Respect for the Dead

“Kelly Young” was born “(masculine name here)”.  That’s how ABC in Baltimore began to describe a murder victim in a story earlier this year.  Except they printed a name that wasn’t her’s.  I won’t dignify that by repeating that name.

Kelly clearly wanted to be known as Kelly.  The general rule of thumb is you respect that.  In some cases, it may be relevant to a news story, but this wasn’t one of them.  This isn’t unique to transgender people.  News stories routinely refer to celebrities by names other than “birth names” (and, indeed, other than their legal name).  Women who take the last name of a husband usually don’t have their maiden name printed if they are killed.

I’m amazed at the obsession to know two things about trans people: what their genitals look like and what their birth name was.  Let me make this simple: that’s rude, objectifying, and humiliating.

But this is routine when trans people are killed.  Their genital status often comes up when a victim is trans.  It comes up in several ways, as does their trans history – “The male victim was dressed in women’s clothes” may be in a story.  Is that relevant?  Maybe it’s relevant that the person is trans, if you are reporting on a suspected hate crime.  Or if the person was well known as a public activist or figure.  But other than that, no, it’s generally not relevant and serves no purpose other than to give people a chance to snicker at someone dead.  That’s not classy.  Certainly what their genitals look like is almost never relevant.  And, equally so with their “birth name”.

Brandon Teena's inaccurate grave marker

Brandon Teena’s inaccurate grave marker

It’s not just reporting.  I know trans people that are scared their families will put a name other than their name on their tombstone.  Imagine living your life, only to be insulted when you die.  Brandon Teena, the subject of Boys Don’t Cry, a transman was brutally raped and murdered in Nebraska.  He’s now buried in Nebraska.

His grave marker – something that should tell the world who he was – instead uses the wrong name and refers to him as “daughter, sister & friend.”

Imagine that.  You’re brutally murdered.  And even when you are dead, your family buries you under a different name and gender.  It’s hard to explain how humiliating that is.

Why do people do that (Brandon Teena is not the only one that had this done to him)?  I don’t know why Brandon’s family did this.  I do know why others do it, though.  Some families find it really hard to acknowledge that their child is trans.  So hard, in fact, that they would rather loose their relationship with their child than to have to explain to their friends, family, and church why their son is now their daughter – or visa-versa.  This acknowledgement of someone else’s life is so horrifying to people that they would rather bury their child under the wrong name and gender.  Imagine what it is like for that child to be alive, to live a life unacknowledged and unaccepted by family.

More than that, thanks to the right wing, and the common confusion between sexual orientation and gender identity, and a general anti-gay sentiment in the right wing, the mere act of calling someone by the name and pronouns they ask to be used is now sin.  You see, in the eyes of these people (Note that I believe most are, sadly, not acting out of heartfelt analysis of scripture, but rather out of blind faith in their religious leaders and personalities), if you see someone who is gay (and, thus, by extension, someone who is trans), you have to say something to show you don’t agree.  Otherwise, apparently, God will send you to hell or something.  There’s also a really twisted idea of gender roles here – women subservient and all that (I’ll write about that some other time).  Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I was a member of such a group so I do have some idea how they think.

The idea is that if you “accept” it (that is, keep your mouth shut when you object – which is obviously a far cry from true acceptance), then you’re encouraging and in a way a codependent.  If you make life suck for the trans (or gay) person, then maybe they’ll stop sinning.  There is a problem here, though: some do – they kill themselves.  And even then they get stuck in graves which further the very abuse that made them hate life.

But apparently it’s not sin to spit on a grave or worse.  Even after the person is dead, they are fair game for abuse.

What do we do about this?

Simple.  We demand accountability.  Newspapers and TV should be called out when they refer to people with the wrong gender, out a victim as trans when it’s not truly relevant to the story, and we should make sure people we know are remembered for who they were, not who someone else wanted them to be.  And we should treat people properly when they are alive, too – if someone tells you their name and gender, it’s not your job to enforce the right-wing will.  They aren’t doing this because you didn’t insult and abuse them enough.  It’s time to stop the abuse, particularly in the name of God.

RIP Kelly and Brandon.  I will acknowledge who you were.