death & transition

Love is mourning the real person

For the cisgender majority – that is people who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth – having your identity respected in death is not in question. They can easily take it for granted that, upon their death they will be remembered as the person they were and for the things they did in life. For transgender, non-binary (those for whom the gender binary is inadequate), agender (those who do not ascribe to a sense of gender at all) and intersex people however, the reality is entirely opposite.

Prior to the Victorian era there seems to have been a broader understanding of gender and its expression outside of the binary we know today. Between colonialism and the narrow mindedness of early naturalists the nuances of gender as understood (and sometimes held sacred) by other cultures has been violently suppressed.

As a result of western colonialism, when any baby is born, its genitals are examined, whether they are internal or external and the length or absence of a phallus, and a sex is assigned to them.

For those falling between the accepted measurements to be assigned immediately to one group or the other, surgical intervention would occur to make the infant’s genitals more appealing to society.

This makes endless assumptions about people and condemns many to a life of confusion, struggle and hardship without ever once taking their personal wishes into account. This violence done to intersex people at birth is mirrored in death where no system exists to recognise them outside of the binary.

The law in Ireland

As of September 2015, the Irish Republic has enacted legislation that permits an individual to self-declare their gender to the state for all purposes of record keeping etc. So long as that gender exists within the socially accepted binary of male and female.

This process is currently beset by problems such as economic barriers, a complete lack of training for staff interacting with these issues and a complete absence of sense in the implementation. Despite the limitations there is, at least, a means for binary-trans people to be recognised by the state.

In so doing (acquiring a gender recognition certificate, deed poll and birth cert) a binary trans person may protect their identity from being erased when they die (national records, headstones, etc).

Families with religious beliefs, spouses with personal or public images to protect, children who are unable to reconcile their idea of who their parent was with that person’s lived reality – there are as many reasons for someone to want to take away your identity in death as there are people who want to do it. Ireland is one of few countries where a gender variant person has some say in how they are treated after death.

For non-binary or intersex people who wish to be recognised as such post mortem there are (at the time of writing) no measures extended to facilitate their identity. A few nations (notably Australia and Germany) have included the option for a “third gender” in their systems which seeks to address the needs of those who do not conform to the western view of the gender binary. Currently, a non-binary or instersex person who does not wish to be recorded as male or female is effectively ignored where the Irish state is concerned.

For cisgender people, the issues I’m raising are largely irrelevant (unless you’re someone who might like to erase a loved one’s gender identity in death). None of the details discussed in this article or on the podcast have any bearing on how a cisgender person will be treated after they die. They do, however, have an enormous impact on the people it does affect.

Damnatio Memoriae

Gender variant people spend much of their lives struggling for tolerance (let alone acceptance) from mainstream society. Respecting a person’s identity as they expressed it in life is standard. Disrespecting it by reverting to someone’s assigned-gender-at-birth or assigned-name-at-birth erases everything they were and everything they wanted others to know about them.

It is an attempt to rewrite history and to erase the lived experience of an individual in favor of a sanitized, ignorant image of them. Living on in memory is important to most people.

The Romans had a term for removing someone from the historical record, Damnatio Memoriae, the condemnation of memory. This type of treatment was reserved as a form of punishment for traitors to the Roman State.

Simply put: if you love a person enough to mourn them you should be mourning the real person. Anything less reduces any respect you offered in life to mere “humouring”.

By Liath James

If you want to hear more, please click on the podcast above to hear Liath James discussing the many challenges raised in her piece.