Of Course Death Discriminates

The following post contains a discussion of a student death and trans lives. It may be upsetting to readers, so please practice self-care in deciding when and how to read it.


I’ve wept three times in front of my students this semester, and I am not a public weeper. One of my trans students has died, and reader, it wrecked me. I found out the first day I was back on campus after the last round of strike days. I wept the next day in front of my Year 3 students when I explained why I was lecturing when I’m usually insistent on student-led seminars. I wept in front of my Year 2 students—his classmates—when I said I was sad and asked if anyone had anything they wanted to say. And I wept last week at the celebration of his life, where I spoke on behalf of my history colleagues.

I am here in this post to suggest the value of public weeping. I am here because I am angry with a system of education that expects me to take care of my students in this situation, when it has not trained me to do so. And I am here to think about the ways I have been trained as a historian so that I can think through some of the ways I can support my LGBT+ students despite this lack of training.

At the celebration of my student’s life, I spoke about T Hall, an intersex person whose body and dress colonial Virginians policed because they felt insecure about the state of their existence in North America.[1] Because I spoke first, and my student’s fantastic friends had not yet shared all the funny, heartwarming stories about his life, the mood was not light enough to describe all of the fabulously snarky ways that Hall pushed back against the people who tried to categorize them. There was, in other words, no chance to gloss the act of getting a bitt for one’s Catt.[2] But it didn’t matter. I explained that we hadn’t read about T in my class because it was a bit too early for the chronological scope of a class on the American Revolution. For my class on the American Revolution with this student, we had read about Deborah Sampson through the Just Teach One Project. I’d listened to my students talk about Sampson’s case as an example of a cross-dressing female soldier whose ability to speak for herself was challenged by the male narrator who described her service. That author, Herman Mann, sought, more than anything, to tell the reader how much Sampson regretted the masculine role she’d played in the war, and how glad she was to be back in the safer domestic sphere of married life.

I explained that I was sharing these stories because—even though we don’t know which Year 2 students will write dissertations with us yet, and we’re not supposed to talk much about dissertations before the start of Year 3—I’d started imagining the sort of dissertation my trans student could write. He’d stayed after class to chat history with me, and to ask questions about reading material and essay writing. We’d emailed about his name change, and I’d shared my excitement with him. He’d seemed so buoyed by it all. So I shared these stories with his friends because it hurts my heart that I will be unable to discuss these histories with him anymore.

I could have talked more. About Hall, and Sampson. About Nicholas Sension, and his sodomy trial, or Peter Sewally, alias Mary Jones.[3] For my American Revolution students, which is framed by Hamilton, and how it uses history, I could have revisited Hamilton, and the assertion that death doesn’t discriminate. Aaron Burr’s point in the musical is to assert that sinners and saints die alike. I have no interest in engaging with people who want to label sexual behavior or gender identity as wrong, but I do want to point out that trans people have been murdered because people believe them to be sinful. 2017 was the deadliest year for trans people in the United States. The U.K. is not exempt from this epidemic.

I decided, instead, to talk just a little bit more about why these histories matter. Sources about people like Hall and Sampson present us as historians with the chance to confront one of our discipline’s most pressing questions: were people in the past just like us, or is the past a foreign, unrecognizable country? History, for me, has always helped me to mourn because my mode of mourning is to throw myself into my work. But for others, I pointed out, history is a comforting way to see one’s self in the historical record.

Which brings me back to how we can help our students see themselves as historians, even (and perhaps especially) if they’re queer, nonconforming folks. I remember how delighted I was at the end of my first American Revolution seminar, when I watched the majority of students’ faces turn from uncomprehending to understanding when, in response to a question about preferred names and pronouns, two of my students introduced themselves using names that differed from the names listed on my attendance roster, using the gender neutral language that my icebreaker questions invited. One of those students will now be permanently absent.

So I will continue to use icebreaker introductions that invite students to state their preferred names and preferred pronouns. I will do what I can to signal that all students are welcome in my class. I will incorporate more trans and queer histories into my syllabi. I currently teach Native American history and the American Revolution, as well as an intro class on how to be a historian. Suggestions for relevant readings are welcome in the comments. I want to do better. We need to do better. I am here in this post, without my training, because the fact of the matter is that none of us are prepared for this to happen, and we must be. Death discriminates. Even if we want to believe that love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love.

[1] Kathleen Brown, “‘Changed…into the Fashion of Man’: The Politics of Sexual Difference in a Seventeenth-Century Anglo-American Settlement,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 6, no. 2 (1995): 171-93. See also Mary Beth Norton, Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (New York: Vintage, 1996), 183-199.

[2] Brown, “‘Changed…into the Fashion of Man,’” 172; Norton, Founding Mothers and Fathers, 186, 197-99.

[3] Richard Godbeer and Douglas L. Winiarski, “The Sodomy Trial of Nicholas Sension, 1677: Documents and Teaching Guide,” Early American Studies, 12, no. 2 (Spring 2014): 402-43.

2 responses

  1. so so much love to you. “epistemology of the closet” by eve Sedgwick is good. for queer and trans people, death is our condition of living. this piece shows that. xoxox


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