Note: the DOR in Providence was held on Monday Nov 17th, 2008, instead of the national day on Nov 20th.
Hello everyone. My name is Saffo and I am trans. Some of you may know me by my birth name, Fokion. As many of you will already know, to many trans people, changing our names is an important rite of passage. Coming out as trans, choosing a new name and transitioning my identity has been a difficult, beautiful, emotionally exhausting, revitalizing and spiritually empowering process. Some of you who have known me for years have struggled to remember to call me by my new name, and by my new preferred pronoun. I assure you that it’s been even more difficult for me, adjusting to a new name, to a new relationship with the world. But it is so important and I appreciate the many people in my life who have supported me through this struggle, as well as the countless many trans and gender variant people who have struggled and fought so hard before me— many of whom have sacrificed their lives for the chance to name themselves. After all, today is the day of remembrance, so I must remember with a sense of gratitude and humility those who have fought before me and made the ultimate sacrifice.
So what’s in a name? Many of us live out our lives with names that were given to us by our parents, which may or may not have any real meaning or significance. Your name is perhaps the most important, most deeply engrained social marker you will have in your life. It claims to define you— and yet most people did not choose their name, or may not feel that it has any real meaning to them. Coming out as trans has given me a sense of solidarity with people everywhere who have chosen to rename themselves. Similarly, it is through this politics of naming that we are also able to name the forces of violence that oppress us. Transphobia, Heterosexism, Racism, Classism, Imperialism, Ageism, Ableism, Capitalism, Sexual Assault and Violence, the Prison Industrial Complex. The list goes on. Naming the systems of violence that oppress us and those around us is a vital first step in our various struggles for liberation. And so it is through naming both ourselves, our communities, and the forces of violence that oppress us that we are able to fight back.
So what’s in my name? I chose the name Saffo for many reasons. Those of you who know me probably know that I am half Greek. My birth name, Fokion, is an ancient Greek name. According to Greek culture, a parent is supposed to name their child after her or his grandparent, who is supposed to be named after a saint. My mother, however, a devout atheist, chose to defy tradition, giving me a name that was ancient Greek. I was always proud of this. I was drawn to the name Saffo because it is not the name of a saint. Furthermore, for those who don’t know, Saffo was the ancient poet from the island of Lesbos who wrote love poems to other women. Hence where the world “Lesbian” comes from. My choice of name reflected a desire to connect my culture with my queerness, while simultaneously resisting Christian hegemony.
With that said, we are here today to remember the countless many trans and gender non-conforming people who have been slaughtered by the systemic violence of transphobia. By an interesting coincidence, today happens to be an important day for me both as a tranny and as a greek. Today is the 35th anniversary of the Athens Polytechnic Massacre. Let me explain. In 1967, as part of the cold war, the United States overthrew the Greek government and installed a military dictatorship in Greece. In November, 1973, students at Athens Polytechnic went on strike against the junta and took over the school. The government responded on November 17th by crushing down the gate of the school with a tank, and slaughtering the students. November 17th is an important date to Greek people— a powerful reminder of violence of the state and US imperialism. Thirty-five years ago today, the United States slaughtered Greek students organizing to overthrow a repressive right-wing regime that the US had installed. This is, of course, not a unique experience. The United States has covertly and overtly enacted tremendous violence all over the world from Manifest Destiny, to the Vietnam War, to Pinochet, to the war in Iraq, to the Spanish-American war, to the occupation of Palestine, to Free Trade... and that’s just the beginning... As we speak right now, we stand only a couple blocks away from Textron world headquarters— a company that manufactures cluster bombs used to kill Iraqi civilians. We are living here in the belly of the beast— the United States empire, the most powerful force of death and destruction in the history of the world.
So what does this have to do with the reason we are here today? I wanted to bring up November 17th because today is a powerful day for me, on the 35th anniversary of a date that has been ingrained in my head since I was a child, to be recognizing my queer sisters and brothers who have fallen as part of a different, but related struggle. Some people might say, “but those are separate issues.” And I would respond, when you’re rising up to fight for your life, there are no “separate issues.” This touches on something all-too-often left out in mainstream queer discourse— the connection between state violence and violence against queer and trans people. While outside our borders the United States asserts its violent hegemony through war, espionage, secret prisons, the so-called drug war, and the World Bank and IMF; inside our borders we have the largest prison population in the history of the world. There is an enormously profitable industry built around imprisoning people in the US. This is the prison industrial complex. When private prison companies began losing money recently, the state responded by targeting immigrants in order that prison companies could increase their profits. Immigrants, communities of color, queer, trans and gender non-conforming people are favorite targets of the prison industrial complex.
Within prison walls, queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people are routinely subject to rape, humiliation, and other forms of brutality— far more so than our straight and cisgender peers. Furthermore, trans people are often placed in the wrong-gender section, or are kept in solitary confinement, and are frequently denied access to medical treatment. This is state violence against our community. It is important to recognize that the mechanisms of state violence that terrorize queer and trans people are some of the same that terrorize immigrants and communities of color. We must recognize that different oppressions function differently, as our identities function differently, but ultimately we have more to gain from building solidarity between our various movements. Some people, however, stubbornly refuse to recognize the importance of these connections.
Perhaps nowhere is this hypocrisy more clear than with the issue of hate-crimes legislation. Many trans people live in communities or neighborhoods that are not supportive. We live with the knowledge that, were we to be attacked, our neighbors may not give a shit about us. This is, in part, a result of the isolated capitalist system in which we live. Many people don’t notice their neighbors, don’t feel supported by any sort of community, and hence, when violence happens, the only recourse we have is the police. The same police force that raided stonewall. The same police force that doesn’t give two shits about queers. I don’t want, in any way, to de-legitimate the experience of trans people who are victims of hate crime— or those of us who live with the fear every day of being hate crimed. These are very real forms of violence that terrorize us and our community. What I want to say is that we must begin the work of building meaningful alternatives to dealing with violence besides more violence. Imprisonment and heavier sentencing is not the answer to dealing with violence against trans and queer people. The prison industrial complex fails every day to reduce violence. That is not its goal and it never has been. Its only goal is more imprisonment, more violence, more fear, for more profit. We live in a world where the US empire profits off our struggles and wants us to remain afraid. The capitalist system depends on it.
I do not have the answer as to how to deal with violence. What I can say, however, is that it is time for us to recognize that all forms of violence and oppression feed off each other. Single issue politics will not bring us real liberation. I once heard someone say, “single-issue politics doesn’t work, because we’re not dealing with single-issue oppressors.” It is time for those doing work to end gender and sexual violence to recognize the systemic racism and classism in the prison system in order to see that these are not viable options. It is time for straight cisgender people doing work to end the violence of the prison system to take up the burden of helping to end violence against trans and queer people. Ultimately, I have faith that we can work together to smash the systems of violence that oppress us all.
So, for these reasons, I am honored to be here today to commemorate those who have fallen in all of our various struggles. Whether it be against US empire, defending the rights of immigrants, working to abolish prisons, or demanding the right to walk safely down the street, we all fight every day in our own ways. But more importantly, I want to celebrate those of us who are alive and still fighting. I want to end on a positive note here by recognizing and celebrating all of our various differences while we simultaneously recognize and celebrate our common shared humanity. Human beings are fragile creatures, and it is only through mutual support, through love, through compassion that we can really make it through this world together. Trying to make it through this world and survive has been a spiritual process for me, and naming myself has been yet another step on a journey that will last until the day I die. We each have our own unique journeys, and it just so happens that we have been blessed today to each cross paths being in the same room at the same time. Some of us are born being told we’re a woman, and later decide we’re actually men. Some of us are born being told we’re a man, and later decide we’re actually women. What’s true throughout, though, is that it is only deep inside here (heart) that we can really name ourselves, that we can find our own paths along this fucked-up beautiful journey called life. But for each of us that blazes another path, we can know that we have helped make the struggle a little easier for those who will come next.