be solved. Since the first Transgender Day of Rememberance, vigils are held annually on Novemeber 20 to raise awareness regarding crimes motivated by a hatred of transgender and gender nonconforming people. In addition to memorializing those who have died as the result of hate, the maltreatment of transgender identities by the media and lack of general public outcry necesitate public vigils to draw attention to the innocent lives lost.
The level of disparity in acts of violence committed against people who are transgender compared to their cisgender counterparts is horrifying. A transgender person is four times more likely to be the victim of a crime than a cisgender person. This disproportionate violence is particularly drastic for transgender women of color. At least forty-seven transgender or gender nonconforming people, most of whom are BIPOC, have already been murdered in 2021. But fellow civilians are not the only threat, transgender people suffer government sanctioned violence. A 2013 U.S. government report found that one in four cases of sexual assault in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention was perpetrated against a transgender person and that multiple transgender women in custody were abused by ICE guards. Many are kept in solitary confinement for extended periods and deprived of necessary medical care.
Nearly every part of our legal system continues to attack the lives of transgender people. Transgender people are overrepresented at every stage of the criminal justice system, from negative police encounters to incarceration. Criminal law isn’t the only avenue used to oppress this community. Transgender people have faced hatred and discrimination in healthcare law, election law, immigration law, identity document laws, property law, and athletics and education, to name only a few. Former President Trump systematically targeted the rights of transgender people from the first day he took office until his defeat in 2020. This year has set a record high number of anti-trans rights bills around the country.
The law has harshly mistreated the transgender community at every turn. The failure to promote inclusivity and acknowledge human rights is unfortunately not unique across the states. Specific to Montana, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, has made painstakingly clear his disregard for the rights of transgender people, as has Governor Gianforte. Not only are transgender people too often victimized and baselessly vilified by the legal system, they are severely underrepresented within the legal profession. Clearly, drastic change is necessary to protect transgender lives and foster a more inclusive legal community. Cisgender people cannot effectively determine the best solution to this systemic problem. Rather, cisgender people need to make way for those most impacted by transphobic hate crimes and help amplify transgender voices.
To stop the hate fueled violence against the transgender community requires a system overhaul. Beyond ending the epidemic of violence against transgender people, the law must stop establishing and reinforcing barriers meant to exclude these people from the legal community. This year, on Transgender Day of Remembrance, as we honor and mourn those lives unfairly lost and impacted by violent hate crimes, we should reflect on and condemn the legal system’s role in perpetuating the oppression of transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people.