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My Transition Diary #3 | ‘They Buried Her In A Suit.’
I had intended writing about something totally different for this column but then, as it will, something caught my attention that led me to thoughts of, shall we say, a morbid nature.
I read a tweet this week that hit me right in the chest. The tweet, which for the sake of privacy I won’t link to here, spoke of a trans woman, a distant relative to the original tweeter, who had died during the AIDS epidemic. The tweet ended with these words: “They buried her in a suit.”
They buried her in a suit.
And it struck me that no matter who we are in life, no matter how hard we fight or struggle to be our true and authentic selves, we cannot control how we are represented in death. It reminded me of another trans woman I heard about, someone here in Ireland, who died before her time. Her brother, who had never accepted her while she was alive, ensured that at her funeral she was referred to as “he” and “him”. I can only assume that they used her dead name – what bitter irony – on her gravestone. Rejected in life, rejected in death.
In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman collection, in A Game of You, there is a trans character called Wanda. Wanda is fierce and likeable and loyal. She is a true friend to the central cisgender female character and the first positive representation of a trans character I came across in fiction. Wanda’s story was written in the ‘90s and as such is ahead of its time but nowadays looks a tad dated in its representation of a trans character. Be that as it may, at the time it was probably quite revolutionary. I’m going to discuss some plot points from A Game of You, so spoilers ahead. You have been warned.
Towards the end of the story, after committing an act of great heroism, Wanda dies. It is a devastating moment, one of many in what is at times an unbearably sad book. Gaiman, who had been criticised for killing one of the few minority characters in the book, in subsequent interviews said that the reason he killed Wanda off was because her death was the only one that would have made the story a tragedy. Later on her family, being conservative Christians and having never accepted Wanda for who she was, bury her in a suit and use her dead name.
They buried her in a suit.
A poignant final panel sees Wanda’s friend Barbie cross out her dead name on the gravestone in pink lipstick and scrawl Wanda instead.
It’s an arresting and thought provoking image. I’ve joked with friends of mine that if they let his happen to me that I would come back and haunt them. But the truth is there’s very little they, or anyone, could do about it. I could make my wishes be known, or leave a will stating the fact, but in reality there’s nothing to stop my next of kin from burying me in a suit and dead-naming me.
I’m not saying that’s what would happen, because, let’s be honest, the last thing anyone wants is me haunting them for the rest of eternity, but there are families out there who don’t accept and may never accept that they have a trans person who is closely related to them.
And right now you’re wondering what a fictional trans character has to do with a tweet I read earlier in the week or a story I heard about a trans woman’s funeral. Bear with me, I’m coming to that. You see, I think how society relates to trans people depends very much on how much that society has been exposed to trans people and how that exposure was presented. Representation matters.
I truly believe that the more positive representations we see of trans people in the media and online, in books and film – in fact, in ALL walks of life – then the more acceptance of trans people we will see. Most people who have never knowingly met a trans person get their ideas about trans people from television or newspapers. And, let’s be honest, the media hasn’t exactly portrayed us in a good light.
Growing up, any trans people I saw on television were either victims or serial killers or there to be the butt of someone’s joke. (“Oh look! A man in a dress. Isn’t that hilarious?”) Which is why Gaiman’s book stood out for me. Here, finally, was someone I felt I could identify with. Someone who had gone through the struggles I had gone through and had come out the other side. She was living independently as a woman, had cis friends who accepted her for who she was and was a genuinely warm and decent human being.
It broke my heart when, as part of a plot device, she was excluded by other characters because she wasn’t a “real woman”. It broke my heart when she died. And, yes, it broke my heart when they buried her in a suit.