As long as there has been a concept of gender, transgender people have existed. The existence of people who catwalked the blurry lines of gender has been shown through history and various cultures. In the pre-colonial Incan civilization, they had a dual gendered jaguar deity known as Chuqui Chinchay who had shamans known as quariwarmi (“men-women”), a mixed gender role. In Madagascar, the Sakalava people recognized a third gender known as Sekrata, boys in the community who exhibited traditionally feminine features or personalities who were raised by their parents as girls; they were even believed to have special souls that gave them supernatural protection from harm. In Hawaii, they have the Mahu who expressed a gender role that was in between mascule and feminine, and were caretakers and healers of ancient tradition. In ancient Sumeria, the goddess Inanna had a large amount of people who went against the gender binary in her cult, was said to have the ability to change a man into a woman and a woman into a man, and even mythologically gave a nonbinary person named Asu-Shu-Namir the ability of prophecy and promised safety in her cult after their people were cursed to be seen as societal outsiders. And of course, many people have heard of Indigenous individuals known as “two-spirit”, those who identify as having both a masculine and feminine spirit.
Gender has been a complex and changing topic for centuries, and so the term transgender was not so easy to define perfectly. In 1991, Holly Boswell, a transgender activist, published an article known as the “The Transgender Alternative” in which she solidified the definition of transgender to mean anyone whose gender identity doesn’t match their assigned sex at birth: this is the definition most often used in modern times. She was also the person who came up with the trans symbol!
A terrifyingly major part of transgender history is the persecution. Many cultures that had a general acceptance of transgender people were also ones that were annexed by colonialism, bringing instituted prejudice against those who didn’t fit neatly into the imposed gender binary. It’s because of this, just like for other members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, that barely any information exists about trans historical figures, as they would have kept their identity a secret for fear of persecution or worse. This is what Transgender Day of Remembrance is about, holding vigil for those who were killed because of transgender hatred or prejudice. It is especially important in modern times, where we have access to the most information about trans murder cases and specific statistics that were previously very difficult to acess. Transgender Day of Remembrance was started in 1999 by trans advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith in a vigil for Rita Hester, a trans woman who was killed the year before in 1998. The vigil commemorated all those who were killed from violence since the passing of Rita Hester and became a yearly tradition. Sadly, 2021 has been the deadliest year for transgender people, with 375 people being murdered according to Forbes.
On November 18, 2021, the members of the Nepean High School Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) gathered together in the school auditorium for our own vigil. Earlier that week, a display case had been set up in front of one of the stairwells next to the main office for Transgender Day of Remembrance. It included candles and tissue paper flowers, both in the colours of the transgender flag, with pictures of several transgender people who had been killed this year. The occasion started with the presentation of a slideshow, giving information about the day followed by pictures, names, and dates of transgender people who had died in 2021. The end of the slideshow had a longer list of names. The stage was decorated with a stool and two of the tissue paper flowers used in the display case. A single candle was lit, as anymore could have been a fire hazard. Throughout the whole ceremony, the audience was largely quiet in respect for the serious matter. For Nepean students, Transgender Day of Remembrance is a day of respect, for those who were gone too soon and for the continuing fight to make the world a safer place. In the words of Maxwell Van Loon, who was one of the presenters at the observance, “It means honouring those whose lives were taken too soon. It means our fight isn’t over yet. It means [to] remember the past, but look to the future. It means [to] change the world, one life at a time.”