We Need You to Say Our Names

On Trans Day of Remembrance, writer Katie Sly explains why trans erasure isn’t just an American problem

Illustration of raised fists with different coloured skin

(Illustration: iStock)

When trans people begin transitioning, many of us choose a name other than the one ascribed to us at birth. Luke becomes Lara, and anyone who refers to Lara as “Luke” from then on is disrespecting and erasing her by using her “dead name.” Calling someone by their dead name is a form of transphobia—for many trans people, it is an aggressive act, sometimes used to out us, other times to delegitimize the trans experience, as if to say there is no way Lara could be her “real name,” because there is no such thing as being trans.

I’ve been thinking about dead names since October 21, 2018, when news broke that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was spearheading an effort to roll back recognition of transgender people under federal civil rights laws by defining a person’s gender as being based on “immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth.” Thanks to a leaked memo, we learned there was a quiet and terrifying effort underway to legislatively tell the trans community that we do not exist. And it was done in an insidiously simple way: by using language to deny the existence of trans people and, down the line, strip us further of protections and rights. It was as if a whole government decided to call us by our dead names.

Within hours, a new hashtag, #WontBeErased, was exploding across social media, and I was reaching out to a friend and a trans leader in my community to ask for guidance. I might have been posting #WontBeErased to my Facebook feed, but the hashtag came across way move galvanized than I felt. My friend had a healthily jaded sense that the information in the memo wasn’t some new attack on our existence, but rather was business-as-usual for the world. “You have to remember, Katie, we haven’t even been people here in Canada that long,” he told me. I admired his resilience, because I had none of it. The memo leak hit me in a way I’m not proud of. I’d like to be the kind of trans person who cannot be shaken, dismantled or harmed by what one of the most powerful governments in the world says about trans people—but I’m not that kind of trans person. The words in the memo leak mattered to me because part of me believed them, and I spent the day after the news broke in shambles, thinking, ‘Maybe I really don’t exist.’ The U.S. government’s words weren’t a new terror. They impacted me so intensely because they enforced the erasure I experience every day.

Here in Canada, Bill C-16 presently protects those of us on the trans spectrum. Bill C-16 amended the Canadian Human Rights Act to prohibit gender identity and gender expression as grounds for discrimination. The recentness of Bill C-16 is what my friend was referring to when he said that we only recently became people: this bill only passed vote in October 2016. The bill also amends the Criminal Code to recognize that if there is evidence that a crime was “motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on gender identity or expression” that this constitutes an “aggravating circumstance that a court must take into consideration,” i.e. violence against trans people for being trans, in the eyes of Canadian law, is more severe. These are not things I take for granted— in 47 states in the US, “trans panic” is still an allowable legal defense. That means in those states, if a trans person is attacked or murdered, that trans person’s gender identity can be used to explain, and possibly completely excuse, the attack or murder itself. So, I am very aware of the protections Canada currently has in place.

But I also recognize that under the Obama administration, the legal concept of gender was widened to recognize that gender is not defined by the sex assigned at birth. That’s why October 21’s memo leak didn’t make me think about how much safer trans people are in Canada right now. It made me think about how swiftly progressive change can be undone. Proof: last week, when Doug Ford’s Ontario PC Party passed a resolution to debate whether or not the party should recognize gender identity, I saw the ruling party in Canada’s most populated province say they were open and ready to embrace change for the worse. Two days later, Ford said the resolution was “non-binding” and a spokesperson confirmed that he would, “explore every option as leader of the Ontario PC Party to prevent this resolution from moving forward,” but for me, it was too late—I was horrified all over again at the idea that a Canadian government may be taking its cues from Trump.

Which brings me back the importance of language here in Canada. While we do have Bill C-16, trans and non-binary Canadians are not represented in national data out of Statistics Canada. We on the trans spectrum have a law we can use to defend ourselves against hate crimes—while national data on trans Canadians is non-existent. Being trans, at this time in Canada, is an exhausting dance between being recognized as a legitimate identity, being ignored and being in real danger of having our rights and protections stripped away, depending on which party is in power.

In the weeks since October 21, I’ve had many thoughts about my own existence. I’ve had suicidal thoughts. The memo leak in the U.S. left me questioning everything: is my gender some kind of cosmic mistake? Will naming my gender identity above the volume of a whisper put a target on my back. In the US, the government is seeking to use language to erase the trans community completely. In Canada, the law of our land gives us protection in language—but we have to wait until 2021 for a Canadian census that doesn’t use the absence of language to erase non-binary and trans citizens.

What I’ve realized after weeks of sadness, anger, fear and soul-searching, is that today, on the Trans Day of Remembrance, we have to treat the language of trans-ness as something our lives depend on, because it does. After all, if the words we use to describe ourselves weren’t our power, governments wouldn’t try to control them.


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