Trans et Mortem: When Altered Bodies Return to Death


Collage by the author’s mother, Michaela Strang-Kempen, 2019, titled “Glück der Erkenntnis”. To Michaela, this collage symbolised her illness and hope of recovery. The collage was hung in the room when she died according to her wishes.

by Claude Kempen_

our father, who art in heaven,

During the Popkultur Festival in Berlin I accidentally found myself at a queer midnight mass. To my surprise, this event healed some unknown wounds; wounds that the Catholic church had caused and that were raw from living in a transphobic, racist, ableist and homophobic society. The mass was led by two young people in beautiful gowns. They preached ragingly and they prayed for a world I might not only live but thrive in. They drank from chalices, smashed plates. I felt seen and welcome, it was amazing to be there, witnessing people struggling for the same things as I.

My upbringing was not overly religious or pious. Neither my mother nor my father went to church regularly. Nevertheless, I was sent to receive communion after months of religious education classes at my local Catholic church in Berlin. I was made to confess my sins to a stranger. An adult man. And I was made believe that the host was the flesh of Jesus Christ which I was made to eat so it shall become part of me. My body was not my own but it was Christ’s. I was taught about shame, about piety, and obedience. I turned my back on all of it. As a raging queer – a trans, non-binary lesbian with a soft spot for women in their 50s – I saw no sense in participating. Only now do I realise how deep this wound of abandonment is. I still do not condone the Church in any way, but I was stripped of the soothing rituals a mass provides, and I was taught that I was unnatural, bad.

hallowed be thy name

Halfway through the queer mass, one of the two persons leading the mass halted and said: “One day I will return this body. Altered.” The violent emotions I felt at this can barely be put into words. I thought: How powerful! It was almost a megalomanic rush. I am, outside of God’s reach, the owner of my body. This sense of agency and power was so overwhelmingly new for me in this church-like context it brought tears to my eyes. At the same time, I had a strange and warm sense of belonging. This body will be returned, no matter what. Nothing can change that. I will have a funeral, a grave and my body or ashes will be returned. Prior to this mass I had not realised the extent of my feelings regarding post-mortem belonging and the importance of a ritual return.

thy kingdom come,

The mass had put into a perspective a prior concern of mine. I had been worried about getting misgendered and disrespected at my funeral. I can barely make myself understood as a non-binary person while I’m alive. With their German-language book “The Right to Mourn: Funerals from a Critical Power Perspective” (2017) Francis Seeck points to the fact that those who have experienced oppression and erasure during their lifetime often continue to do so when the time for their funeral has come. Seeck identifies a strong correlation between power dynamics and burial practices. This makes me wonder who will oversee my life after death? In her text “The Afterlife of Gender: Sovereignty, Intimacy and Muslim Funerals of Transgender People in Turkey” (2019) Asli Zengin writes about funerals and queer death:

“The afterlife of a normative death usually manifests a collaborative work of multiple sovereign registers to bid farewell to the deceased. The blood family, together with the state, guides the formation of an intimate alliance between legal frameworks, religious authorities, friends, community to ensure the proper mourning and burial of the person who has died. This intimate alliance pivots on shared forms of sovereignty that the state, the family, and, in the case of Turkey, Is-lam secure over the body of the deceased—sovereignties related to and embedded within each other. The afterlife of a transgressive death, however, ruptures these alliances and offers a window into the contours and limits of different sovereign registers and intimate claims over the body.” (2019, 79)

I buried my mother in April 2021 and had found how important a meaningful goodbye ritual was and how much love and affection can go into planning it. In his poem “Sacred”, Billy-Ray Belcourt writes: “and even though i know i am too queer to be sacred anymore, i dance that broken circle dance because i am still waiting for hands that want to hold mine too” (2019, 11). I want to be held in life and in death as I held and hold my mother in hers.

thy will be done,

When she passed, the body she left behind was almost unrecognisable from the one she had lived in. Her stomach was cancer-ridden and had outgrown her slender figure and shoulders. Her eyes were deep in their sockets, her face a mere shadow of itself. The cancer was feeding off her and all her resources. Hours after her death, when her body had turned cold and rigid, her stomach was still warm, rumbling. A few days later she was to be cremated. This is when I found that my grief and pain were accompanied by another anger-fuelled inner conflict. While I was relieved to see the cancer burned and with it all the damage it had done, I refused to accept that this meant my mother was to be buried with the cancer among her ashes. I deeply felt that this was an abuse of her physical integrity and dignity. In my eyes the cancer had no right to share her final resting place. It had done nothing but kill its host while my mother let go of her life in all nobility and full of rage that it had ended so abruptly and early. Alas, her body would return, altered.

on earth as it is in heaven.

My father and brother, my sister and her partner, and my partner and I gathered in the apartment where I grew up and where my mother now lay to be around her during her last days. We often played organ music in her room; music that still gives me chills. My mother’s father had been a gifted organist. He had played at my parents’ wedding in 1987. We were listening to the original recording from that day, Charles-Marie Widor’s Toccata Symphony No. 5 to be precise. I wish I had known my grandfather, but he died when my mother was my age, just as I have lost her now. An intergenerational line of premature deaths through cancer. Maybe my grandfather and I would not have gotten along. He was a passionate Catholic and might not have accepted me fully.

give us this day our daily bread,

During my transition which has led me to get a long-awaited double mastectomy, I struggled to feel entitled to altering my body. I felt a strong responsibility and duty to stay exactly the way I was. I felt that I was not allowed to change this body I had been given. I explained this to myself as a silent obedience to gendered beauty norms since I was considered an attractive “woman”. I thought it was related to my fears of being recognisably queer and trans. While there is some truth in these explanations, I am now coming around to realising that my Catholic background also had something to do with this.

And how could I have felt that being trans was okay and altering my body according to my wishes was a welcome step? When I realised that I was a lesbian and later that I was trans, I felt that the church was no place for me and I wanted to get as far away from it as I could. I made jokes about it and about how I did not want to be part of such a toxic institution anyway. But I cannot deny that feeling left out leaves a mark. It also removed me from my ancestors who had spent their lives in churches, had played, prayed and sung there. I missed the impressive architecture of churches, its interior decorations, the shine of candles and the little corners where one can commemorate the deceased. It is a romanticised view on Catholicism but not any less real than all its other harmful and violent sides.

and forgive us our trespasses,

The medical and legal institutions in Germany that oversee supervising medical transitions also perpetuate outdated, almost Catholic values regarding bodily alterations. This is especially evident in the official evaluation guideline for public trans health care, the so-called “Begutachtungsanleitung” (BGA). The BGA standardises the assessment of “transsexuality” in patients. In 2020, the “Medical Advisory Service of the Umbrella Organisation of Social Health Insurances” (“Medizinischer Dienst des Spitzenverbandes Bund der Krankenkassen”, MDS) and their colleagues from the public health care system (GKV Spitzenverband) updated this guideline. Despite the update it is extremely outdated. It references the so-called “German Standards” which were developed in 1997 and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) of 1990, more precisely Chapter F64.0 on “Transsexualism”. Page three of the German guideline states:

“The particularities of the socio-medical assessment of gender reassignment procedures lie above all in the fact that a medical intervention with generally irreversible consequences carried out on a body that is biologically healthy.”

GKV Spitzenverband et al. 2020, 3

Here, medical procedures for trans people are considered mutilations of healthy bodies that must be avoided at all costs. The guideline expects thorough assessments of any patient that claims access and coverage of costs of trans health care. One cannot be intersex and trans at the same time. One can only feel trans within the gender binary. Prior to a diagnosis, other mental illnesses that could have “caused” the transsexualism in question must have been ruled out or “cured”. Any history of self-harm could get in the way of medical alterations to the trans body. An alteration in this case would be considered a possible act of self-harm and must not be allowed. The list goes on. The fact is that medical and surgical procedures are only tolerated as a last resort to “a deeply rooted transsexualism” (GKV Spitzenverband et al. 2020, p 11). It seems that trans people must be protected from themselves and their wishes.

as we forgive those who trespass against us;

In her essay “Of Catamites and Kings”, Gayle Rubin writes that trans people are often depicted as “unhealthy, deluded, selfhating, […] and self-mutilating” (2006, 476). The BGA’s attitude towards intervention is very much in line with the work of the American David O. Cauldwell (1897-1959). In the 1940s, Cauldwell picked up Magnus Hirschfeld’s term “transsexualism” and became one of the so-called pioneers of trans sexology. In his frequently cited text “Psychopathia Transexualis” (2006 [1949]), Cauldwell writes that “it would be criminal for any surgeon to mutilate a pair of healthy breasts and it would be just as criminal for a surgeon to castrate a woman with no disease of the ovaries […] wherein castration might be beneficial” (2006, 42). He is reluctant to treat his trans patient because of the technical functionality of the organs in question. Some academics have helped to reframe this idea of mutilation. They have allowed me to see my surgery as an act of empowerment and agency. In “Becoming Evermore Monstrous”, Sonny Nordmarken writes: “My body ruptures categories and threatens ideas of body normativity, renouncing ‘beauty’ to be ‘beast,’ while breaking the binary meaning of beauty and beast by being monstrously beautiful. This is a corporeal resistance” (2014, 39). Susan Stryker describes herself in “My Words to Victor Frankenstein” as “a self-mutilated deformity, a pervert, a mutant” (2006, 251). These words cannot touch her. She is the agent of her own body, its mutilation, she is out of reach.

and lead us not into temptation,

With the Our Father in my heart, and the quasi-biblical health guideline in my hands, I could almost not go through with my mastectomy. I feared the consequences of my own agency and decisions. It took a year of panic and anxiety before I initiated my wilful and beautiful mutilation. I drove all the way to Switzerland to have my breasts cut off. The surgeon there had agreed to operate on my chest allowing me to have no nipples at all as a result – a surgery no German surgeon had agreed to do. By the time the mass happened, my scars, the ones I wanted, were healing. But some of my doubts remained. I still wondered whether this act had cut me off from spirituality, rituals, and God. Was I too queer to be sacred? The mass shifted my perspective and I started to see I was not only allowed a safe return, but I was worthy and even sacred. In his poem “The Creator is Trans”, Billy-Ray Belcourt writes:

“there is a heaven and it is a place called gay. gay as in let’s hold up a world together. gay as in happy to make something out of nothing and call it love or anything that resembles a time in which you don’t have to be those shitty versions of yourself to become who you are now. one day i will open up my body to free all of the people i’ve caged inside me.”

Belcourt 2019, 20

Belcourt recognises the freeing potential of queerness. For him being gay is heavenly and queerness can liberate the caged versions of ourselves. We can hold each other up and recognise each other’s sacredness. No church can take that away.

but deliver us from evil.

I wonder about the bodies we are given when we are born. We are supposed to protect and nurture them but in whose image? So far, only I have transformed my bodily vessel, undisturbed by cancerous creatures that have taken my family members too soon. I thought that spirituality and meaningful rituals were not in my present or future, but the queer mass and my mother’s death have brought them back into the centre of my life. I think of death often and now I am certain that when I die, my body will return to the ground. It will not resemble the body that might have been initially intended for me. I have altered it to match me. My mother’s and my body are altered for different reasons, but we are both entitled to a dignified life after death. Everybody is.

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory,

for ever and ever.

Amen.

 

About the author

Claude Kempen is a trans non-binary writer and academic from Berlin. They hold an undergraduate degree in Islamic Studies from Free University in Berlin and a postgraduate degree in Gender Studies from SOAS, University of London. They have published on queer movements in Jordan, sexism and anti-Muslim racism in pornography, and most recently on gatekeeping and transitioning in Germany.

Further reference:

Kempen, C. (2021, March 5). The Answer is Neither. TORCH The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://www.torch.ox.ac.uk/article/theanswer-is-neither

Bibliography

Belcourt, Billy-Ray. 2019. This Wound Is a World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cauldwell, D. O. 2006. “Psychopathia Transexualis.” In The Transgender Studies Reader edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 40-44. Routledge.

GKV Spitzenverband, Medizinischer Dienst der Krankenkassen, and Medizinischer Dienst des Spitzenerbandes Bund der Krankenkassen. 2020. „Begutachtungsanleitung Geschlechtsangleichende Maßnahmen bei Transsexualismus (ICD-10, F64.0)“.

Nordmarken, Sonny. 2014. “Becoming Ever More Monstrous.” Qualitative Inquiry 20, no. 1: 37–50.

Rubin, Gayle. 2006. “Of Catamites and Kings Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries.” In The Transgender Studies Reader edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 471-81. Routledge.

Seeck, Francis. 2017. Recht Auf Trauer: Bestattungen Aus Machtkritischer Perspektive. Münster: Edition Assemblage.

Stryker, Susan. 2006. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.” In The Transgender Studies Reader edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 244-56. Routledge.

Zengin, Aslı. 2019. ‘The Afterlife of Gender: Sovereignty, Intimacy and Muslim Funerals of Transgender People in Turkey’. Cultural Anthropology 34, no. 1: 78–102. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca34.1.09.

 



Cite this blog post
editorial team (2021, December 10). Trans et Mortem: When Altered Bodies Return to Death. AnthroDesires. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/b7v0

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