Honouring Transgender Day of Remembrance

A conversation with Em Matheson, The Landing's program lead, on remembering the past and looking forward to a brighter future.


The Landing’s Transgender Day of Remembrance Memorial on SUB’s wall of Green and Gold in 2019.

It isn’t easy for me to write about Transgender Day of Remembrance; as a genderfluid, non-binary person, the day carries a lot of weight. Transgender Day of Remembrance is observed annually on November 20 in honour of those whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence. The first vigil was held for Rita Hester in 1999 after she was murdered by police. Since then, trans folk and allies have gathered each year to remember Rita and our trans siblings who have died. While there has been greater representation, political change and increasing acceptance for trans peoples in the past three decades, transphobia continues to target and kill trans people for existing. That’s a heavy reality to live in, especially if you are trans. 

As a way to recognize TDoR within the U of A community, I wanted to spotlight a trans voice and discuss how solidarity building and mutual aid can propel our communities into a safer place. I interviewed my former supervisor and mentor at The Landing, Em Matheson. As The Landing’s program lead, Em manages one student employee and a dedicated team of volunteers to provide the U of A community with programs, resource referrals and regular drop-in hours for one-on-one support on gender and sexuality, and builds community for 2SLGBTQ+ students and allies. Considering the weight of responsibility and dedication Em continues to pull, there was no better person in my mind to talk with about TDoR. When you pass by The Landing, stop in and thank Em for their work. I am surprised they aren’t U of A famous yet with all the rad work they do.

How would you describe your relationship to the trans community?

I identify as trans myself, specifically agender. I don’t really pay attention to the gender binary when I’m describing myself and I don't really code the things I do or wear or say by gender. More generally, I work at The Landing with the queer community on campus, and many of those students identify as trans or are learning more about the expansiveness of gender. Even more generally than that, I am a social worker who lives and works within systems of oppression, one of those being transphobia. So I have multiple layers of involvement in the trans community!

What does Transgender Day of Remembrance mean to you?

To me, TDoR is about honouring the incredible lives that have been lost to trans violence and murder, but it’s also a call to action—this violence doesn’t exist outside of context. Anti-trans violence and oppression are direct results of settler colonialism and white supremacy, racism, homophobia and transphobia. Most of the trans people murdered each year are trans women of colour who experience compounded oppression through racism, transphobia, AND sexism. 

[Me, nodding: Yes, misogynoir.]

Many of the trans people murdered are racialized sex workers too, which many people don't talk about. TDoR to me is about looking at the very real and dire consequences of this colonial society and its failure to protect the peoples it has deemed as "less valuable." Even within the queer community, racialized trans people are silenced, underrepresented and often forgotten after November 20.


Rain and Em tabling as The Landing during Pride Week 2020.

With the history of TDoR in mind, how can trans folk find ways to remember the past while also looking towards a brighter future for ourselves?

This will involve really committing to decolonizing our own thought processes. Most of us in this society have absorbed bias and discriminatory beliefs. I think the first step—especially for me as a white settler working in queer spaces—is to challenge those beliefs and really commit to unlearning and relearning from the communities most affected by transphobic violence. I think one of the things, specifically for the queer community and other trans folks, is to never forget that the freedoms trans folks have today are because of racialized trans folks, specifically racialized trans women. We can't just focus on transphobia here, we need to acknowledge how racism, white supremacy, sexism, ableism, anti-sex work stigma, and the intersection of all of these identities, combine to affect day-to-day life for some trans folk.

As for looking towards the future, every year at The Landing we see more and more first-year trans students utilizing our services. Things are slowly changing; people feel safer coming out, there are more supports available and more information for people exploring their identities. It's really amazing to see.

How can society do better for all trans people? 

Obviously, one way would be to donate to organizations—but even bigger is the importance of mutual aid. Government-sponsored supports often aren't created with the most vulnerable in mind. If you don't see mutual support requests on your social media, then that's one way you could make a personal change: filing your feed with people who have different experiences from you, such as social justice activists and people doing the on-the-ground work mutual aid [that] is so important. It's giving what you can and getting what you need. I think if we all had that mindset the world would be a better place.

I think that in order to switch the culture, we have to do hard personal work—not just work toward things like policies and legal changes, but really shifting our attitudes and thoughts about the value of each other and moving back to communal care and really committing to transferring power. Also, we cannot forget to take accountability when we mess up—because we all mess up and we all have the capacity to do better in the future. 

[Me: Say it louder for the people in the back.]

Has society become less transphobic since Rita’s murder? In what ways has society changed or stayed the same?

I think that society is less outwardly transphobic, specifically toward white trans folks. That doesn't mean that transphobia doesn't exist or that microaggressions don't exist or that white trans folks don't experience harm or violence, that's just how movements within colonialist frameworks "work." There are still power divides among oppressed groups—for example, in queer movements, the people with the fewest intersecting oppressed identities are the ones who experience the most safety and the most support, generally.

What should people outside of the trans and gender-diverse community know?

I think the biggest thing is just to learn from people who are not like yourself—it all starts with unlearning our biases and listening to the people most affected. I don’t think meaningful change is really made if we're not confronting our own biases and really challenging the longheld beliefs we were raised with and learning the hard truths about our society. Having privilege means that other people don't have it, so how can we use ours in ways that lighten the load for those most affected?

How can the U of A community honour Transgender Day of Remembrance on campus this year?

Contibute words of affirmation for our transgender and gender diverse community on campus to The Landing's virtual wall online. These affirmations will be projected to SUBstage on November 18th and 21st as well as on The Landing's 700+ person Discord afterward.

How can students engage with The Landing?

If you are looking for more support or resources on gender and sexuality, visit The Landing on Discord from 12-4 p.m. Monday through Thursday (the space is available 24/7, but staffed by volunteers during these hours), or drop-in in-person at 0-68A in SUB. The Landing also runs a biweekly program called Trans Meetup for trans and gender diverse folk, with new topics each meeting. You can keep up with all The Landing programs, events and updates through Instagram or Facebook!

When it comes down to it, as Em mentions, the path forward isn’t clear-cut. Transphobia is very much alive and well, often targetting the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society. At the same time, there has been progress. We have seen a shift in the stigma giving way to pride and inclusion around trans identities. As we continue to move forward, I want to remind you that we are all in a community with one another. The health of our community depends on our individual and collective struggle for a society free of transphobia, one where people can truly be who they are without fear of rejection, stigma or violence. We are the first step to creating such a society.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This article has also been updated with information for Transgender Day of Remembrance 2022.

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About Rain

Rain is in their fifth and final year of a double major in Political Science and Womens’ and Gender studies. When they aren't writing papers, Rain is trying to keep their plants alive, watching anime or philosophizing why the world is the way it is. Beyond that, Rain is passionate about creating sustainable social justice through their degree and working with their surrounding communities.