Historians' Watch

Honouring Trans Lives, Historicising Trans Death

November 20th marks Trans Day of Remembrance, an annual day of mourning for trans lives stolen by violence in the past 12 months. While many remembrance ceremonies are now moving from community centres to online platforms, the central purpose remains the same: to acknowledge and reckon with high rates of trans murder worldwide that are otherwise obscured from public view.

According to new data from the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, a total of 350 trans people have been murdered since last October. Following a steady rise in cases over the past few years, it is now estimated that one trans person is killed somewhere in the world almost every single day. Critically, transfeminine people make up ninety-eight percent of all new deaths, and Black and Indigenous women are disproportionately represented in these figures.

Updated research for #TDOR2020: https://tgeu.org/tdor/

As a white transfeminine historian, I am keenly aware that this violence—particularly its convergence with racism, colonialism, and misogyny—dates back farther than contemporary monitoring mechanisms can count, or TDOR ceremonies can remember. As an historian of “New World” imperialism, however, I am most attuned to one central, yet often overlooked, fact: over eighty-five percent of all reported cases of trans murder have occurred in the “Americas.”

But how does the murder of trans people—or people who transgress the gender binary—have a history? And how can violence that took place in the past be akin to ‘transphobic’ violence in the present? In honour of Trans Day of Remembrance, I want to view the contemporary crisis of trans death through an historical lens and provide critical context into its roots. Not only does transphobia have a history, but early primary sources depicting violence against people who defy the gender binary—itself a colonial construct—suggest it is intrinsically tied to Western imperialism and, specifically, the formation of “America.” While Europeans who sailed across the “Great Western Ocean” after 1492 did not ‘discover’ already inhabited lands, they did, however, learn that their narrowing ideas of gender were not as ubiquitous as they thought. In anxious response, they often lashed out with violence.

Content Warning: The following historical accounts detail murder and the intent to murder through both textual and visual sources. Please keep this in mind as you read and/or share.

Despite early colonisers’ documented interest in Indigenous gender—dating back to Columbus’ very first account of the West Indies—the first known source to detail colonial anxiety around gender transgression comes from recorder Peter Martyr in 1513. In describing the descent of Spanish commander Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and his army upon a Quarequa village (modern day Panama), Martyr depicts a harrowing encounter. After supposedly slaying six hundred Native people “lyke brute beastes,” Balboa and his soldiers make their way to the King’s quarters only to find themselves in the unexpected company of forty “younge men in womens apparell, smoth & effeminately decked.” In a panic, Balboa swiftly demanded they be killed and offered as prey to his dogs. According to Martyr—an Italian priest wholly unfamiliar with Quarequan spirituality—records that these sinful ‘men’ had been the cause of great thunderings, tempests, famine, and disease. Balboa—a “failed entrepreneur-turned-conquistador,” in the words of Daniel Health Justice (Cherokee)—was then heralded as a saviour across the Spanish Empire for honourably ridding the land of such “abominable and unnaturall lechery.”

Engraving by Theodor de Bry depicting Balboa’s mastiffs attacking Quarequans (1594)

“Two-spirit” scholar Dr. Alex Wilson (Cree) interprets similar accounts of murder from recorder Bartolomé de las Casas. Upon arriving in New Spain and witnessing the atrocities committed by Spanish conquistadors in 1502, Casas began a decades-long quest of documenting violent encounters in the hopes of one day informing the Spanish Crown. Wilson alludes to the most common practice of murder described in A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies:

They made a gallows just high enough for the feet to nearly touch the ground, and by thirteens, in honour and reverence of our Redeemer and the twelve Apostles, they put wood underneath and, with fire, they burned the Indians alive.

Engraving by Theodor de Bry depicting Casas’ description of the gallows (1664)

As a form of extermination reserved for ‘dignitaries’ and ‘leading citizens,’ Wilson believes that those most subject to this death were likely targeted for gender transgression—an act not only commonplace in some communities, but often revered as spiritually important. According to anthropologist Michael Horswell, these people “introduced a crisis into the Spanish patriarchal paradigm” and were targeted in “an attempt to destroy part of the people’s memory and understanding of the cosmos.” The spectacle of this murder further suggests that its function was not simply to eliminate those who transgressed Spanish gender norms, but to discipline their communities from ever doing the same again. Wilson reflects, “This is the imposition of homophobia, genocide, and epistemicide—the killing of our knowledge systems—that started 500 years ago.”

From initial contact to the turn of the twentieth century, ninety percent of Indigenous people across the newly declared “Americas” died from diseases, wars, and settlements brought on by foreign colonisers. According to “two-spirit” historian Deborah Miranda (Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation), this violence must also account for the “active, conscious, violent extermination” of ‘third gender’ people. Characterising this murder as ‘gendercide,’ Miranda’s archival research illuminates an extension of the colonial gender violence demonstrated above to the settlement of modern-day California in the late eighteenth century. In his very first document depicting the region after arrival in 1769, the first Lieutenant Governor, Pedro Fages, writes:

I have substantial evidence that those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing, and character of women—there being two or three such in each village—pass as Sodomites by profession (it being confirmed that all these Indians are much addicted to this abominable vice) and permit the heathen to practice the execrable, unnatural abuses of their bodies […] But we place our trust in God and expect that these accursed people will disappear with the growth of the missions. The abominable vice will be eliminated to the extent that the Catholic faith and all the other virtues are firmly implanted there, for the glory of God and the benefit of those poor ignorants.

As reflected by Fages in 1769 and Balboa in 1513, religious and moral panic plagued some of the earliest colonies of the “New World.” As a consequence, people whose genders were too ‘extraordinary’—in the words of Qwo-Li Driskill (Cherokee)—to fit within the confines of the colonial mind were targeted for elimination. Accounts from British and American settlers—such as Edwin T. Denig in the nineteenth century—and recent Indigenous research on institutionalised homo/transphobia in Indian Boarding Schools throughout the twentieth century further demonstrate how ‘gendercide’ is not simply isolated within these early Spanish colonies. Instead, it is a widespread, inter-imperial logic of elimination that has stretched across myriad colonial landscapes for hundreds of years.

Now in the twenty-first century, as Black and Indigenous trans women make up a high majority of global trans deaths, the highest rates of murder continue to revolve around the Western Hemisphere—particularly Brazil, Mexico, and the US. The related crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and “two-spirit” people (MMIWG2) across settler North America further demonstrates the omnipresence of Miranda’s ‘gendercide’ today. Importantly, the highest concentration of MMIWG2 are also found along the west coast—the very site of these earliest primary sources.

As laid out in the full list of trans murders from the past year, the brutal means of trans death today, in some ways echo those from centuries ago. As the American imperial landscape shifted, and the face of the coloniser changed over time, the intended target for elimination has somewhat stayed the same. I recite this history and study this death—as excruciating as it may be—because there is a responsibility for trans people today, particular trans settlers, to acknowledge how colonialism continues to mediate everyday life. Exposing transphobia throughout history, and drawing connections between the past and present, is a powerful reminder of the long struggle that precedes trans activism today, and the ongoing colonial legacies that continue to fuel transphobia in the twenty first century. As a transfeminine historian, I see echoes of the documented anxieties that drove colonisers to murder centuries ago in the treatment of my sisters today. As a white trans settler, however, I am also crucially reminded that transphobia—as a colonial creation—unequally distributes life chances among us. History not only helps us locate the colonial origins of this crisis, but it also provides a more complete framework to interpret twenty-first-century transphobia as part of a colonial project that started centuries ago.

As we take a moment of silence on this year’s Trans Day of Remembrance; as we remember and celebrate the lives of those we have lost in the past year, it is crucial to also recognise the long history surrounding this act of mourning. Transphobia may be centuries old, but trans existence and trans resilience—particularly by Black and Indigenous trans femmes—is centuries old as well. There is much to be done to finally end this vicious colonial cycle but historicising its roots and development may just be a necessary first step in ensuring it does not continue with us into the future.


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