Each year in November, we are reminded of our University’s motto, Ut Vitam Habeant – That They May Have Life. The University is a living memorial to those who died in war, and it is important that we remember and respect that.
However, I do also think about how we might interpret our motto today, almost one hundred years after the end of the First World War. Of course we should still remember those who died in, and as a result of, conflict – that goes without saying. But in today’s society, there are still a great many people who suffer and whose lives are needlessly cut short, and I wonder if we should perhaps think more broadly about our motto, what it might mean and how we can live up to it.
It’s no coincidence that I’m thinking about this today. 20th November marks International Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual event, memorialising the victims of anti-trans violence. The International Transgender Day of Remembrance website lists nearly 300 deaths since November 20th 2016. These are just a few of them:
- Paola Oliviera, stoned to death in Russas, Brazil in on 30th January 2017
- Sisi Thibery, stabbed in Montreal, Canada on 18th September 2017
- Kajal, whose throat was slit in Bangalore, India on 16th December, 2016
- An unnamed Transwoman, stabbed to death in Rome, Italy on 10th November 2017
- Bianca, stabbed over twenty times in Arnhem, Netherlands on 29th September 2017
- Madeleine Delbom, strangled and stabbed to death in Stockholm, Sweden on 24th November 2016
- Ally Lee Steinfeld, stabbed, including wounds to the genitals, eyes gouged out and body burned in Licking, Missouri, USA on 21st September 2017
This utterly heart-breaking list goes on for thirty-six pages – and that covers just the last twelve months. It includes only those who have been killed by others in anti-trans attacks. Countless more attempt suicide, and many succeed. We don’t have to cast our minds back too far to remember Lucy Meadows, the primary School teacher from Accrington, Northwest England, who took her own life in March 2013 after after suffering what the coroner described as “ridicule and humiliation” and a “character assassination” at the hands of the Daily Mail.
This is still just the tip of the iceberg. In a 2015 survey, 48% of Trans people under 26 said they had attempted suicide (almost 30% in the previous year alone). More than four in five young Trans people have self-harmed. 38% of Trans people have experienced physical intimidation and threats.
So what can we as a department/University do, and what can the museum sector we work with do to support Trans people, to try and make change so that Trans people can live more openly, without fear of violence or intimidation?
It strikes me that much of the answer lies in representation, inclusion and support. For example, we have, in our School building, introduced gender neutral toilets. I try to avoid expressions and phrases that assume binary gender identities (‘welcome everyone’ rather than ‘welcome ladies and gentlemen’, for example). I try to challenge transphobia or transphobic comments when I hear them. These are simple acts that hurt no one (despite what some in the media would have you believe), but create, I hope, more inclusive environments for everyone.
We also try to introduce Trans issues and representation into our teaching material, taking inspiration from, for example, the brilliant Museum of Transology, the Museum of Liverpool’s blockbuster ‘April Ashley – Portrait of a Lady’ exhibition, programmes like ‘Never Going Underground’ at Manchester’s People’s History Museum, or sex and relationship education sessions at the British Museum, that are inclusive of Trans and gender identity issues.
These are just small steps and I am sure that there is much more that can be done. It was inspirational to see Charlie Craggs of ‘Nail Transphobia’ at the Museums Association conference in Manchester last week (and I’m gutted that the queues were too long for me to get my nails done). Charlie aims to ‘tackle transphobia fabulously’ with a pop-up nail bar, which has visited museums including, amongst others, the V&A and Science Museum.
Examples of positive representation of Trans people still seem very few and far between, though, both in the museums and higher education sectors, and we should work to change that. I’ll certainly be thinking about what more I can do in my role here at the School of Museum Studies to show greater solidarity with our Trans siblings, to consider how we might better work with Trans people to address these issues, and hopefully support a more tolerant society where people can live more freely.
I’d like us to live by our motto – Ut Vitam Habeant – not just in remembering the past (although we must do that), but in remembering also the victims of today’s society, and actively thinking about the present and the future too. International Transgender Day of Remembrance seems like an opportune moment to do so.