By Farha Quadri
Fourteen years ago, Rita Hesner, a popular member of Boston’s transgender community, was found dead in her apartment. She was stabbed at least 20 times and none of her valuables were taken. Members of the community suspect that her murder was a hate crime. This, however, cannot be proven. As in many similar cases, the identity of her killer is unknown.
The International Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) was first conceived of in 1999 to honor her memory. Since then, the day has served as an opportunity to commemorate those who have died in the past year as a result of transphobic violence.
On November 20, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) will join this tradition with an event called “Living Outside the Box: Perspectives on Transgender Rights Globally and Strategies for Change.”
The recent elections brought to light a number of issues relating to gender and sexuality: the defeat of Todd Akin, who provoked American voters with his comments on “legitimate rape,” and more significantly the approval of same-sex marriage in Maryland and Maine. Though these are important steps towards greater acceptance of women’s and LGBT rights—the transgender community continued to be marginalized and has generally kept silent in the political arena. According to a 2011 study carried out by the “National Gay and Lesbian Task Force”, transgender respondents were more likely than the general population to be living in extreme poverty, with a household income of less than $10,000 per annum.
When talking about transgender issues, it is clear that the binary conception of gender forms an ingrained part of our inherited discourse, from the he/she dichotomy to the legal difficulties in categorizing those living “outside the box”. The transgender community has had difficulty finding an appropriate language for its cause, let alone a political presence. Even the term ”transgender” suggests a somewhat uncomfortable bridge between two opposites rather than a socially acceptable identity.
To familiarize SIPA students with the issues of the transgender community, the panel discussion at SIPA will feature Akwaeke Z Emezi, a queer and genderqueer (a term referring to identities other than woman or man) writer, visual artist and blogger who was born and raised in the south of Nigeria to Tamil and Igbo parents. Kay Barrett, a Campus Pride 2009 Hot List artist, poet, performer, and educator will be contributing to the panel as well as offering a dynamic spoken word performance. And Lea Robinson, the Assistant Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Manager of LGBTQA Advising and Programming at Columbia University, will be moderating the evening’s discussion.
As we prepare to spend time with our loved ones and to give thanks this holiday season, it seems appropriate to remember those who through blind prejudice have been robbed of the chance to celebrate another year.