Ethan St. Pierre is an FtM transsexual gender activist who has been lobbying Congress on behalf of hate crime victims and survivors since 1991. Ethan is a board member of Families United Against Hate, Massachusetts Anti-violence Project, the garden of peace memorial, and works with the Remembering Our Dead Project as coordinator of The International Transgender Day of Remembrance, investigating and updating the statistics of those who are murdered as a result of anti-transgender hatred or bias.
Ethan is also the founder and creator of the TransFM internet broadcasting network www.TransFM.org (temporary website is set up at www.transfm.squarespace.com . You can find his recorded podcasts at www.radicalguy.podomatic.com and www.archive.org.
What does TDOR mean to you?
That’s a very good question and a really hard one. It means a lot of things. Transgender Day of Remembrance is a day when we come together to remember those that we’ve lost, but it also reminds us of how unsafe we are and how we are targets of violence – and that nobody is really safe from it. If you’re a trans person, especially if you’re an unemployed trans person out on the street, there’s a really good chance you’re going to lose your life.
It reminds me how unsafe we are. And it reminds me how much work we have to do to educate people so that it doesn’t keep happening.
Can you tell me how you got your start as a transgender activist? What has motivated you to continue to focus on transgender issues?
Before I began transitioning, in 1995, my aunt Deborah Forte, a transgender woman, was murdered. She had transitioned the year I was born. At the time I didn’t know anything about trans issues. I was really clueless that trans people had different issues from lesbian and gay people. When my aunt was murdered, it was a big shock – to know that someone murdered her because she was trans. It was a nightmare. Her attacker killed her very violently. He fled from the police for two weeks, but after his parents talked him into turning himself in, they let him out on bail, and he walked around for a year-and-a-half before trial. Then at the trial he bargained with the prosecutor and got 15-years-to-life. He’s up for parole next year. And I’m thinking, “Wow. This just can’t be.” It was obvious that her life just wasn’t valued.
So I began lobbying when I was living as a woman. I just couldn’t stand that there were so many families out there dealing with what my family went through in losing my aunt. I went to Congress, and I thought – being so naïve – if I could just get them to hear my story, they would change, but they didn’t care. They’d just sit there and nod. To see where we were when I first started lobbying to where we’ve come today is just an amazing thing. To hear a president say the word transgender is amazing to me. I did not think I’d get to see an inclusive hate-crimes bill passed.
What do you think are the most pressing concerns for trans communities today?
Employment non-discrimination. When we were left out of that legislation, and told this is going to move forward and you are not going to be in it, we were being told, “We don’t want you around.” To not have the right to be employed is to not have the right to live. To not have the right to be employed is to be sentenced to death.
I got fired from my job as a security manager for transitioning. I was very lucky to have a family and a partner who supported me, but if I were on my own, I could have lost everything. I would be homeless. They specifically fired me for being trans. They actually told me I was no longer wanted there because of my gender transition. They knew there were no laws protecting me, and that’s why they said that. They specifically fired me for being transgender.
November 5th was the hearing on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the Senate. And they didn’t even schedule a transgender person to get up and speak. That’s the other thing that bothers me. So few people I know who have faced employment discrimination or lost transgender family members have ever gotten to talk to their senator. They seem to go out of their way to make us invisible. It’s very frustrating. And the Senate hearing was equally frustrating.
You put in a lot of time updating the TransgenderDOR website, which Gwen Smith began. Have you noticed certain trends in tracking our losses over the years?
The trend is that the people we are losing are getting younger. Perhaps it is because people are transitioning at younger ages now. Younger people are always more at-risk. When I was young, I was involved in a lot of risky behavior, and I’m not blaming the victim by any means, but being any type of a queer person, you have to be more careful than everybody else, because some people just really want to kill us. I know that sounds paranoid, but having tracked this, I’ve seen its reality.
And the Day of Remembrance list is all people who are brutally murdered. That’s always consistent. The attacker is trying to make that trans person go away completely. It’s very, very violent. Also, even if media reports don’t always include pictures of the victims, I still believe that this is affecting transgender people of color more than any other group in the United States. Probably the hardest thing to be in this country is a transwoman of color.
But I’m starting to see a difference in how the lives of trans people are being treated in their deaths. In the case of Angie Zapata, what struck me most was how the case was being prosecuted very heavily. The killer was actually shocked that he was not being given a medal, that he was being treated like this for killing a trans person. Think about the difference in 15 years between when my aunt was murdered, how our family, how her death, how her killer was treated, and how that has changed drastically.
Tell me a little bit about TransFM Radio: How did that project start, and what has it become?
I started that in February 2003. I had been a very big fan of GenderTalk, a Boston-based radio talk show hosted by Nancy Nangeroni and her partner Gordene MacKenzie. (GenderTalk received a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding LGBT Radio in 2000.) Their guests were just great, and for that hour I could listen to the show, I felt so at home. And I said to myself, “We need more of this.” So I started doing TransFM as a show, and I made it lighthearted – because I thought we needed more comedy as a movement. The more I really got involved with the politics of activism, though, the more serious it became, and it morphed into a show focused on simply telling the truth.
I started to invite other people to do their own podcasts, and it turned into a network. We need so much educating – we need to educate each other. Everyone on TransFM is being very honest and out there for the sake of educating each other. I’ve interviewed everyone from Calpernia Addams to Kate Bornstein – everyone you can possibly think of from our movement, and they’ve all been so awesome.
TransFM is global because it’s Internet based, and I have listeners in 30 countries. All our episodes are free and streaming 24/7. To listen, go to www.Live365.com/ethanstp.
Something to note: over the holidays – any family-oriented holiday when a queer person might feel lonely – we stream from early in the morning till midnight. We keep our phone lines for anyone who just wants to talk, on the air or off the air. And we feature the “13 Days of Christmas” from December 13th through midnight on Christmas.
How will you be spending this year’s Day of Remembrance?
I’ll be broadcasting for the DOR that Sunday for the people that live in remote areas. On Friday Nov 20th, I’ll be speaking at an event in Allston, where Rita Hester was murdered. The last two years we’ve held a candlelight vigil marching from the church to her apartment building where she was killed.
I’ll leave you with the thought that this can happen to anyone at any time. I don’t have any qualms about telling the people I love that I love them, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them. The odds of us surviving can be pretty grim.