I Will Not List The Names of The Dead, I Will Honor Them
A version of this essay on Transgender Day of Remembrance first appeared on Go Magazine’s website as “TDoR: I Will Not List The Names of The Dead, I Will Honor Them” at http://gomag.com/article/tdor-will-not-list-the-names/
I don’t remember the first name I wrote down. I don’t even remember when I started this morbid habit in the first place. Maybe the first one was TeeTee Dangerfield. Or maybe it was Gwynevere River Song. I remember their singular face in front of a celestial landscape. Or maybe, maybe it was Kiwi Herring. I had to learn her beautiful name from a report of her death—a horrible way to learn a name—and it was associated with a number, so I wrote it down. I wrote down the date they died, the way they died, and the number associated with their dying. Name, number, cause of death. Name, number, cause of death. Name, number cause of death. It is quite a list. But no, I won’t show it to you.
I won’t show it to you not because I don’t want to but because I added the same information to that list every time I read about or was told about another dead trans person until I couldn’t anymore. I wrote the same information down every time, and every time I did, I reenacted that violence. And after all that time I spent at my desk, over that list, looking down at the five-inch-long graves I had made for them in my Moleskine, I still can’t tell you who came first or anything about who they were as people because that is not the kind of information that gets recorded on these lists.
And lists—like—it are all over. No doubt, today, on Transgender Day of Remembrance those lists are spread even more. Not that that’s a bad thing—in fact, it’s great, it means people are noticing—but I can’t be one to write another list like that. I just can’t.
When I first agreed to write this essay, several months ago, I thought it would be good for me, for the dead, for you who might find yourself mourning, who might be confronting the reality of queer bodies in this country for the first time, who might be wondering how long do I have? Now I’m not so sure. I was in a hard position then. I was recently out of work, desperate for money to finance a move across the country, and I thought, here is a service I can provide and there will be payment that will be worth it, payment that will help me survive, and go to school, and—eventually—be happy. Now that seems wrong to me, too cynical, to trade tragedy for tuition, to invest someone else’s life for my own happiness.
When I first agreed to write this essay, I thought I would write about the others who keep lists like this. Every one of us who knows someone who has suffered or was killed by the incredible violence of the state, or police, or men, or transphobia (both internalized and manifested), or themselves, keeps another list like this in the privacy of their own mind. I intended to write about how, in the language of logical argument, or also means and. I thought I would, but I realize now that I cannot because I am not here to tell you how many of our neighbors, parents, friends, lovers, artists, teachers, and spouses died. I’m not here to tell you how they died or how the violence of a bigot’s fists is tied to comedians and politicians on TV, the inherent violences of American reality. I am here to tell you that our community is dying, has died. The statistics of how and when are good for study, but I am not a researcher today. Today I am a mourner.
The urge to write the list, when I was able to write, came from the same instinct for elegy that has existed for as long as we have known names and language and death. It’s an instinct that has existed for as long as we’ve had the need to catalog the food we have supplied for winter, to track the money we have in our accounts, to keep track of those things that keep us going in a capitalist world that often would rather we not.
The list came out of a place of connection and outrage. It came from watching Janelle Monae sing and scream Hell You Talmbout. It’s the instinct in the refrain and rebuttal that is “say his name!” It’s the instinct that gave us the AIDS Memorial Quilt. It’s the instinct that gave us Black Lives Matter.
But listing is not an instinct I want to enact anymore.
Or maybe it is. Some days it’s hard to know, but I think what I really want is to not list names orreenact the tragedies that befell them but to literally re-member their bodies and make them live again. Who wouldn’t do that, if they could? Who doesn’t, on some level, wish for that? But since it’s impossible the best I can do is try to make something beautiful in memory of them. That is the only ethical way I can write this essay and be paid for it without profiting from a system that hurts trans people and seeks to eliminate trans happiness, trans success, and trans desire at all costs.
When I agreed, several months ago, to write this essay, I thought I would add one more list to that list of lists. But then one night I hopped on the train with my partner and went to the book launch for sam sax’s poetry collection, Bury It. That book made me realize that I could not simply type up a list without talking about what it felt like to write it. And I could not talk about the deaths of other queer and trans people without talking about queer and trans desire and joy. Because our dead did not live lives without those things, because there is no transgender narrative that is not about the joy of being and coming.
In sam’s poem, “Politics of Elegy” he writes,
like anyone i can make a list of the dead
i can make them my dead by making the list
i can write my name then name names below it
i can craft & obfuscate & collapse
i can publish it
i can ask ‘who of us is left to tell their story?’
And yes, that’s how I feel now. Even thinking about writing their names in my notebook—which used to give me such a sense of prayer, like a litany—now makes me feel like my stomach is full of eggs ready to hatch something terrible. Like I am about to collapse. I want to tell their stories, and it’s a story that begins in the gut, but it’s a story that often— by the time I write it—is tied to profit. I will not leave their bodies to rot in that way.
Sam goes on to say that “eulogy from the greek means praise/ praise from the latin means price/ every public dirge is burning capital.” I don’t know why I didn’t believe him about the history, but I googled it. I guess I’m always curious about etymology, curious about the history of our language and the baggage of the things we say, and skeptical too—I’m working on it—but anyway he’s right. And I feel it, viscerally, when he says,
i was paid a thousand dollars for writing a poem about a dead man who hated me
i was paid & each dollar is a ghost haunting my wallet
i was paid & i am trading his body for bags of food
i am never more dangerous than inside
the arms of a man
who will die
And this is why I will not write their names for you.
Remember how I mentioned queer and trans desire and joy? I repeat it because I want you to feel it. I want us to remember how it feels.
I felt it that night when I got on the train with my partner, when we were holding hands and walking to Housing Works, when we were listening to sam and Hieu Minh Nguyen, Paul Tran, and Francine J Harris read their work while celebrating the creations of others—these were moments of queer and trans joy. It is the joy of living in a present that is in conversation with the past and becoming something else. And listen, Bury It is largely a book of elegies, but that does not mean naming names and that does not mean suffering. In fact, it means the opposite. It means knowing what came before us, knowing who came before us, and loving them, and letting them lay, without killing them all over again by reenacting that violence, by making them statistics.
So, let’s all take a moment, and read those lists, and let those names trickle over our tongues. Hell, let’s go out and yell them so that everyone hears and no one cannot listen, so no one can reduce those names to statistics or gruesome reenactments. I want a future where we will not have to list any more names. Those lists are the foundation we will build our future on. They are the litany of our lovers. They are the names of our saints.