The Violence of Misgendering, in Life and Death
by Danny Shneyderman
Illustration by Codi Fant
Do not gloss over these names. Read them slowly, out loud.
Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow
Kendra Marie Adams
Ava Le’Ray Barrin
Chyna Doll Dupree
These are the names of the trans people murdered so far in 2017. Inevitably, this list will grow—2016 was the deadliest year on record for transgender people, with 27 deaths reported. Already in 2017, we’ve lost 15 members of our queer family.
Chay Reed was like a mom to her friends, and “loved to dance her heart out.” Alphonza Watson was “the sunshine of [her] family.” Ava Le’Ray Barrin had dreams of performing on stage and was only seventeen years old when she was killed.
This list is mostly made up of trans women of color, with the possible exception of Mx. Bostick, a trans person of color whose first name and gender are widely refuted, even in queer-centered media. How Bostick identified themself is unknown. Various news sources aim to assume Bostick’s gender and pronouns.
The Human Rights Campaign referred to Bostick as a trans man named Kenneth while GLAAD referred to Bostick as a trans woman named Brenda. TransGriot reasoned that Bostick be referred to as Brenda based on the intimate details of their autopsy report. Gothamist reported that Bostick had identified as a trans woman for a time but identified as male before their death and went by Kenneth.
TransGriot’s post is well-intentioned, but at the same time, it shares private and sensitive information such as details on Bostick’s genitalia. This is invasive and disrespectful. It does not matter that the post came from a trans perspective—it still defines Bostick’s gender by examining their physical body. In reality, identity does not conflate with anatomy, and the only person who can define their own gender is Bostick.
This whirlwind of confusion is, in part, a pronoun issue, which is thought of in mainstream media as binary. Man or woman. The same goes for transness—Bostick was either a trans man or a trans woman. He or she. Called Kenneth or Brenda. We can move from one side of the gender binary to the other, by “transitioning,” but anything in between is difficult to understand. How do we respond to—and respect—a transgender individual who is identified by others in conflicting ways, who may have moved from one identity to the next, or settled on something in between?
The media play a huge role in shaping the public’s opinion about non-binary identification. “Objective” reporting is never quite objective, especially when news outlets lack standard language for coverage on queer issues—including transness—and the violence committed towards the spectrum of trans individuals. When media consistently misgender trans people who were murdered, it not only adds insult to injury—it is an act of violence in and of itself. It erases the identity of the deceased. It says:
“You were not trans.”
“There is no such thing as a trans person.”
“You were a man who wore women’s clothing.”
“You were a gay man.”
“You were a dyke.”
“You were confused.”
“You were wrong.”
The polarization of Bostick’s gender in queer media specifically stems from a very real fear of trans invalidation. Our identities have so often been dismissed, but even so, we fight to claim and hold on to identities that have now become more recognizable in mainstream American culture. A trans woman is a woman. A trans man is a man. We don’t yet know how to defend and bring visibility to non-binary trans identities. Transness is a spectrum just like sexuality is, and we have yet to even fully discuss this in the larger queer community.
Transmisogyny and racism are deadlier than ever, and the majority of hate crimes committed against queer people are towards trans women of color. I am not a trans woman, and I am not a person of color. I can never fully understand what it means to be a trans woman of color, what it means to be afraid for your safety and your life. It’s painful to watch on as my black and brown sisters are killed—more of them each year. I am on the outside, and I feel helpless. And now Bostick is gone too.
How can we as a community combat this feeling of powerlessness? We celebrated Pride not even a month ago. We danced, drank, and painted ourselves rainbow. There wasn’t much buzz about the violence hitting our trans family. But celebrating the queer community in the face of trans violence does not mean we can refrain from talking about what is really going on. We need to come together and hold the media accountable for accurate and respectful reporting on trans people—to celebrate us in death, and in life. We need to advocate for correct pronoun usage, including neutral pronouns for those who use or used them, and for those who can no longer speak for themselves.
Bostick’s death is devastating. We don’t have to figure out their gender in order to understand this. Bostick was trans. Bostick died because they were trans.