Case study C: Who Were They? Trans Identities and Memorialisation

This case study focuses on memorialisation in relation to trans and gender variant people.   Our research explores an uncharted field, and highlights the ways in which trans identities are commemorated after death.  Central here is a discussion of the ways in which family members and friends of the deceased negotiate memorialisation, highlighting instances where the gender identity of the deceased is not recognised or accepted by the bereaved.  This feeds into wider discussions around contested identity and the need to ensure respect for the deceased whilst also maintaining sensitivity towards the bereaved.

The UK trans population has increased significantly in recent years and continues to rise at an exponential rate (Reed; 2009).  The trans population is also much more visible as a result of landmark legal gains and policy protection, medical breakthroughs and a growing wealth of information and support, both online and offline.  . We are now witnessing the emergence of a new generation of trans people – those entering older age.  These are the ‘gender pioneers’ who transitioned a number of years ago as well as the ‘second lifers’ who decide to transition after retirement.  Growing trends (predicted by Reed et al to be a doubling of the population every 6 ½ years), mean that coroners, pathologists, mortuary workers and funeral directors will encounter significantly more trans people than ever before but are they equipped to ensure that trans people’s needs are met after death, and to handle any issues that may arise for the bereaved?

The stigma of being trans in contemporary British society remains and it is not unusual for trans people to be estranged from their families of origin or, if they are still in touch, to experience significant fallout or relationship strain (Whittle et al; 2007).  As a result, the following scenarios might occur after a trans person dies: Families may refuse to accept the person’s gender transition; some family members might be aware of the transition, others might not; family members might accept the gender transition when the person was alive but this may change after death.  Each scenario will produce a conflict in terms of recognising and respecting a trans person’s gender identity post-death.

On an international scale, trans people – and especially trans women of colour – are at significant risk of hate crime and transphobic-motivated murder.  The annual Transgender Day of Remembrance is an international event that bears witness to the sheer number of trans people who have lost their lives due to transphobic violence.  It is a time for the community to come together to mourn the deceased and to publically mark the honouring of their identities.  It serves as a ceremony of resistance in a world that continues to erase trans people’s identities and selfhood both during life and after death.  This study maps the memorialisation practices of trans people both via private ceremonies and within the public domain, via the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Our study is comprised of three parts. Part 1 examines the personal views and preferences of trans people themselves, via an online survey.  The survey will illuminate trans people’s attitudes towards death, their personal wishes and preferences regarding memorialisation, and any religious/spiritual beliefs, practices and kinships. The survey also asks participants whether they have known trans people who have died and, if so, what memorial practices, rituals or services they engaged with in order to commemorate them.  The survey will be disseminated via the LGBT/Trans voluntary and community sector, Gender Identity Clinics, bereavement counselling services and LGBT faith organisations. Participants answering this section will be invited to participate in a follow-up semi-structured interview. Part 2 explores the ways in which trans people’s identities and lives are remembered and represented post-death by family members, friends, significant others and wider community networks.  The private and everyday memorials dedicated to trans people by both families of origin and chosen families (and wider community networks, if applicable) will be explored. Attention will be paid to potential discrepancies and conflicts between these groups in relation to the acknowledgement and articulation of the gendered wishes and preferences of the deceased. Research will be conducted via semi-structured interviews and a call for participants issues via mainstream and specialist funeral services, Gender Identity Clinics and the voluntary/community sector.  Finally, for part 3, Louis will attend a selection of events to mark the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance as an observer-participant, contextualising the interviews via engagement in a more public and politically-motivated arena.