November 20, International Transgender Day of Remembrance

Sunday was the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day to mourn the victims of violence based on gender identity and expression.  I was on a New Hampshire mountain remote from any opportunities for commemoration. Up there, though, one has a chance to think, and I thought a bit about the incomprehensions and distances between sexual orientation and gender identity as issues uneasily sharing a movement.

So let me talk about two different lives.

Back in 2000, that innocent time, my friend Brendan Fay approached me with a proposal. Brendan has been a heroic queer activist in and out of New York’s Irish community ever since Roger Casement was a child among the ashes, or maybe since the blight first descended on the tuber. The 100th anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s death, in disgrace in a cheap Paris hotel, was impending, and Brendan wanted to commemorate it:  to celebrate the Irish writer as a freedom-lover, a cosmopolitan and Utopian socialist who imagined a world united by unforeseeable and unprecedented solidarities. I was then program director of IGLHRC (the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission); so Brendan came to ask if there were some urgent rights abuse in the world against which we could stage a demonstration on the anniversary, to focus attention both on the violation and on Wilde’s enduring spirit of dissent.

Vanesa Lorena Ledesma: cardiac arrest

We had one situation that we were following closely. Vanesa Ledesma, a trans woman, a sex worker, and an activist with the Asociación Travestis Unidas de Córdoba, was arrested in Córdoba, Argentina, on February 11, 2000, after a fight among patrons of a bar. She was kept incommunicado in detention, and five days later she was dead. Police attributed her death to ”cardiac arrest.” An autopsy showed evidence of beating, with severe contusions on the arms, shoulders,  back and feet. Friends released photographs of her disfigured corpse. Activists demanded a full investigation.

Thus on November 30, a small group, perhaps two dozen of us, assembled in front of the Consulate of Argentina in New York. Some carried pictures of Ledesma, some pictures of Oscar Wilde. There were several trans women and a lot of Irish people in green. I seem to remember a bagpipe player, but memory may be embellishing.

After a while the Consul General, an elegant and diplomatic man, invited us into the building to meet. I said my bit about the urgent need to investigate Ledesma’s death, and Brendan spoke about the importance of Oscar Wilde. The consul listened attentively but seemed confused about the connection. ”And are you also demonstrating at the Irish consulate?”


“You realize that in Argentina, we are not responsible for … Irish affairs.”


“And you do understand that Argentina is not responsible for the death of Mr. Wilde?”

I assured him it was a cold case.

He appeared unconvinced, and kept looking at us with tactful caution, as though we were the vanguard of an Irish plot to seize the sheep-friendly wastes of Patagonia.  As we left he shook my hand with exquisite courtesy. “I will certainly convey your demand for an investigation  to my government. And when I next see the Irish ambassador, I will tell him” – he paused, not at all sure what message could be passed on; but then he finished with a flourish of inspiration, “I will tell him there are matters he should investigate too!”

I remember this as a rather incongruous attempt to link two matters that perhaps should have stayed separate. But I also remember it precisely because of the contrast between the two lives, and deaths, we tried to commemorate. No wonder, in retrospect, that putting them together in front of the consulate was confusing.  It made me consider the fraught and difficult alliances between LGB people and that hanging T they like to attach to their advocacy, but only infrequently try fully to understand. The terms are different, the victories aren’t always congruent, and the suffering may estrange rather than being shared.

Wilde remains famous after his first century in the grave. His plays still play, his words still elicit laughter. No one outside some friends in Córdoba pays much attention to what Vanesa Ladesma said.   Everyone who remembers Wilde endows him with a psychology, with the depth and duality that are the necessary constituents of wit.  Vanesa Ladesma suffers the indignity of remaining a photograph, more vivid to most in her mutilated death than in the life she lived. I combed the Internet as well as my own files for a while, and I realized: I can’t find a picture of her while she was alive.

And this all has something to do with how we imagine sexuality as opposed to gender; the first a wellspring of mystery and power, the second an external and limiting imposition. Wilde’s sexuality was an interior fact, a reality within; he had the choice of keeping it a secret; it was his daring but also deliberate play with revelation and concealment that helped him climb to become the most famous British writer of his time; and it was his willed embrace of his truth beneath the unraveled mystery after his precipitate fall that gave him a conclusive dignity, and commends him to us and our posterity. Vanesa was branded, and hiding herself was never much of an option. She carried on her skin the marks of the contrast between who she said she was and who she was told to be. Her life was a courageous but constrained struggle against defining discourses from without.  Sexuality is something one experiences from the inside first. But gender fits you from the outside like a sanbenito of Spandex, imposed from birth.

This inflected, too, the vast differences in wealth and power between them. Wilde was born into a prosperous family, even if one in Britain’s closest colony. He manipulated the inside-outside game of appearances to amass celebrity and money (even if mostly in the form of debt); his ascent was what made his fall so shocking. Vanesa had no game to play; she was always on the outside, by class, by background, by the way she presented her body and the things she did with it.

I wrote somewhat earlier here that sexuality proliferates meanings. There are always spaces, in the way we imagine sexuality, to insinuate some new complexity or individuation or interpretation. Gender culls meanings, weeds them out. Everything has to boil down to the few available options, the old binaries, the one-two punch.

Because of that, insisting on your own authority over the significance of gender, or demanding to cross the yellow police lines laid across the territory, is one of the most dangerous things you can do. A few nights ago, I watched Woody Allen’s Zelig, for the first time in about 20 years. The hero — the nebbish as chameleon — is the ultimate conformist. He becomes like anybody he’s around, to the point where Allen’s little Jewish schlemiel, plopped down in 30s Germany, turns Nazi. He changes race, color, religion. The one thing he doesn’t alter, though, is gender. With women, he stays resolutely male.  Some shapes shift, but other transgressions remain unimaginable. Obviously there’s some squeamishness on Allen’s part about too much malleability; but then, Allen in a storm trooper’s uniform is, in a sick way, funny. Allen in a dress, in that time and that place, would have gotten killed.

Of course, I’m not trying to draw some absolute contrast between two classes of experience: to the contrary. Stephen Whittle, the grand British trans activist, once remarked that 90% of what we call homophobic violence is in fact transphobic violence.  The attackers and the haters aren’t really acting on some theory they have about what you do in bed. They’re responding to the gut sense you’re not “masculine” or “feminine” enough, that you act funny in a way that corrodes the barbed war supposed to keep the genders separate. I can’t vouch for the numbers, but this speaks to the feeling I’ve drawn from hundreds of interviews I’ve done across the world.  Sexuality is always linked to gender. But that’ s also because it’s always linked to power, and gender is one of the key points from which our understanding of power and powerlessness — that great, uncompromising binary that bisects all our lives — flows.

Self-identified lesbians and gays are also caught up in the struggle against the straitjackets of gender norms and the policing of bodies. But they try to construct their identities to give them ways and leeway to change the terms, escape the front lines, fight on their own territory. Trans people are, by definition, in the middle of the fight.

Vanesa Ledesma, by Tom Block

Part of the trans struggle, too, is clearly to reclaim the autonomy and interiority that the social regulation of the body — the control clamped down on the skin itself — tries to deny. This is a heroic fight, and it’s no detraction from its particularity to say that it’s one in which everybody has a stake: everyone who tries to maintain an identity separate from the state and others, everyone who tries to carve out a sphere of independent will in an increasingly programmed world, and then act it out with their bodies somehow and make it known. That’s why I mourn, among other things and names, the fact that I can’t find a photograph of the living Vanesa Ledesma.  I remember the iconic photographs of Khaled Said, the young Egyptian torture victim, before and after he was beaten to death; these images and the indignation they aroused helped spur a revolution. It seems a final indignity that Vanesa Ledesma has no “before.” She’s reduced to her own mutilation, defined by her death. She’s been commemorated since in paintings (available from Amnesty International for $3000); these too portray her shattered features after the police were finished with her. William Kennedy, in his great novel Ironweed, has one of his down-and-out characters reflect on an alcoholic woman sliding toward death: “Nobody’s a bum all their life. She hada been somethin’ once.”  Vanesa Ledesma was a lot before she died. The loss lies partly in how that life has been overridden.

The Trans Day of Remembrance website banners a few lines from Shakespeare:

My grief lies all within; And these external manners of lament

Are merely shadows to the unseen grief

That swells with silence in the tortured soul …

That’s from Richard III, the probably-queer monarch mourning his imprisonment by Bolingbroke. It speaks, though, to the struggle to reclaim the life within from the pressure and oppression beating down on the body. Critics for generations have treated Richard as a flagrant instance of self-absorption, lost in acting out his emotions, the King as drama queen. It’s on a trans web page, though, that I hear in these words their special dignity and the weight of their demand. The inner life against external manners: for Vanesa Ledesma, that meant something.

And yet, again, it’s a fight for all of us.