On “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay”
Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance 2016, two years after I wrote the Facebook post that eventually became “TDOR: A Found Essay.” This year, more trans people were killed than in 2014, but not so many as were killed in 2015.
I never intended this essay to be an essay. It began as a Facebook post, written in anger, to rub the face of my cis friends into what is happening. My trans friends already have their faces in it. I spent the late hours of TDOR 2014 looking up the data compiled by a couple different transgender advocacy organizations on trans people murdered in 2014, and arranged that data into the essay. Pretty simple. Some days I’m proud of the essay. Some days I’m ashamed of it.
On the days when I am proud, I think for many women—buried under tombstones engraved with the name they tried to shed, dressed up in suits they’d never wear in life—lists like these are the only lasting evidence that they were who they claimed to be. On those days, I think having as many people see these women for who they were is the best that we trans women can do for our dead.
On the days that I’m ashamed, I see this essay as a collection of the data about how someone was killed as opposed to who they were. Each entry reduces a person to the wound someone else inflicted. Each entry replaces personhood with victimhood. Even in remembrance—the dead, mostly women, mostly of color, mostly sex workers—become simply the sum of how they were used. There is a way in which an essay like this—simply data collected largely by well-meaning trans women and arranged by another one—is the final act of violence. When I am remembered to history, I hope I get more than: “Torrey Peters—hatchet blow split her skull.”
This essay isn’t an elegy. No one wants to be remembered this way. In the way that the found form often mirrors a situation, it is a description; and in the way that the found form withholds answers; it is a series of questions. Each year I read the names of dead trans people and each time, I find the recitation of names lurid, fascinating, powerful, disrespectful, and tedious. It’s torturous how they go on and on, all blending into each other, losing distinctions without resolutions. It’s agonizing how they refuse to explain themselves, so that the questions I throw at them feel like my own selfish interventions.
Who owns these names? Who chooses what they are called, which deeds should define them? I notice how the data includes information about race, but not about sex work—because the lists are mostly compiled by trans activists, many of whom fear that information about sex work would water down the urgency of trans advocacy and confirm negative stereotypes; that if readers discovered just how many of the dead were murdered performing their work, those readers might shrug and say, well she was a whore and came to a whore’s inevitable end.
I wonder at my own complicity. I mean, people died, and I got an essay out of it, right? But I tell myself that because I’m a trans women, I am entitled to write the names of dead trans women. I tell myself that because I have done sex work, I am entitled to write the names of dead sex workers. I tell myself that because I am white, I am not entitled to write the names of dead black women, but that I did anyway, because my own personal intersectional calculus said I could probably get away with it. I notice how incredibly unsatisfying it feels to frame any of my questions this way. I try out new ways. I tell myself that I am entitled to write names, offered without comment, because their importance is everything that they do not say or show, in the way that the Holocaust Museum in Berlin contains rooms with no doors, rooms that no one will ever enter. For a moment, I believe it. Then it begins to feel like bad Derridian postmodernism, and I don’t. You can probably come up with your own questions. And while we deliberate, the names go on.
In 2014, the night I wrote the Facebook post that became this essay, I first went to a church in Seattle to listen while mostly trans women walked to the front of the pews and took turns each reciting a name from that year’s list of the dead, the women whose names ended up in my essay, lighting a candle for each one. This year—tonight—I’m not going to any church. I already know the names. I already know that they are unknowable. I just want them to stop.