Lynnea Urania Stuart
Author’s note: This article is shared by agreement with the brand new TransMusePlanet Magazine as well as the author of the book in question. All who wish to read this review on TransMusePlanet may click on this link.
Committees are already gathering worldwide. Their members, planning the next International Transgender Day of Remembrance (ITDOR, or simply, TDOR), take various approaches to what has become the international trans community’s most sacred event. For planners and speakers, the new paperback, TRANS/ACTIVE: A Biography of Gwendolyn Ann Smith should be required reading.
It should not only be required for them, it’s a book that should be read by every trans activist and trans ally because it describes keys to success in securing human rights for a people for whom human rights was considered laughable for too long. In a year when religious Dominionist forces seek to snuff out and erase the memory of a minority of minorities, it’s time to revisit what made the Day of Remembrance and trans activism as a whole so vital.
The story of Gwendolyn Ann Smith, the founder of the Day of Remembrance, and known by many of us simply as “Gwen”, is more than a transition story. Unlike most of publications of that genre, this story tells the unfolding of a life of activism and a determination to fight the prevailing erasure through the preservation of memory.
Her approach to challenging others is clever and genteel, pointed and philosophical. The reader may find the biography laced with quotes like:
“If all you’ve ever known of transpeople are late-night comedian jokes and fear-mongering about bathrooms, what would you think of transpeople? Instead, let’s put an actual transperson in the room, and challenge those misconceptions.”1
The author, Sophia Cecilia Leveque, pursued writing this biography after a synchronous “accident”. It began with a Wikipedia edit-a-thon hosted by the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University, where participants wrote about prominent members of underrepresented communities. She chose Gwendolyn Ann Smith because the name “Gwendolyn” had enchanted her through other powerful writers who shared that name. But when needing to reference her Wikipedia page, she found too little online biographical information.2
Ms. Leveque is a young writer of 23 years, competent, but not yet seasoned. She recently graduated and now pursues a Master’s degree.3 She approaches the story in gonzo style, building upon personal interviews. Her approach reveals a genuine candor, but at times seems apologetic:
“The clock struck five and I called. Two rings and she answered, sounding breathless. Was it possible she was nervous too? Her voice was smooth, very much like her writing. She made a few jokes to put me at ease and said she couldn’t believe someone wanted to interview her. I told her I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t already. I could hear myself talking too fast, trying to fit as much into one interview as I could, in case she decided she didn’t want to have another call. I asked many invasive questions without meaning to, but the hour flew by.4
Ms. Leveque succeeded in presenting a multi-dimensional activist. Gwen Smith may be known best as the founder of the Day of Remembrance, but her activism began to blossom by tackling anti-transgender bias manifest in a ban on anything transgender by America On Line (AOL). Gwen not only succeeded but continued to administer an online chat within the Gay and Lesbian Community Forum which became Transgender Community Forum, then The Gazebo.. Other online platforms would follow the lead of AOL.5
The importance of this contribution, too often overlooked, cannot be overestimated. The Internet has been the most potent medium that brought together the modern trans community. Much of today’s community may be found on online services like Facebook, Twitter, and GooglePlus; in fact today we find more transpeople socializing online than in support groups who meet at brick-and-mortar locations like liberal churches, LGBT centers, private offices, and gay bars.
The original connection between Rita Hester and the Day of Remembrance has long been well documented.6 But the death of Chanelle Pickett and its connection to the same has had far less billing, thought emphasized in TRANS/ACTIVE. Both transwomen “of color” died in proximity to one another under similar circumstances but scarcely anyone connected them. Gwen recognized this lacuna in what seemed like a milieu of collective amnesia, a sad internal failure deserving of indictment:
“Gwen was not only incredulous; she was angry. These 2 cases were eerily similar and no one was making a connection between them__ there was simply no community memory.”7
This level of insight makes Gwen’s story so compelling. It’s precisely this realization that has enabled many transpeople to rise up out of the underground, onto the streets and into the halls of government. It’s a realization that comes from reserving the right to question why things are so; and also to look for ways to make change happen, however crazy creative ideas leading to solutions may initially appear. This alone, apart from anything else, makes Gwen an example for activists everywhere.
The book, however, isn’t free from inaccuracy, even aside from the usual typographical issues that often bedevil first editions. One instance particularly would have been difficult for any writer to catch unless she had been familiar with a civic organization’s modus operandī, therefore requiring further explanation:
“She [Gwen] was working on other social justice projects, as well. She worked to get ‘the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pass a health care benefits ordinance for transgendered [sic] city employees as part of the City and County of San Francisco’s Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force. This task force also mandated that all single occupancy bathrooms in the city would be gender neutral.’”8
The Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force convened on June 1, 2000 in a conference room on the second floor of San Francisco City Hall overlooking McAllister Street. The 17 voting members were required to be San Francisco transgender residents selected from 3 sources: 6 by Mayor Willie Brown, 6 by the Board of Supervisors, and the remainder by the Human Rights Commission, though the residency requirement was waived for a couple of members whose expertise City officials desired for the effort. The City assigned the task force a 2-year mandate after the 1994 passage of Municipal Proposition L that gave local recognition for the civil rights of transpeople. Task force members would evaluate how well the city had followed the will of the electorate. They were also to recommend implementation for change in the City’s practices. This task force was a source for reform in police practice, transition benefits, and became a springboard for later change in California civil rights law. Statewide change took the form of AB 196 that passed in August 2003, making California the 4th state after Minnesota, Rhode Island, and New Mexico to recognize transpeople as deserving of civil rights. But discussions for addressing state law began with this task force in October 2000 and the verbiage of AB 196 followed the pattern its members discussed.9
Of course, 17 members couldn’t carry out all they needed to do by themselves. Worse yet, some some task force members couldn’t continue their duties for long because of financial or other personal reasons. Several committees convened at various times each month and various locations in addition to the general meetings at City Hall on the first Thursday of each month. From the beginning, the task force filled these committee positions with volunteer transpeople who did not need to be appointed or be San Francisco residents but who also attended the general meetings in an outer ring of seats away from the conference table. These volunteers had access to documents pertaining to committees and all documents of the general meetings including the cornerstone document from the Human Rights Commission titled, Compliance Guidelines to Prohibit Gender Identity Discrimination. Everyone in the room had some role in trans activism. However, these volunteers were not considered part of the task force. They were assistants to the task force much like a clerk who works at the meetings of the Board of Supervisors is an assistant and not part of the board. It’s a distinction too easily overlooked.
By 2001, the task force was in danger of losing a required quorum and began to take new appointees. The Board of Supervisors considered Gwen’s appointment as a voting member in August 2001.10 The date of Gwen’s appointment is important to the narrative because it occurs after, not before passage of transition benefits. Task force members and volunteers were talking informally about transition benefits back in 2000. Supervisor (now State Senator) Mark Leno authored the measure and introduced it in January 2001. Its introduction hit the U.S. news media like a bomb, inciting national ridicule from late night political pundits and comics. Despite opponents’ attempts to make San Francisco a laughingstock over health care for transpeople, proponents rallied in March 2001 and the Board of Supervisors passed transition benefits on Monday, April 30, 2001 with a vote of 9-2. Many trans activists were present at City Hall at the time of passage including Gwen Smith as reported by Janis Ryan of Transgender San Francisco, writing in The Channel.11
So while it’s accurate to say that Gwen worked for passage of transition benefits, she could only have done so as a volunteer in 2001, not as a voting member of the task force. Her work as a voting member would have applied to implementing what had already been passed and the success of this program was well established by 2006.12 The author should make this distinction when preparing this book for any future printing.
Ms. Leveque’s book features what may be the most extensive appendix for a book of pocket size: a list of transpeople people unfairly killed since 1970, almost the time of the Stonewall Uprising and from Gwen’s own research. This list alone is worth perusing well. By Gwen’s own admission, this list is by no means comprehensive “due to lack of proper media coverage, incorrect police information, and an overall lack of available information, particularly from earlier years.”13
The list seems overwhelming, frightening, and poignant. It’s a list any trans activist should have ready to hand and available for reference. It invites everyone to say and remember the names, to defy attempts to erase the victims, and implicitly, all transfolk from the world’s memory. It also invites us to do our own research, to question and compare. Consider a sample for a single month as an example, as compiled from the Trans Murder Monitoring Project and the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT):
- Alejandra Leos, age 41, shot 9/6/2014 in Tennessee.
- Karen Alanis, age 23, thrown from a moving truck 9/10/2014 in São Paulo, Brazil, and died at 7 pm at a local hospital.
- Cris, unknown age, killed by a drive-by shooter 9/13/2014 in Foz de Iguaçu, Brazil.
- Unknown cross dressed victim, allegedly found burned in Los Angeles 9/15/2014. (The obscure story then cited as coming from NBC Los Angeles has not been verified.)
- Gabriel Lopez, age 46 and Marcela Lopez, age 46, killed 9/15/2014 in Medellin Antioquia, Columbia as reported from 2 sources but both may be the same victim. No details recorded.
- Billi Saeed, age 27, killed 9/22/2014 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. No details recorded.
- Mahadevi, age 22, killed in Bangalore, India 9/24/2014. No details recorded.
- Bruna Lakles, age 29, killed 9/30/2014 in Brazil. No details recorded.
- Aniya Parker, age 47, fatally shot 10/2/2014 while walking home in Los Angeles. The LAPD and City Council offered $50,000 for information leading to the arrest of the culprits.14
Compare these names with Gwen’s list on pages 116, 117 for the same period:
- Alejandra Leos, Memphis Tennessee, USA, 2014, gunshot to the head.
- Karen Alanis, Caçapava, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 2014, thrown from a vehicle, ran over.
- Marcela Duque, Medellin, Colombia, 2014, stoned to death.
- Cris, Portal da Foz, Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, 2014, multiple gunshot wounds
- Mahadevi, Malleshwara, Karnataka, India, 2014, pushed off a moving train.
- Bruna Lakiss, Várzea Grande, Mato Grosso, Brazil, 2014, gunshot wound.
- Gaviota dos Santos, Rio Largo, Alagoas, Brazil, 2014, 3 shots to the face.
- Aniya Parker, Los Angeles California USA, 2014, gunshot wound to the head.15
The differences are themselves instructive for any archivist and historian as well as any activist who contributes to the Day of Remembrance. Billi Saeed and the unknown victim burned in Los Angeles do not appear in Gwen’s list. Gaviota dos Santos does not appear in the TMM-IDAHOT list from that time, though she may have been recognized later and so may have slipped through the cracks of being remembered at some 2014 observances. Gabriel (Marcella) Lopez appears on Gwen’s list as Marcela Duque. Bruna Lakles appears as Bruna Lakiss in Gwen’s list. Other details emerge when making comparisons.
This is a very good thing to do because of a grim fact. One person cannot hope to gather and maintain a fully correct and comprehensive list from year to year and from one generation to the next. Gwen can’t. Neither can I. It takes a collective, a coordinated network across generations and international boundaries. Even then we can’t be entirely sure the facts are 100% correct.
But it says something more. While the lists associated with observance of the Day of Remembrance tell us how transpeople, especially those “of color,” have became fodder for slaughter, they don’t say much about how these transpeople lived or what lessons they may have gleaned. Today’s news articles often offer much more in this respect and we need to give these stories attention concerning their details. We must do the best we can because these people deserve to be remembered, and to do otherwise may render the entire demographic forgotten by default as it has during much of human history.
But the main contribution of Ms. Leveque’s biography consists of presenting Gwen’s insight. It’s evident in her admonition to allies.16 It’s also evident in Gwen’s statements about the intentions of ITDOR, a much more serious event than what has sometimes occurred.17 ITDOR has been exploited to merchandize LGBT centers and sponsors even to the point of them becoming like street vendors in an atmosphere resembling a fair. When sponsors gain a greater voice than the names of victims and speakers talk about the progress of their own transitions instead of defying erasure, they could cheat an entire gathering of attendees who attempt to exercise the observance.18
Gwen’s insight is what this book will continue to contribute, details of which should be read and re-read. The work Gwendolyn Ann Smith has performed over the years has enriched and unified the trans community and this book will continue that enrichment in good measure. Personal details are incidental. But remembering her principles and following her actions offer the best and most enduring compliment by which her activism will endure as a legacy.
TRANS/ACTIVE: A Biography of Gwendolyn Ann Smith
By Sophia Cecelia Leveque
Produced and distributed by Library Partners Press
Z. Smith Reynolds Library
Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem NC
Paperback, 127 pages
Available on Amazon
Proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to the National center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), Trans Lifeline, TransLaw Help, and the TransActive Gender Center in Portland OR.
Featured Image: (clockwise from the left) The cover of TRANS/ACTIVE; a scene from the first ever Transgender Day of Remembrance on a drippy evening in the Castro in 1999, from the archives of Lynnea Urania Stuart, source is an unknown amateur San Francisco photographer. “Stop the killing! Stop the hate!” was the mantra of protesters that night, viewable through Theresa Sparks on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-lTsu9SQXM . Quotation from page 51 of TRANS/ACTIVE, leaping into light out of the darkness.
- Leveque, Sophia Cecelia. TRANS/ACTIVE: A Biography of Gwendolyn Ann Smith (Winston-Salem NC, Library Partners Press, ZSR Library, Wake Forest University August 1, 2017), p. 51.
- Ibid, p. 5.
- Ibid, p. 9.
- Ibid, p. 10.
- Ibid, pp. 19-21.
- Rita’s death often appears without mention of Chantelle’s as in “Transgender Day of Remembrance #TDOR – November 20” GLAAD https://www.glaad.org/tdor , accessed August 10, 2017.
- Op cit. p. 42.
- Ibid, p. 52.
- Unless otherwise noted, the writer, Lynnea Urania Stuart, relies upon her own recollections as a volunteer to the Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force from June through November 2000 when she served as Employment Committee Secretary and attended the general meetings. Gwen was nowhere at the general meetings through November 2000 so could not have worked for the task force before December 2000. Further conversation with Gwen on August 6, 2017 revealed that she recalled initially taking a seat next to the window near Larry Brinkin. Brinkin, being an advisor to the task force, and not himself transgender, typically sat at the outer ring behind and to the right of Co-Chair Sarah Marshall. Consequently, Gwen would have also sat in the outer ring. The writer has followed developments related to task force activities after moving from the Bay Area. She writes about the task force and its relationship with AB 196 in detail in “California’s Trans Rights Collective” Transpire (June 10, 2016 ) https://lynneauraniastuart.wordpress.com/2016/06/10/californias-trans-rights-collective/ .
- Letter from the Clerk of the Rules Committee, San Francisco Board of Supervisors to Gwendolyn Ann Smith, dated August 9, 2001 (supplied by Gwendolyn Ann Smith August 6, 2017).
- Ryan, Janis “Transgender History Made in San Francisco” The Channel 20, Issue 6, June 1001,Transgender San Francisco, p. 15.
- Human Rights Commission. “San Francisco City and County Transgender Health Benefit” (memo revisiting the issue of transition benefits, 2006). Copy available online from Transgender At Work Project. http://www.tgender.net/taw/SanFranciscoTGBenefitUpdateMar3106.pdf .
- Leveque, p. 77.
- List of transgender victims from the writer’s own archive.
- Op cit, pp. 116, 117.
- Ibid, p. 63.
- Ibid, p. 59.
- Witnessed by the writer, Lynnea Urania Stuart in Orange County CA. The writer has also witnessed how some younger members of a planning committee groaned at the perceived “drudgery” of reading the names of victims, an exercise that has embodied the very heart of the Day of Remembrance.