By regular contributor AJ McKenna
About a week ago. I’m lying in the basement room of an overpriced maisonette in Causewayside, Edinburgh, and I’m crying my eyes out. I’m physically tired from walking across Auld Reekie every day to get to my PBH Free Fringe venue, which is so far off the main drag an audience of three people makes me feel like Queen of the Fringe; the big toe on my right foot is so blistered it appears to be turning into a very small pink Klingon; and I’m suffering from chronic sleep deprivation from staying up until at least 3am drinking every night: but this isn’t why I’m crying. I’m crying because I’ve just read about the death of Tamara Dominguez.
Tamara Dominguez is the fourth trans person whose death I’ve heard of in the week leading up to this point. She joins Ashton O’Hara, whose death I read about before I headed to my last gym session before going North; Kandis Capri, whose death was being reported literally hours later that day; and Elisha Walker, whose remains were discovered that week. But this isn’t why I’m crying.
These four are only the latest in a litany of trans deaths reported in the US in the year to date, almost all of them trans women of colour: Shade Schuler. Amber Monroe. KC Haggard. India Clarke. Mercedes Williamson. London Chanel. Kristina Grant Infiniti. Penny Proud. Taja de Jesus. Yazmin Vash Payne. Ty Underwood. Lamia Beard. Papi Edwards. Mya Hall. Seventeen so far and it is August. But even that isn’t why I’m crying.
I’m crying because Tamara Dominguez was murdered by being run over repeatedly with an SUV. I’m crying because every time I cross a road I wonder if this will be the junction where the driver speeds up instead of slowing down.
This is what the show I’ve brought up here is about: the idea that banter has a bodycount. That every time you tell a joke that relies for its punchline on the idea that a woman ‘turns out to be a man’ you legitimise violence against trans people. That every time you tell a joke which demeans sex workers, or people of colour, or disabled people, you legitimise violence against them. That every time you tell a rape joke you legitimise rape and tell the rapists in the room – and statistically, there will be rapists in the room – that the most horrific violation of a person’s dignity is just a joke.
I understood that intellectually before this moment. But I only understand it viscerally now. Because Tamara got out of the car whose driver then chose to run her over. Did that driver humour her, making her think she’d be safe – then chuckle at her fear as he gunned the engine? Was the driver such an asshole she breathed a sigh of relief when he let her get out of the car, unaware that relief would be short-lived? And if you want to aver your preferred slur’s just a word, then what do you think was the last word she heard?
It’s cold comfort, but we can at least be certain that one of the last things she saw would not have been the Caitlyn Jenner Halloween costume, which began blowing up on social media later that week. MTV isn’t my usual go-to source for linkage, but it took me a few pages of Googling before I found a story which wasn’t putting scare quotes around the word transphobic or saying people were ‘claiming’ the costume was offensive, or that it had sparked ‘internet outrage’ – the implication being that online outrage is, in a hyper-mediated age, somehow distinguishable from some easily separated meatspace variety.
Because from where I stand as a trans woman, there isn’t such an easily distinguishable line between the digital and the physical. Reading about the death of a woman like Tamara has a visceral effect on me: it makes me watch myself at traffic lights (how’s that for intersectionality?), it leaves me suspicious of the cis people I see around me: maybe those nerves even feed into my insecurity and make it harder for me to ‘pass’, meaning I might stand out more to exactly the kind of people who would like to run me down. And that’s to say nothing of the simple physical effects of stress on the body and the brain: increased blood pressure, cortisol flooding the system, adrenalin crashing, the feeling of numb fatigue as you contemplate another fucking death…I fail to see how these might be different if I’d read about Tamara’s death in a dead tree paper instead of online (except that a paper might not report it in the first place).
And no, I’m not saying a Halloween costume is as bad as a murder: what I’m saying is that costumes like that are designed to remind me, as a trans woman, that I’m the butt of the joke, rather than the one who gets to tell it; that however well I might think I pass, whatever effect the hormones might be having, Planet Cis will regard me as a beefy tattooed bloke in a comedy corset; and that, by placing the outfit in ‘Men’s Costumes’, I’m to be not-so-subtly reminded that I’m not living my truth: I’m playing dress-up.
There’s been a lot of discussion about rifts between the trans and drag communities lately, largely stirred up by online LGBT outlets whose editors seem to revel in presenting a biased take on stories which they regard as anti-drag regardless of whether these stories are inaccurate or even lead to people getting death threats, but this Caitlyn costume thing isn’t even at the level of drag (and to be fair, every drag queen I know finds it as rubbish as I do): this is trans identity repackaged as pure bantz-fodder, get-up for the office arsehole who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Keith Lemon’s catchphrases instead of a personality. It’s a pathetic, mean-spirited attempt to claim that the public sphere belongs to cis, straight white men, to shut down the space opening up for trans people by treating the person who (and fuck knows it makes me spit teeth to say it, given what a privileged, white, wealthy fucking Republican Jenner is) got the mass media talking about trans people more than anything else this year as a joke.
In her speech accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, Jenner told those who wished to ‘call me names [and] make jokes’ to ‘go ahead because the reality is I can take it.’ But she also cautioned that the ‘thousands of kids coming to terms with the reality of who they are shouldn’t have to take it.’ A costume like this has no effect on Caitlyn Jenner: but for those thousands of other trans people it sends the message that no matter what we achieve, no matter how many awards we receive, we’re ultimately just a joke. And treating trans people like jokes makes violence against us no big deal. I mean, remember Trainspotting, yeah? That scene where Begbie beats the crap out of the trans woman in the car? Hilarious, right? Yeah: pure fucking comedy. Just ask Jennifer Laude. Except you can’t, of course, because she’s dead too.
Jennifer Laude is dead. Tamara Dominguez is dead, along with seventeen others in the US (we only found out about Jasmine Collins this week). Here in the UK, the family of trans woman Synestra de Courcy blamed her recent death at the tragically young age of 23 on the poisonous effects of medical transphobia.
Jennifer, Jasmine, Tamara, Synestra, and all those others dead, and cis people are buying Caitlyn Jenner costumes to yuk it up this Halloween. I try my best to make these pieces funny, readers, but right now? Right now I’m all out of laughs.
If you feel the same way, there’s a petition you can sign asking Spirit Halloween to withdraw the Caitlyn costume. And you could find out whether there are any events planned in your local area for this year’s Trans Day of Remembrance on November 20th. It might not put a smile on your face, but it’ll mean you can look at yourself in the mirror.
AJ McKenna is the author of the poetry pamphlets A Lady of a Certain Rage and names and songs of women, and the album …the gunshots which kill us are silenced. Her poetry film Letter to a Minnesota Prison was screened at the South Bank Centre in 2012, and she performed her spoken word show, Howl of the Bantee, at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015. AJ previously served as So So Gay‘s Deputy Editor. She is about to embark on the Apples & Snakes tour, Public Address III, which is being directed by Hanna Silva. She lives in Newcastle with two cats and two lesbians.