One day in early February I woke up to read a headline letting the world know that a sixteen-year-old trans girl, Brianna Ghey, had been murdered and left to be found in a park. I did not know Brianna Ghey, I will never get to know Brianna. I do not conjure the image of a dead girl frivolously, I do so out of necessity, and perhaps my own selfishness. I cannot escape the space that has been left empty by Brianna’s death. In this emptiness that I find myself in late at night imagining an altered temporality in which the space between Brianna and I is closed. It is in this space I find myself living in a world of kinship.
This space is not new, or unique to Brianna, it is a continuously growing pit in which I cannot, or perhaps choose not to, leave. Here I cry in anguish at the death of a girl I have never known, someone who would have never entered into my perception of reality had she not suffered as she did, and in this moment, I imagine a bond between us. There is no bond, she is seven years younger than I am, and this gap will only continue to grow. She lived her life in the U.K while I primarily live in the U.S. now. Logically speaking I know that we exist(ed) in a different set of geography and time, and yet there exists a sick part of my brain that fails to envision this distance between us. My mourning seems disingenuous and selfish. Even now I write of myself rather than the mourning of her friends and family. This is an inherently selfish moment and act, and I will not deny that—I cannot deny that.
Why then do I continue in this selfishness and cling to her afterimage with such intensity?
I can only answer this question with another disruption of time and space, and bring us all to Ohio, December 2014, when the young trans girl, Leelah Alcorn tragically died by suicide at the age of seventeen. I will not speak to the pain and circumstances that led to this point outside of necessity, as she provided them in her own words. I wish to respect them as best I can, even as I continue in my selfishness.
Leelah rose to national prominence when her suicide note was posted to Tumblr, of her own volition, and like a luminous shadow. In the disrupted space that social media creates, a fourteen-year-old me, first grappling with their transness met Leelah. I did not know Leelah, I will never get to know Leelah, and yet from the fateful day in late December when I met her to this very moment, nine years later, I cannot escape her, or perhaps, I do not let her escape me. Perhaps it is my own selfishness that forces me to remember her nine years later, just as it was my own selfishness that wrote a poem about her death that has, luckily, since been lost to time. Though I cannot remember the details I remember crying uncontrollably as I wrote, her death feeling so close. Even as I write now, I find myself crying…why have I refused to let go of Leelah?
I wish every day I had never been made privy to her existence, that she would have survived, and I would have never known, that she would have kept her distance, but that’s not what happened. Leelah did not survive, I met her, and I now live with her afterimage. In Leelah, despite our many differences, I could not help but see myself. In my youth I had superimposed myself onto/into the specter of Leelah. There was no distance between us. I did not view her as a trans sister, but rather I saw myself as her. As a young trans femme, to witness the news of her death felt like witnessing that of my own. The pit of despair and depression she felt trapped in was similar to my own and in that moment, I saw my future. I saw in her not just another tragic victim to the biopolitical objective to rid the world of transness but rather the future of that objective.
I could not articulate at the age of fourteen why I was so devastated, both for lack of language and fear of my own transness. I did not understand how to come to terms with the displacement upon myself that Leelah’s death caused. That in her death, I understood that trans life was a dangerous one, and in an act of selfishness and fear I grabbed onto her ghost and never let go. She became a constant reminder to my younger self that the present, that this time was not mine.
To be trans is to cross over, to cross boundaries, to make the unmalleable malleable, and in trans death time itself is crossed. Leelah’s death conjured the image of my future, that before the age of seventeen there was a chance I would die. That like many other trans people before us, I would die. Whether a literal physical death, or a figurative trans death, wherein I would deny my own being, displacing my trans life from lived reality, matters little. In trans death, I came to find myself temporally displaced.
I exist not in the present, but rather in the past and future simultaneously in the forever haunting afterimages of trans femmes who have passed. I do not live in a linear mode of being, instead being juggled back and forth, at odds with the present. Trans death creates a temporality wherein the dead conjure the future while living in the past. That is, when a trans femme dies at the hands of the violent, anti-trans state, other trans femmes are given a glimpse of their potential future. That inevitably, should the state continue in its seemingly endless objective of trans erasure, as seen with the plethora of new legislation being passed every day, not only trans femmes, but transness itself will cease to exist.
This is why I have never been able to let go of Leelah. To me she is both my future and my past, a lens through which my entire world has been colored. Leelah reminds me that I am to be forever placed outside of my time, of my present. In this displaced temporality there is nothing I can do but look to Leelah, to Brianna, to Marsha, to Sylvia, to Destiny, to Diamond, to the 327 trans people lost in the past year. Outside of time, distanced from others I have no choice but to find solace in meeting in our out of timeness, in our trans time, and yet, even then I will never know Marsha. I will never know Sylvia. I will never know Destiny. I will never know Diamond or Caelee or Kelly or Tiffany or Acey or Mya or Dede or Maddie or Kandii or…Hayden or Marisela…Cherry…or……
About the Author
Edwin Brun is a first year XE student at NYU. They have a background in gender studies,
psychology, and comparative literature focusing on the intersections of monstrosity and trans
identity in visual media.