Things That Matter (Guest Post): Transgender Day of Remembrance 2010

(The following is a guest post from Jan Lukas Buterman, who spoke at the Calgary Transgender Day of Remembrance.  Readers of this blog might remember him as the substitute teacher who was fired from a publicly-funded Catholic school district… which felt so strongly about the issue that they put it in writing.  He is also a co-founder and chair of the Trans Equality Society of Alberta, and a member of the Centre for Organising and Public Education (COPE), “an emerging coalition of academics, educators, activists and organizers interested in promoting positive social, political and economic change and building community.” — Mercedes)

Today is a memorial. And at a memorial I’d like to focus on the memories of the people we’ve lost. I’d like to speak of the amazing lives of those who lived and loved and died by the hand of others. I’d like to speak of the thousands of little ways each of us survives the evils of genocide against our community, but I can’t.

I can’t … and I. Am. Angry.

I am angry that in the past week I’ve seen transphobic statements suggesting that including gender identity and gender expression in the Criminal Code of Canada will result in fictional crimes in mythical bathrooms.

I’m angry that in the past month I’ve heard a massive outcry at the tragedy of suicide by gay youth, yet hardly a mention of the vast numbers of death by suicide for gender-variant youth.

I’m angry that in the past year I’ve heard misgendering and misidentification from educated and erudite people making claims to some sort of higher moral ground because they have jobs and I don’t, or they have a religion that I don’t, or they have a penis that I don’t.

At what point do we as a nation and a society realise that when Canada speaks of having rights and freedoms for ALL people, all people includes gender-variant people?

I would like to suggest to you as a nation and as a society we get to the point where we actually include ALL people under the notion of all people when we refuse to be seduced by the siren call of stealth and anonymity.

We’re told over and over again that if we would just behave ourselves, we’ll get what we need … eventually. If we just keep quiet about this or that, everything will work out for the best. If we keep a stiff upper lip, cross our legs and think of the Queen, the show will carry on.

Most assuredly, the show WILL carry on. The show will carry on without us: our existence deliberately erased for something as simple as being “too complex” for a good soundbite or something as challenging as being too likely to cause other people discomfort if “they” only knew. We become a dirty little secret, we become the skeleton in the family closet, firmly locked away to gather dust until all is long turned to ashes, hidden and unknown.

History fascinates me. History brings us lessons about the oppressed and the oppressor. If we know where to look, history also shows us a great deal by its absence—a silencing that leaves faint echoes only in the dark corners where people are easily convinced not to tread. For it is said that history is written by the victors, and this is most certainly true—just look at which atrocities are or are not mentioned in your schoolbooks. For fun, try comparing histories written from the perspective of different peoples or of different nations, and see how much of that history is set in stone versus how much of that history is mutable, changing from perspective to perspective, from age to age.

Where are trans people in this history?

I suggest to you that in this time and this place including trans people in the grand narratives—our histories, our understanding of our origins—have, for the most part, been erased. And as horrifying as the thought of shadowy figures editing out any reference to the lives or influence of anyone who might be constructed as “different” is, far more horrifying is the way that we ourselves work to erase our own existence.

Let me shift slightly here, because I believe this is an incredibly important point but also one that is deeply personal and painful for each of us, and I don’t want the minutae of our inner thoughts to overwhelm what I’m trying to say. Instead, I’d like to share with you a different experience that I believe is germane to my point but is perhaps also enough “different” or separate from most of our collective experiences to be able to better illustrate my meaning.

In 2001, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in situ, a condition commonly known as “breast cancer.” Breast cancer comes in several ‘flavours’, so to speak, but mine was among the most common. When I was diagnosed, I was living as a woman. Indeed, being somewhat on the thicker side from time to time, I still hadn’t figured out one rather important aspect of self, that of being not-a-woman. [Actually, I’ve had other severe health problems to contend with much of my life and so in fairness, I’ve usually been far more focused on staying alive rather than much deep inner reflection on why I was or was not quite like the other girls—I assure you, for most of those years I wasn’t much like any of my peers, whether male or female].

In any case, I ended up doing chemo for several months as part of an international research study. The cancer hospital in Edmonton has a number of amazing support services but I found one of those support services in particular deeply troubling: as a patient, I felt there was a significant push for women to take workshops to learn how to style and wear a wig, as well as how to put on facial makeup that would create a less chemo-tinged fleshtone and re-draw eyebrows that had fallen out. These practices were in addition to encouraging women to obtain breast prosthetics (if they hadn’t undergone breast reconstruction).

I didn’t take any of these workshops.

At first, the reason was simple enough: I’m terribly allergic to many of the materials found in makeup so even when my immune system isn’t flatlined by chemo these aren’t products I want anywhere near me. Likewise, I have the same problem with some of the materials used to construct wigs.

Now, let me explain that some people take to chemo rather well and bounce back pretty quickly. I, unfortunately, am not one of those people. During my chemo regime and for many months thereafter, my waking day was somewhere between four to six hours; the rest was lost to exhausted sleep.

During those handful of waking hours, I was far too tired to do much beyond thinking. One of the things I thought about—a lot—was the way women were encouraged to wear wigs and makeup and prosthetics. The way they were encouraged to erase the fact that they were different, erase the fact that they were undergoing treatment, erase the fact that there are far more than a handful of people living with breast cancer even in a city of only a million people.

No doubt the wigs and makeup makes people feel better—who doesn’t want to look their best even when they feel their worst?

But erasing this part of our existence—erasing the fact that we were women with breast cancer—served several purposes beyond helping women feel better about themselves during a painful and difficult treatment. Erasing our experience and our existence helped a lot of other people feel better—they didn’t have to be confronted with the ugly reality of impending death by their family members, neighbours, or colleagues “looking” ill.

Most frightening of all, erasing our experience and our existence made it incredibly difficult to form community—for all I knew, every third woman on my block was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer at the same time that I was, but unless I ran into any of those women at the hospital, I’d have no way of knowing we shared this bond.

We were a community of survivors but each of us were an island unto ourselves.

And that brings us back to, well, US. Trans-identified people. Gender-variant people. People who are “different.” People who other people have decided to label as “not normal.” During the Transgender Day of Remembrance, we take time to remember the names of some of those whom we have lost: specifically, those we have lost through murder. We reflect on the horror that goes with the ultimate silence of death.

But as I said, I am angry. I am angry that despite having assurances in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms that “the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons” [Charter, S. 28], those of us gathered here today are well aware that the silencing we remember during the Transgender Day of Remembrance is but a single facet of silencing.

Trans people are silenced through many means: through coercion, threats and violence. Even more banal is the day to day silencing involved in trying to navigate the myriad levels of authority for name changes, documentation and identification changes, and access to many of the rights of citizenship that most non-trans identified people never have cause to think about.

If I dare to dream, the dream is that we can differ, and we need not beg to differ. That we can reach out and grasp our rights as citizens without the interference of equivocation and obfuscation by people who have no more reason to know or care what’s in our pants than the person next door. But to see that dream realised, we need to stand and speak. We need to move beyond surviving in hidden corners, we need to speak louder than the echoes left by reverberating, painful silence. We need to build bridges between our islands.

The siren call of stealth and anonymity is seductive, but the danger of erasing ourselves through stealth and anonymity is the danger of each remaining on our island only until we are booted off by the next council’s vote.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I ask you to find ways to break silence, to speak even when not spoken to. To find a solution to silencing by speaking out, until we are not single voices scattered across the nation but a society of many harmonies.

Thank you.

  1. Thank you for speaking out, Jan. You’re one of the most courageous people I know, and I’m so damned proud of you for all the work you’re doing under such difficult circumstances.

  1. November 23rd, 2010

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