By Axel-Nathaniel Rose
Content warning: discussion of transphobia
It was the International Transgender Day of Visibility three weeks ago, and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be ‘visible’ as a transgender person, now and through history. I’ve also been thinking a lot about hygiene. In people, places, and things, hygiene has never been so all-consuming.
Funnily enough, there’s an intersection between the two thoughts, in the form of Dr. James Barry, a nineteenth century British surgeon and transgender man. While there have been a great many arguments about his sex and his gender, he lived as a man for decades having been assigned female at birth, and asked that his body go unseen after his death in 1865, so that he might be buried with his gender going unquestioned – I’m not sure what more evidence is needed of his being male.
What is inarguable is the impact Dr. Barry had on medicine in South Africa and the British Empire as a whole. As a military surgeon, he advocated tirelessly for the rights of the poor, imprisoned, enslaved, and those with mental illness, and contagious diseases. Hygiene in day-to-day life and especially in medical institutions; access to enough and adequate food; and safe accommodation were essential to him. Issues of importance to him include hygiene (especially in medical institutions), and ensuring everyone had access to adequate food and safe accommodation. He advocated for inalienable human rights before the term was a recognised concept.
Very few conversations around transgender people seem to revolve not around our inalienable human rights which are so often denied around the world – the right to life, liberty and the security of person; equality before the law; to shelter; to marry; to work; to healthcare; to participate in the cultural life of the community. Instead they revolve around our bodies and around medicine. About ‘the surgery’ (whatever that’s supposed to be), what our genitals look like, how we have sex, and our fertility. The most intimate and vulnerable parts of our lives are considered to be of public interest – as if to come out as trans is to invite people to our bodies.
For me, Transgender Day of Visibility has always existed in balance with the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day of mourning and wholly necessary anger. On the Day of Remembrance, we are remembering people who have been murdered, beaten, harassed, and killed themselves due to bigotry. Even on the Day of Visibility, being trans is often framed as an inherently painful thing, that to be trans is to suffer. While extraordinary suffering can come with being trans, it’s not random, and saying that it’s inherent also excuses the fact that pain is inflicted on us. It doesn’t pop up from nowhere. People cause harm, and that is not inherent to being trans – it’s inherent to violence, and that violence includes our bodies being spoken about and treated as objects.
Our pain, no matter its cause, should never eclipse that we are human beings. The community of transgender people is one of the most beautiful things in the world: pain may unify, but the solidarity, compassion, and joy in trans communities is so much more than just pain. The skills, triumphs, and aspirations of transgender people, no matter how small, deserve acknowledgement.
The transgender academic and activist Susan Stryker said,
‘[w]hen people struggling against an injustice have no hope that anything will ever change, they use their strength to survive; when they think that their actions matter, that same strength becomes a force for positive change’.
The Transgender Day of Visibility can do good that lasts well beyond the Day itself. Transgender people exist everywhere in the world, and simple, ongoing awareness and acknowledgement of that would change – and save – lives. The smallest acts of consideration, forethought, and awareness, let alone planning, policy, and leadership make a world of difference. So much of that is in treating our bodies as sovereign, with the dignity and inalienable rights we deserve.
Dr. James Barry’s dead body was found in his home by a maid. She hadn’t been paid and so attempted to blackmail his doctor under threat of leaking to the press that the honourable military doctor was ‘truly’ a woman. She used his body as a shock tactic, as a sensation, as a show for public debate. His legacy, his humanity, the extraordinary work he did was struck from historical records for hundreds of years.
I am immensely grateful to be alive and trans today in the privileges I have had – and I never want to forget those who did and do not, and the extraordinary lives they lived. In carrying on past the Day of Visibility, I want to carry Dr. James Barry’s legacy with me: a man who believed in the rights of others and advocated for them tirelessly; a man who did not treat the human body as something to be manipulated or fall prey to a nation state, and instead as whole and worthy unto themselves. And very importantly at this point in time, having immaculate hygiene.
On TDOV 2020, TransHub, ACON’s dedicated informational hub and service for transgender Australians opened. It is ‘a digital information and resource platform for all trans and gender diverse (TGD) people in NSW, their loved ones, allies and health providers’, hosting information on social, legal, and medical support around the country. They can be found here https://www.transhub.org.au/about .