Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Be Me When I'm Gone: Gravestones & the Game of You


"You can be me when I'm gone"

Sandman: the Kindly Ones
Neil Gaiman

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A Game of You by Neil Gaiman tells the story of Barbie, a single twenty something living in a house of queer women: two lesbians, a witch, and a transwoman. Lately Barbie's dreams have become weird and creep into her waking life. Suddenly Barbie is dragged into the Dreaming and three of her friends follow in pursuit - with the notable exception of Barbie's best friend Wanda, who is refused passage into the Dreaming on the Moon's Road when her womanhood is not recognized by the Goddess (i.e. Diana/Hecate). 

A result of the Moon's intervention, a storm consumes New York, killing Wanda in the process. Upon Barbie's return to the Waking World, she discovers her friend's death and the epilogue follows Wanda's funeral, an event that erases all signs of her trans life. The final scenes show Barbie writing "Wanda" on her friend's gravestone, muttering "It's the least I could do." On the bus ride home, Barbie dreams of Wanda with Dream's sister, Death, now a "perfect" princess "nothing camp about her, nothing artificial."
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Standing in line for a book signing is not something I usually budget into my time at an academic conference, but for a chance to have a brief conversation with Neil Gaiman about his work I will gladly take a break from the day's panels. The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts is a bit off the beaten path, offering a low-key mix of scholars and fans discussing a range of speculative literature. In 2013, the whole conference felt a shift as security became tightened, the attendance sky-rocket, and schedules rearranged in reaction to Gaiman's presence. 

Looking down the line of people, I saw many people juggling leather-bound sets of Sandman, copies of DVDs, hard-covers of Neverwhere and American Gods, deciding how many and which objects would be be offered up to be signed. Personally, I just had one thing I wanted to pass between Gaiman and me that day: Sandman Vol. 5, A Game of You (1993).

As I came up to the table, I watched as Gaiman turned aside for a picture with the person in front of me. By this point I understood the rhythm of the exchange: I step up, say hello, he says hello, I hand over whatever I wanted signed, we talk for a minute as he writes a brief note (usually long enough to ask for a picture), and then I step aside - with the potential of an extra few seconds for a friend with a readied camera to document the moment. All in all, about a minute and a half to two minutes.

When my turn came, I followed the script, said hello and he took my copy of A Game of You. In place of a photo request, I used the minute to tell him that I really appreciated the way he ended the book. "Oh?" he asked, looking up at me. "Yes. Maybe it's funny to say, but I'm grateful that you concluded it with the death of Wanda (the trans character). Especially that, in the end, she was buried as a man and that it took the act of a friend to scribble over her tombstone - with red lipstick no less. It's a very real story and one that needed to be told." At this point Gaiman stopped signing my book, signaling me to continue. 

"After all," I added, "Sandman is about forgotten stories and dreams, right? And that includes nightmares. I have to say, personally, that the potential and even likelihood that my gender and life could be rewritten at my death is a part of the collective fears of being trans."

I believe that he could tell that I was serious in my thanks but I think talking to a trans woman about how he killed off a trans woman (the most likable character) in the book was a decision that still weighed on him. For a few minutes he shared with me the origin story of that narrative and how he had often been called out on it by queer readers. He was never sure if his care for the character had gotten across, especially given the other denials of her gender by various characters throughout the story, including a denouncement by the Moon/the Hecate herself. Having Wanda die and her history covered over was not something he wrote lightly. 

That caps off what I remember of the conversation. It went by so quickly and yet when Gaiman returned to himself and finished signing the book, and I took it and walked away it was clear that many minutes had passed. In the end I had gotten a longer turn with Gaiman than had been planned and while I don't want to put it all down in text here, he had said a lot of things to me about the story and his thoughts beyond it that I carry with me. Likewise, while I'm sure I was just one face among many, I hope he heard my thanks. It takes a special person to give life to our nightmares and to do it with generosity and compassion.


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This nightmare, pictured in A Game of You back in 1993 reflected a likely story for many trans folk. Even if in life you had successfully fought to transition and get recognized according to a certain gender, gathering around you a community of acceptance and advocacy, in death the chances were you could be sent back to a family that did not understand or approve. Granted you had your families support, their ability to get the name and gender you lived by translated onto your death certificate and gravestone was all the less likely. Walkng the gravestones at a cemetery, we may never know how many Wandas have been buried as Alvins and what other names and things they might have been called.

In 2014, over twenty years after Neil Gaiman wrote about the tragic death and erasure of Wanda, the story and nightmare remains a reality for many trans people. Legally, it is difficult and expensive to change your name, then difficult, expensive, and often impossible to change your official gender. Money, duplicity of State and Federal law, the haunting power of the birth certificate, and the ideological hip-check of judges still stand in the way of countless trans men and women from getting their gender legally changed. The possibility of any third gender category is right now outright unthinkable from a legal perspective. In the best circumstances, a funeral can still be over-written largely by the will of family members or funeral professionals. In life we fight to wrestle control over our own narrative, but in death, our name and story may last as long as red-lipstick on a gravestone.

Recently, California pushed forward a bill (AB 1577) called the Respect After Death Act. The bill, explains Speaker Elect Toni Atkins, offers "legal guidance" in helping to ensure that when a trans person dies "their death certificate accurately reflect who they are." The language of "guidance" reflects an official affirmation of trans gender identity from the state, but at best is a strong suggestion. Family, friends, and other professionals may still chose to commemorate the departed counter to the wishes of they might have had during life. A Last Will and Testament as well as a good Life Insurance Policy may help secure the wishes of the living at their death, but many trans folk continue to be left with the hope and fear of that their gender and stories will not be radically rewritten after they are gone. This is particularly the danger in States, including California, without specific legal direction or advocacy.

According to the Transgender Law Center, "Current law requires death certificates to list personal data such as name, sex, and race, and there is no legal guidance about how the official filling out the death certificate should determine a transgender person’s sex. The lack of guidance sometimes results in cases where the information on the death certificate is not consistent with the deceased’s lived gender. This can put funeral directors and coroners at risk of liability if the friends and family of the deceased believe that they listed the incorrect sex."

As much as the affirmation of friends and family can do during the life of a trans person, in death we become particularly vulnerable. State, social, and religious doctrines can be very self-enclosed systems which hardly budge to accommodate our gender transitions during our lifetime and after we pass away our fates may seem to them as good as fixed. Transitioning gender, including pronouns, names, prefixes, sex and gender designations, and public images require constant repetition to ingrain them in even the most nominally accepting community. 

Personally, I've had conferences print my birth-name on published material when I never provided them with anything other than my current name. I've had people who never knew me as anything other than a woman call me "he" or "Mr." by accident or impulse. These are usually easy fixes and usually committed with no ill-will, but they testify to the constant vigilance a trans person must have to continually press the work of transition. In life, we do a lot of labor to hold a gender change together. Even then, our exertions necessarily depend on the participation of our community to act on our behalf. In death, our corporate dependence becomes all but absolute.

All things considered, we can at best work with others to tell our stories while we are together, with the hope that they follow in our spirit in narrating our lives when we are departed. Control is impossible and so we must trust. Yet while our surrender over life authorship is compulsory, we may still work together as a community to listen and to speak, to tell our stories together so that when my voice becomes silent, "you can be me when I'm gone."


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