Elegy for the Ones Who Never Got to Be: Trans Day of Remembrance 2023

Delivered as a speech for Trans Day of Remembrance on 20 November 2023, adapted from a previous speech.

Today is a somber occasion. Every year, hundreds of us breathe our last in Brazil and Turkey and the United States and, yes, here in Canada. Too many of them endure one more cruel postmortem indignity by way of obituaries and funeral services that don’t acknowledge who they really were. Every year those of us who feel safe all being in one place at a known time gather and make our sad pledge: remember the dead and fight like hell for the living. We say their names because, too often, no one else will. If the ordinary funeral service is, far too often, a performance for bigots, we provide one for the truth of who they really were, that they may pass into oblivion known for something other than what they worked so hard to leave behind.

The list is also a warning. Every name we recite today is someone whose name was not on last year’s list. Every one of us lives until we don’t. The dangers that face us all might discriminate by home country and occupation and dozens of other ways that sociologists can catalog and we can embody—there are so many names from Brazil—but they nevertheless wait for us all. The list is a call to action: fix this broken world or we, too, might be next.

On Trans Day of Remembrance, we who are fortunate remember those of us whose dice were not so kind and declare our dreams of a world in which the consequences of a bad roll are not so hideous. And there are whole categories of tragedy we can face that are far harder to catalog, that I want to add to our contemplations tonight: those whose lights go out long before we could ever find them.

Most trans people have one fondest fantasy: that we could have found our truth sooner. Every year earlier that the realization comes is one year less of living a tragic and discontented lie. Some of us even know what lies ahead before we experience puberty and can benefit from the modern top of the clinical line, which prevents the wrong puberty from taking hold at all and spares us physiological ravages that are expensive or impossible to undo. To have been spared the widening of my upper torso, the deepening of my voice, the thickening of my androgenic hair…these are beautiful thoughts, too pure for the sullied world we all have the misfortune to inhabit.

Some people in this country want very much for this world to stay sullied. We see it in their outrage that any media depicts gender variance, acknowledges unusual pronouns, or recognizes that romantic relationships don’t have to involve one man and one woman. We see it in their outrage about “gender ideology” and their favorite turn of phrase, “shoved down our throats.” We see it in their repeated efforts to pretend that “desistance therapy” and “conversion therapy” are anything other than child abuse in medical guise. We see it in their invention out of whole cloth the idea of “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” as some kind of social contagion rather than what it really is: children hiding their truth from unsupportive parents until it can no longer be hidden. We see it in the sadly necessary reality of any teacherly inquiry into a child’s preferred pronouns requiring a separate checkbox for whether that child’s parents should be allowed to find out.

If my parents were more attuned to the Anglophone internet, they would have been all over the idea of rapid-onset gender dysphoria. I look back on my tragic imagined boyhood and see sign after sign after sign of the woman I would become. I took decades to recognize the course that became inevitable the moment I saw it before me, that hindsight makes all too obvious. When I told them, they shouted, they wept for the son they never had, they accused me of driving my ailing grandfather to heartbroken death, they threatened to withhold my final tuition payment and derail my doctoral studies, they refused to use my name or pronouns for multiple years, and they tried to conceal my grandfather’s death from me so that my presence would not “disrupt” the funeral. They treated the moment of my self-actualization as a crime for which I was both victim and murderer, and they sought to both punish and forget. If they had their way, there would be no remembrance.

There are people in Canada who dream of that being the inescapable fate of every trans person.

They fight against modernizing the sexual education curriculum because, among other updates, modern ones acknowledge that trans people exist and that the students receiving this education might be among us. They fight against the possibility of puberty suppression for trans youth, in defiance of all science. They concoct new talking points about “giving parents a say” because they know they can leverage this to prevent anything remotely progressive from ever happening in schools, lest bigoted parents not get “their say.” Their goal is, in no uncertain terms, to replace every incipient trans boy and girl and non-binary child with a miserable, confused, misunderstood youth who cannot ever be allowed to know how much better things could be. To those bigots, this is victory. Better a miserable pretend man than a happy trans woman. Better a sad pretend woman than a contented trans man. Better dead than trans.

They don’t want us finding ourselves. They don’t want us being able to act on that knowledge if we find it anyway. They don’t want our legal identities to reflect our realities. At every step, they want us disappeared through the cracks of ignorance, denial, and depression. They want the very possibility of someone like me, who found herself as an adult, to be too lofty a dream for today’s trans youth, and for the still-better versions my friends’ children get to live today to not only be impossible, but criminal.

In much of the world, even the developed world, a harrowing number of us never get to find ourselves. We slide into statistics about teenage depression, we self-medicate to oblivion, and we appear in the obituary pages before anyone could see our true light, even ourselves. Thanks to adults who have conservative morality where their recognition of their child’s best interests should be, untold multitudes of girls and boys and non-binary people never find out what they are and live with the preternatural sense of wrongness that comes with that denial, until they don’t. And if anti-trans ideologues have their way, every happy trans eleven-year-old looking forward to prom photos that reflect their true self will be replaced with one of these. Better dead, they say, than trans.

And not one of them would make it to the Trans Day of Remembrance list.

That is the cruelty that anti-trans ideologues crave for us: to bury us so thoroughly in denial and self-loathing that we never find ourselves or each other. They want the very idea of people like us to be so utterly expunged from our collective sense of possibility that the next girl who could grow up to be me, the next boy avoiding chest scars via puberty blockers, and the next non-binary child who finds a name for what they are and smiles at the recognition that they aren’t broken, is instead another case of “untreatable” teenage depression and another line on the obituary pages. They want us to die unseen, unknown, unloved, and unwanted.

They kill us because they find us both titillating and shameful. They kill us because they hate what we represent. They kill us because our existence upends the tidy order of their universe. Their brutality reminds us that acceptance is fragile, life is fleeting, and progress remains to be made. And the crime atop all those crimes is that they don’t just want to kill people, but possibilities. The ones who died their tragic deaths after finding themselves, choosing their new names, and living a life that crossed the edge of safety one time too many are only the opening salvo of their firing squad. To do justice to this day, we must remember more than the ones who died visible enough to arrive on our sad, sad list. And today, I make special emphasis for the ones we never got to meet because this world, and the same people killing us directly, took them from us before they could even know themselves.

I want to remember those people because, more than the anti-trans violence that finds too many of us every year, it is this fate that our enemies want to impose, and there are photographs to prove it.

We have all seen the famous photo of a Nazi book-burning. The heap of books, the flames, the crowd tossing more onto the pyre, it is etched into our memories through every history book. Far less commonly known is where those texts came from. The place that the fascists looted that day was Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, or Institute for Sexual Studies, and the documents on that pyre included pioneering research on transgender people. As early as the 1920s, Hirschfeld and his colleagues had data on the power of hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgery. The loss of Hirschfeld’s archive set the science about us back decades. Like all right-wing monsters, the Nazis saw those archives as a threat. They wanted us, not just us the people but us the idea, us the possibility, expunged. It was the worst kind of funeral.

I want us all to remember that underneath the bootheel of every conservative demanding that gender-affirming content be removed from school curricula or put up to bigoted parents’ “personal choice” are untold multitudes of gender-variant children who will, with that loss, never learn the facts about themselves that will enable them to see life as worth living. I want us all to remember that the price of denying puberty blockers to trans youth is measured not in dollars saved but in newspaper snippets full of the phrase “taken far too soon.”

I want us all to remember that part of the reason conservatives get to pretend that being trans is some newfangled cultural contagion is that their ideological compatriots destroyed so much knowledge about us that we are only now ascending past what was on the pyre in the most famous book-burning photo of all time.

Trans Day of Remembrance is a funeral for the unloved subaltern of this world, and some of them died so unloved that they themselves did not know the community that could have held them close.

It is also a call to action, a demand bellowed into a thankless sky: no more. No more deaths, and no more denial. Not one more child struggling to articulate that she’s a daughter, not a son, lacking even the language to explain why this is her last day. Not one more child told that, thanks to the results of some election, that the puberty he thought he could keep from twisting his body is now inevitable. Not one more that we never get to meet because the last trace of them on this earth is an obituary under a name that isn’t theirs.

That is what this day is. This day is our annual reckoning with those we have lost, those we never knew, and those we demand have the chance to know us someday.

We will remember, and we will be remembered.

They burned Magnus’s archive. They’re still killing us in the streets and in our bedrooms.

But ideas are tenacious things. And so are we. And we will not forget.

The text "Transgender Day of Remembrance November 20" over a trans-flag background.

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Elegy for the Ones Who Never Got to Be: Trans Day of Remembrance 2023
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