One Saturday in March, 1911, a New York factory full of recent immigrant workers—Irish and Jewish women, mostly—were working their shift, locked into the building as per usual. A fire broke out. They could not leave. They died.
Mayn Rue Platz was written in 1911 by someone who worked in sweatshops, about his family and friends who worked in sweatshops, after the triangle shirtwaist factory fire. A yiddish poem about death in sweatshop conditions, bodies left to burn up and be forgotten by all but their families. It’s been put to music and sung multiple times, in multiple languages. My current favorite is Geoff Berner’s version available on Bandcamp.
The sweatshop workers did not have a choice about their post-death situation. Most bodies were unidentifiable, inseparable from the ruins of the factory—their final resting place.
I’ve been thinking a lot about agency after death. About whether people’s wishes are respected, and how particularly dehumanizing it is when they’re not.
Trans people are misgendered in death all too frequently. The deceased’s blood relations often end up making decisions of obituary wording and names used; if the person wasn’t out to their family, or had cut ties, or had bigoted family; if the family’s not in the picture, but the person hadn’t been able to update legal documentation of their name or gender; endless reasons, really. We slip through the cracks a lot.
It’s cultural violence when we are misgendered after our deaths.
James Miranda Barry, renowned surgeon and medical pioneer, was a man assigned female at birth. He was not widely out in life. He did have lovers, and bore at least one child, but he was a man and viewed as one until the day he died.
Once he passed away, not only did people find out he was trans, but his story began being told differently. Some now see him as a pioneering woman, in fact.
There is a cis woman writing a book about him, under this assumption. To her, Dr. Barry acted as and dressed as a man only to gain the social power and prestige men hold; to her, he was truly a woman all along.
How do we affirm someone's specific humanity in death? Are cultural practices recognized, or personal wishes, when the two conflict?
Are our bodies cleaned and prepared for burial, or unconsidered trash? Are we buried in marked or unmarked graves, or even at all? Are our requests about our bodies honored, if we even thought of having them?
What of fictionalization in a way that erases one’s true nature, or the struggles one faces?
The publisher has since said they are still publishing the book, announcing today (February 26, 2019) on twitter:
"In response to the discussions arising from the acquisition of the novel The Cape Doctor, Little, Brown publisher Reagan Arthur says, ‘As publishers, we support the freedom of writers to imagine any kind of life and situation, including ones based on historical people and events. E.J. Levy has written a novel that it [sic] is based on a real person, Dr. James Barry. it is a work of imagination, not a biography or a representation of fact.
‘Over the last week, we have listened carefully to members of the transgender community and their allies. We will work with E.J. Levy to publish her novel with sensitivity to the issues that have been raised, including the use of the proper pronouns to describe Dr. Barry’s embodiment. These are important issues that we take seriously, and we look forward to continuing this conversation as we bring The Cape Doctor into the world.’"
A true representation of trans life, and respect for trans death, may start at using the correct pronouns but it does not end there. I do not believe that the book that results will truly respect his legacy, or his life. No matter how many individual trans people serve as sensitivity readers, no matter if he/him pronouns are used in the book, the veneer of fictionalization has been spread by someone who sees Dr. Barry as a woman. It is a profound insult, a shame and a disrespect to a gentleman who lived a hell of a life, to treat him this way. I only hope that competing publishers are seeking out trans man authors to do his story justice.