Trans Day of Resilience Shifts the Narrative of Trans Lives

"If we just continue to mourn without action, we will continue to die at epidemic rates. We have been taking action, but this project is a way to raise awareness about all of the ways we’ve been fighting for our communities,” said artist Wriply Bennet.

LGBTQ youth of color are using Trans Day of Remembrance as a day of action. Asia-Vinae Jazzreal Palmer / Strong Families

Monday launched Trans Awareness Week, seven days devoted to uplifting the voices of trans and gender-nonconforming people. The week culminates with Trans Day of Remembrance on November 20, when those who have lost their lives to transphobic violence are honored and mourned.

For the past three years, however, some activists have spent November 20 celebrating instead, holding a Trans Day of Resilience to go beyond remembrance by emphasizing the strength and resistance of trans and gender-nonconforming communities of color.

To mark the day, Forward Together and its Strong Families Network paired seven trans and gender-nonconforming artists with seven organizations across the country doing trans justice work. Those groups included the Transgender Law Center, Echoing Ida, and Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, among others. The resulting art project, called “Femifesto,” focuses on trans liberation and touches on subjects as wide-ranging as the detainment of trans people of color by the immigration system and the intricacies of nonbinary lives.

Wriply Bennet, an artist and activist from Columbus, Ohio, represents the Transgender Law Center with her “Femifesto” piece, which focuses on trans health, trans power, trans youth, and trans justice.

Bennet told Rewire in a phone interview that the art project presents a rare opportunity to tell her story—and, more broadly, to tell the story of other trans people in a way that shifts the narrative from mourning to action, highlighting trans leadership and justice.

“Trans Day of Remembrance was about mourning–and that’s OK, we need that too, but if we just continue to mourn without action, we will continue to die at epidemic rates. We have been taking action, but this project is a way to raise awareness about all of the ways we’ve been fighting for our communities,” Bennet said.

Art has always been a central part of her life and her activism, Bennet said, and a “crucial way” to push back against negative forces she encounters.

Wriply Bennet Art

“Growing up, I went through so many things. There were so many naysayers and negative people who degraded my intelligence, my beauty, my personhood, and my womanhood,” Bennet said. “Art was my way of taking all of that back and holding on to those things. I am intelligent. I am beautiful. I am a woman. I am all of these things at once. Art was my way of holding on to these truths, and it was something they could never take away from me. I had a very trying childhood and things are still very difficult, but art is always my beacon in the darkness.”

And for trans and gender-nonconforming people, there has been a lot of darkness this year. Twenty-six trans people have been murdered in the United States in 2016, most of them women of color and the majority of them Black women. Trans communities of color have much to fear in the impending Trump administration, as Vice President-elect Mike Pence has a long record of open hostility toward the LGBTQ community, including asserting that “religious freedom” should come before civil rights.

Raquel Willis, communications associate at the Transgender Law Center, told Rewire in a phone interview that the presidential election results made her “heart drop.” Issues affecting the trans community are historically sidelined and thought of as something to “get to later,” Willis said, and the idea of trans people of color being pushed further to the margins with no support and no access is a scary one.

Trans communities of color were in panic mode, Willis said, and phone calls to suicide hotlines skyrocketed after Trump won the presidency. Now, more than ever, she said, there needs to be a realization that trans liberation–and the rights trans people are fighting for–are universal and protect everyone.

“People need to understand that the ways in which gender operates in our society detrimentally affects all of us, and they need to know that when policies come down, trans women of color carry the earliest and heaviest burden,” Willis said. “They pay the biggest price.”

Willis cites the movement for Black lives as a bright spot, an example of a network that seeks to uplift the leadership of Black trans women, though there is still much work to do. In many cases, trans youth of color have decided to build their own movements, becoming politicized and mobilized at a young age.

“During all of this, if nothing else, we’re coming together as a community and we’re saying we’re going to preserve our integrity, our dignity, and our right to live as who we are as much as we can,” Willis said. “That means calling on each other and leaning on each other. We’re helping each other, and we’re having important, hard conversations that have always been urgent, but have never been as urgent as they are now. That’s setting us up to continue to do what we’ve always done, which is live in our power and recognize that our existences are transformative, not just for ourselves, but for the world.”

Trans youth of color have heeded this call. BreakOUT!, a youth-led LGBTQ organization in New Orleans, reported in a statement that threats against the community have increased following the election. But LGBTQ youth of color are using Trans Day of Remembrance as a day of action.

“We won’t back down, we will continue to find ways to love and build with one another,” BreakOUT! member Nia Faulk, said in a statement. “We plan to meet unprecedented levels of repression with unprecedented levels of determination and resilience.”

For Bennet, trans youth of color are her bright spot in an increasingly uncertain future. Trans liberation looks like trans women being able to disclose their gender identity without being murdered; it’s trans women not being sexualized just for walking down the street; it’s living without the fear of losing your job or your housing because you’re trans, or not having to resort to sex work because you can’t find a job because you’re trans; it’s health care that will take care of trans people.

“Young trans folks of color are politicized, mobilized, arming themselves with the knowledge of their elders, and that gives me hope and joy,” Bennet said. “I know I will not see true freedom in this lifetime, but I know the fight will continue with these young trans folks of color. They will continue to shift the narrative and fight against transphobia, injustice, and racism. I believe that one day, they will see true justice and freedom.”