CW: LGBTIQA+ violence, death, misrepresentation.
Being an obituary writer for a trans non-profit was one of the most fulfilling yet difficult things I’ve ever done. Having to sift through so much inconsistent media about the identities of viciously murdered persons, taught me a lot about keeping us as safe as we can, including how we can protect ourselves from our estranged families, should they be a threat to honoring our identities upon death.
All TGNC people lost to violence/injustice, deserve so much more, as do those of us still living and experiencing violence now. So many of our siblings go misrepresented, and are never properly honored in their moment of passing. If you are wondering how to defend yourself after death, or if you are an ally or a physician of any kind, there are ways you can work towards a safer future for yourself and your community. Not every battle is hopeless.
Misrepresentation of Trans Dead, and Resources to Prevent it from Happening to You
VIOLENCE: THE ISSUE AT HAND
In 2013, the FBI started tracking hate crimes against TGNC people. Since then, 302 deaths of a violent nature have been documented by the Human Rights Campaign. The victims are overwhelmingly persons of color (69% Black, 15% Latine), and under the age of 35 (77%).
2020 marked the deadliest year on record for TGNC folx, with a terrifying 37 deaths of TGNC individuals in the United States. This is the same year we lost Monica Roberts, founder and editor-in-chief of TransGriot, a renowned blog that covered issues related to TGNC people of color, including the fatal violence they face. Monica, a “proud unapologetic Black trans woman speaking truth to power,” died of a heart attack, which is believed to be the result of medical neglect, a common experience for BIPOC individuals seeking care from the medical system. I never knew Monica, or what her experiences as a homicide reporter for our community were like. I only know my experience.
*Read GLAAD’s memorial for her to learn more about the impact of TransGriot and more of her work.
MY EXPERIENCE OF OBITUARY WRITING
2020 was the year I began working for a non-profit organization centered on telling trans stories to help save trans lives. In 2021, the ‘deadliest year on record’ for us, with 57 losses reported in the United States (a 54% increase in violent deaths), I became an obituary writer for our trans siblings lost to violence. Everyday, as soon as I woke up, I updated the death reports spreadsheet to add the news I found while searching online for any reports of violence. As the information came in I would begin my research, collecting accurate information while reaching out to news sources and police stations with inaccurate name and pronouns for victims (to get to the bottom of if it’s a legal request, or simply a misinformed reporter), responding to family and community requests and complaints, etc.
Cases of loss I was writing for/about often featured conflicts between the estranged family of the deceased and the chosen family of the individual. These conflicts included arguments over the pronouns used to refer to the dead, the choice of pictures used and their physical presentation within them, the name being said, and the way the dead are dressed in the casket, which includes or doesn’t include chest binders, packers, other gender affirming garments depending on the preference of the deceased.
When the next of kin is transphobic, they can say whatever they want in terms of the pronouns and name of the deceased. Their choices go on to be published in news reports, autopsy and police reports, and obituaries.
Legal systems do not yet have the emotional intelligence to comprehend the disrespect behind deadnaming a person in their death and how to stop it.
I write all of this to offer you a descriptive backdrop to the work I was doing. Want to guess how many lost siblings have been misgendered and/or dead named–the use of a person’s name assigned at birth that they never/no longer aligned with–by the media and/or police in the United States since 2013? 70%. Seventy. There was so much I had to sift through in the researching part of the writing process. What was the true name this person aligned with? What were their true pronouns? Were they socially transitioning without their families knowledge, did the family know? Were they okay with it? Is the family now in charge of the records and reports? Is this photograph of them I’m using for the obit portrait accurate to how they presented before they were murdered? Is this lost person somewhere in the afterlife shouting at us because we’re doing it all wrong?
No, we cannot save all of our friends from being killed. And no, we can’t force a publication to change the name they’re using for someone if the legal next of kin ordered them to use specific information. There is, unfortunately, nothing we can do when this happens. Technically, what they’re doing, misrepresenting these people, isn’t illegal. Legal systems do not yet have the emotional intelligence to comprehend the disrespect behind deadnaming a person in their death and how to stop it.
A healthcare proxy, also known as a your health care ‘Power Of Attorney’, is someone you assign as the person who makes the decisions on medical protocols for your body if you are ever in a condition considered ‘too sick to speak for yourself’. You can assign a proxy by filling out paperwork at your local hospital or healthcare facility. In most cases, a healthcare proxy cannot be overridden by next of kin, even if they disagree with whatever decisions you came to (this information may be state dependent). It’s more than filing paperwork with someone; it’s just as important to follow this up with an in-depth conversation with your new proxy surrounding what you would like your healthcare to look like depending on different circumstances. This solution is unfortunately limited, as your proxies ability to protect you is limited to medical circumstances. This means that in non-medical situations, your legal next of kin can sweep in and challenge your choices.
If death can do that to us, keep us on our toes, we should be able to do that to death.
You might also consider filling out a Do Not Resuscitate form. The same loss of power described above can happen with an advanced directive, otherwise known as a living will for healthcare–without any rights to control of belongings–the moment you pass away. That’s when it becomes wise to fill out a Disposition of Bodily Human Remains (DBHR), which would grant them control over your remains (here’s the New York state form for DBHR application, as well as the New York state Order to Not Resuscitate, as examples). DBHR forms also oftentimes override the power of the next of kin, and your agent could be whomever you chose to protect you after you’re gone. This suggests that marriage and/or adoption aren’t the only ways out of escaping transphobic misrepresentation in the afterlife.
Our community has come so far, using so many creative loopholes and workarounds to make sure our vibrance and history and health is preserved. I want so much more for us and how we take care of our EOL plans. Society often moves too slow for the progression of change, and this is a painfully perfect example of that. Below are some of the safe spaces that offer help with end-of-life planning to those within the TGNC sphere of existence, that, with fingers crossed, can help you feel calmer about your end-of-life plans, or being an ally to someone asking you to be a part of theirs.
Of all of the cases I worked on as an obituary writer, none of them involved TGNC persons who have set up their end of life plans ahead of time. Of course, a violent death is an unexpected one. But, there is no such thing as being able to know the exact time of your death, regardless of what is killing you. If death can do that to us, keep us on our toes, we should be able to do that to death. We need to start regulating preparation the second we hear about it, and we need to start talking about it with our loved ones, starting yesterday. This cannot be stressed enough.
- Care at the end-of-life for LGBTQ+ seniors, Hospice Care of the Lowcountry
- Caring for an Unconscious Transgender Patient at the End of Life: Ethical Considerations and Implications, The Official Journal of the Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association
- Exploratory Analysis of Barriers to Palliative Care: Issues Report on People Who Identify as LGBT or Intersex, Austrailian Government Department of Health
- For those with access to academic publishers, chapter 35 of the Oxford Textbook of Palliative Social Work goes into care with the LGBTQ+ community.
- “Fostering a Safe Space for Our LGBTQ+ Patients and Staff” – A palliative care physician shares anecdotes from experiences with LGBTQ+ patients, and how care can be improved for them.
- “Hiding who I am”: The reality of end of life care for LGBT people booklet from Marie Curie, a UK charity supporting people living with terminal illness. Subjects range from anticipating discrimination to addressing the research gap, the complexities of religion and LGBT end of life care, and more.
- Hospice and Palliative Care for Older Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Adults: The Effect of History, Discrimination, Health Disparities and Legal Issues on Addressing Service Needs, Deborah Farmer, Associate Professor, Department of Behavioral Sciences, Winston-Salem State University
- Hospice and Palliative Care Ontario does a lovely job at outlining all of the issues worth addressing within palliative care needs for LGBTQ+ individuals.
- Meeting the Needs of People Who Identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer in Palliative Care Settings, ResearchGate
- Psychosocial and Spiritual Care Guidelines for LGBTQ+ Hospice Patients, VITAS Healthcare
- Report: How to deliver personalised end of life care for LGBTQ+ patients, HealthWatch Brighton and Hove, for medics
- The National LGBT Cancer Network is improving the lives of LGBTQ+ survivors of cancer as well as those at risk through education on increased risks, offering safe end of life care, training healthcare providers on how to become a beacon of those same principles and services, and more.
- The National Resource Center on LGBT Aging provides an excellent in-depth look at our options of protection through their Advocate’s Guide to Creating End-of-Life Documents for Trans individuals.
- They’ll Think of Me Kindly When They Come For My Things: On Transness and Death, Order of the Good Death
- What if Death Care Were Designed for Trans and Nonbinary People? By Nix Kelley and Isabel Knight
- 5 Tips for People Living with Serious Illness Who are LGBTQ+, Get Palliative Care.