In Memoriam


CN: alcohol, transphobia, violence, death, non-binary erasure, food, racism

Sometime ago I sat eating dinner in the hall of St John’s college Cambridge, part of the university I attend. It’s not a setting I particularly like, candles, fancy food, expensive wine, ancient portraits of white cis men starring down from the walls as I’m wondering if I’m using the correct cutlery for this part of the meal. I’m trying to enjoy a nice meal with my partner and desperately trying to convince myself that this is just a slightly weird Cambridge equivalent to a meal out at a restaurant. Of course we are not alone in this setting and I’m doing my best to feign polite interest in the conversation the people sitting opposite us are seeking to engage us in. They are two generic Cambridge guys, white, cis, pretty much younger versions of the portraits around us, completely obvious to how farcical the whole situation is. They are thoroughly enjoying themselves without a care or a thought for others. I’m hoping that someone will appear to serve me either more wine or the desert so the meal can finally end.

The conversation rattles on about nothing at all until one of our counterparts decides that it is the correct point of the evening to regale us with tales from his trips abroad because it is imperative that he not be perceived as some insular Cambridge toff and is indeed an experience man of the world. He starts prattling on about his time in Brazil and then pauses for full effect, picking up and sipping from his wine glass before going ‘actually while we were there we witnessed the most peculiar thing, a transvestite knife fight, we don’t know what they were fighting over but the whole thing was so ridiculous, their wigs had even fallen off’. He laughs, I stare, my partner squeezes my hand for support, I want to scream, want to pour the oh so expensive wine over his head, want to throw one of the silver plated candle sticks at him, but of course that would not be proper so he sits and laughs and I silently stare. Desert arrives.

I don’t say a word until we are back at my place where I finally breakdown crying. A single thought consumes me, that there is no difference between I and the people described, that by pure chance I got the break which means I get to go to university and don’t have to scrabble for my life. But for a hairs width that is me, reduced to an over dinner anecdote casually tossed away by some posh arsehole. Finally nothing left of me but a name on a list.

This story has more of a purpose though, the way we talk about TDOR so frequently falls into one of two narratives, that the majority of transphobic violence happens far away in some backwards (read non western) part of the world or that transphobia is somehow the same whether it is directed at us here or at others around the world.

Describing countries with higher levels of transphobic violence as backwards needs to be seen in the context of where they are in the world. Many of these countries are dealing with the legacy of colonialism and specifically the views and legislation which the west exported to them. Much of their own rich culture of gender variance was wiped out in an attempt to impose western moral values on them. If you wish to impose your own culture on a place then you must wipe out that which already exists there.

What were once likely to be more accepting societies were reshaped to match those existing in the west. We forget and erase the history of these countries because it fits nicely into the western colonial narrative, that these countries did not really have a history worth talking about until the westerners came to conquer them. The erasure of their history allows us to view them as backwards while also ignoring our own part in this story. Portraying them as barbaric is also the exact same mindset with which the west viewed these countries during the days of colonialism, that they were somehow inferior to the west and needed our help.

While I’ve said above in my story that I could find myself in the same situation as the people described in the story what and how we experience transphobia is very different. My feeling was that by random chance we had started out in different places and should they be switched then we could very well have followed each other’s paths. However it would be completely wrong to suggest that the suffering of others in an entirely different country is somehow representative of the suffering experienced by us here in the UK. It is far too common for TDOR to be used like this, to hold up those who have died as puppet martyrs to the wider trans community. They did not die for you, remember them, mourn them and let their memories rest in peace.

This is far more than just western countries using the struggles of trans people elsewhere in the world for their own purposes, it also includes co-opting the struggles of trans people of colour for use by white trans people. As is frequently well known and discussed, trans people of colour face much higher levels of violence than white trans people which produces wildly sensational statistics for use by white activists. By making it seem like they experience higher levels of violence white trans people are able to make more progress for themselves, though this rarely does anything to alleviate the suffering of trans people of colour. Simply repeating over and over again, ad nauseam, that trans people of colour face heightened levels of violence is not sufficient to help us and white trans people need to do far more to support trans people of colour.

Some may have noticed that I have used trans people of colour above and not trans women of colour, as is more common when this is being discussed. This is of course entirely intentional and not an unfortunate slip on my part. I do this because when we are talking about TDOR, about violence against trans people around the world we are talking about a huge variety of cultures and identities. We attempt to westernise the people involved, fit them neatly into a narrative that we understand and that can be used to further the cause of western trans people.

We shouldn’t reduce all of these people to trans women but should respect their own identities without forcing them into our western binary. Many of these people we so casually talk about trans women may well fit better within our understanding of non-binary genders and this omission means that non-binary people are all too often seen as not experiencing transphobia. As a non-binary person who frequently presents as feminine my own identity would certainly be ignored and assimilated into the phrase of trans women.

Writing about Transgender Day of Remembrance has always been an emotive issue for me and I’m sure it is the same for many others. Above all else it is a day to remember those who have become victims of senseless hatred. Remember them, remember their names, remember their accomplishments in life and remember them for who they were.

Words by Sarah Gibson
Beyond the Binary Assistant Editor

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  1. I was at Christ’s (1971 – 1977), and so I know the culture you describe. You are being a little unfair to it, but, more importantly, how can you expect to change attitudes if you remain silent when someone says something stupid? If you are a Cambridge student you are, whether you like it or not, part of an elite. With that comes responsibility. If people like you are not willing to take the lead in changing the world, then there is precious little hope for anyone else.

    You could, and should, have challenged the person who made those stupid remarks. You could, and should, have done so politely, pointing out that you saw things differently, and why, and tried to draw him into a conversation. People have been known to change their minds as a result of intelligent debate – especially at a place like Cambridge where reasoned discussion is respected. People who you can persuade that their views are misguided may even turn into strong allies. I have seen it happen. And, if nothing else, at least you would have made him think twice before expressing similar views again.

    I functioned as a gay man for many years, before realizing that the real me is a trans woman, and I was completely out as gay from early in 1974. When I suggest that you need to challenge prejudice head on I am speaking from experience. If I could do it back then, when things were really rather difficult, you ought to be able to do it now.

    Sorry if this posts sounds critical, but I am almost as disappointed by your (lack of) response to that person as I am by what he himself said.

    Hope you manage to do better next tine.

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