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  • Writer's pictureJoscelyn Transpiring

Death Stalks Us

(Edited and Republished on: November 10, 2023; Originally published as a thread on the fediverse on February 18, 2023: https://chaosfem.tw/@JoscelynTransient/109886950106340874)


CW: Trans death, Transphobic Violence, etc.


Transpiring Influences: Laurel Westbrook, J. Halberstam, and Ezra Furman



 

Death Feeds


Another day and another endless scroll for me through my social media feed of those who are not sure how they’ll survive and those that already didn’t. The former are my trans siblings pleading with us to share enough to keep them alive. The latter are those taken from us, either by direct violence or indirect violence, whose names join the all-too-large pantheon of queer martyrs.


16. 24. 27. None of them even lived long enough to reach my 35 years. It’s hard not to feel like I’m living on borrowed time, having survived because I was in hiding. After all, in trans years, many of them were already well ahead of me. Are my 4 years of living as myself merely a march towards the inevitable?


Unlivable Lives in Queer Times


This sense that death stalks us, that there is no future for trans people, was mapped by Laurel Westbrook (2021) when they extended Butler’s notion of “unlivable lives” as an unintended consequence of our own activism. With Trans Day of Remembrance being our only national holiday for so many years, and constant activism raising awareness of the murders of trans people, we eventually only saw our faces reflected in a parade of ghosts rather than the world of the living.


Years before, Jack Halberstam (2005) identified one form of “queer temporality” as this kind of fatalism. For straight folks in the US, especially white ones, life was lived along a timeline with predictable plot beats – people get born, go to school, meet someone, get married, get a job, buy a house, have kids, retire, and die. For those of us not able to live normative lives, our timelines are non-linear, happening out of order or turning back in on themselves and repeating or wandering off into the wibbly-wobbly.


Halberstam points to how AIDS shifted the horizons of our communities, leading to different relationships to time. E.g. In the gay men’s party scene, this meant not investing in longevity, in providing for old age. After all, if you won’t live to see 65, why not live in a “riotous present?” It reshapes one’s relationship to risk and safety, as the risk of substance use or STIs is to that old age you’ll never see anyway. And at least in the club, you are alive with those you love.


For many queer Black men and trans people, a disregard for their bodies and lives was “business as usual,” minimized into individual tragedies rather than the shared story of a community. Frustratingly, this horrific dynamic persists. A week doesn’t go by without another Black trans woman or man being found murdered. It has become the background noise of our lives, tragedies individualized away from the lives of many of us white trans folks.


Hiding in Queer Places


Beyond the cultural and structural racism that plays a role in this, Halberstam also outlines the story many of us want to tell about anti-queer violence: it is something that happens out there, in a distant geography of rural, "backwards" communities. Escaping to the city is safety. But many of the Black and Latine trans deaths happen in urban and city environments. Facing this means acknowleging that vulnerability, exposing our hearts to it.


Many of my trans friends here in Southern California will talk as if this is the safest place in the world for us. Sure, it’s probably one of the better legal and policy environments for us in the US. But I often find myself confused, as so many trans people have been murdered in Los Angeles and the region between north county San Diego and Orange County is a hotbed of anti-trans right wing extremism.


Of course, in this environment, as a white trans woman who can pass most of the time, my risks really aren’t the same, as Westbrook points out. By flattening trans deaths to one identity, it creates this generalized sense of threat to us all. This is partly a practical concern – it’s a simpler message and you need a simple, straightforward message to shout at a protest. Not to mention, it demands we share the struggle.


But many of the trans women of color that are taken from us are murdered because they are sex workers in a society that criminalizes them - actively making them vulnerable to violence. Many of the Black trans men murdered are killed because the cops see them principally as Black men, a gut-wrenching twist on our demand to recognize trans men as men. And non-binary folk face violence often because they aren’t seen as human and grievable by those that can’t fit them in a box.


This may be why certain deaths pierce through the veil of numbness for some of us, when others don’t. A trans sister taken from us in a place we hope might be safe. A young girl that embodied certain dreams for our future that is now gone. Suddenly, we actually all are under similar risks and specifically for our trans status, not as a consequence of how other structures of marginalization intersect with transness to create vulnerability.


Quitting Death


So here our whole community is once more. We are not safe. We are precarious. Once more, death stalks us even in our dreams. And if we are not careful, we will do death’s work for it.


My closing thought goes to the bridge in Ezra Furman’s “Restless Year”:


Death! Is my former employer
Death! Is my own Tom Sawyer
Death! Wait for me to destroy her

I read this as Ezra saying that death used her in the past, driving her to the possibility of self-destruction and suicide. She was “employed” by death, doing its work for it. Like Tom Sawyer tricking other kids into doing his work of painting the fence for him, death makes its work seem enticing, tricking us into fatalism. Death waits for Ezra to destroy the woman she is one way or another.


I no longer want to do the work of death. I want to find a way to do the work of life.



 


References:


Laurel Westbrook (2021). Unlivable Lives: Violence and Identity in Transgender Activism : https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520316591/unlivable-lives


Halberstam, Jack (2005). In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives : https://nyupress.org/9780814735855/in-a-queer-time-and-place/


Ezra Furman (2015), “Restless Year” : https://youtu.be/NDOenFQazrA


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