One might reasonably think that I would have written something more Pride-y for June. Perhaps my last essay was a fluke, and this week would be on how pride is good or on the liberal influences of post-Stonewall activism or something. No, this week is about death, and I have no plans to write something explicitly Pride-themed.
That’s not because I have no interest in Pride. I eagerly await it every year. I would just rather write something I feel is 1) somewhat novel and 2) is personally relevant over something shallowly thematic. Death fits these criteria. I have yet to have a real brush with death—someone close to me dying, for example—but it haunts me all the same. It is like death always sits just on my peripheral vision, something I am constantly aware is there, but always vanishes if I try to look right at it. I have friends who have attempted suicide, and I have talked down too many people from attempting suicide. I have bad genes, and, combined with the stresses of my life, I would be very surprised if I lived past 50. I have already nearly died several times, including two or three instances before I can even remember. All together, this means that I have thought a lot about death, and I have a lot to say about it.
At the same time, it would be a serious mistake to think that death is somehow irrelevant to Pride or LGBT issues in general. A grave mistake, if you will. (Ba dum tss.) The specter and reality of violent hate crimes against LGBT people is all-too-real. I have a queer friend who has recounted to me how they would regularly be beaten up for their queerness as they grew up, and they couldn’t escape it. I have had to avoid people who were once close to me because they expressed murderous sentiments towards gay people. Trans women, and especially trans women of color, are killed frequently. As of June 5, we sit at 28 known homicides of trans people this year. Many of these were hate crimes. Two cases from the last year have stuck to me: Selena Reyes-Hernandez and Dominique Rem’mie Fells. Selena Reyes-Hernandez was with a man when she told him she was trans. The man left her, went to his home, grabbed his gun, came back, and killed her. Dominique Rem’mie Fells lived in the city I currently reside, Philadelphia. Her body was found in the river, dismembered. In another instance, a transgender woman was tortured and left to die by prison officials: Layleen Polanco was left in solitary confinement despite health concerns, not observed as required, and when she had a seizure—which she had before, so they knew it was a risk for her—the prison officers spent 47 minutes without helping her. She died. They could be seen laughing outside her cell door.
And that is today. That is contemporary times. Recent years. If “LGBT” and “death” were ever linked, it was in the AIDS crisis. An entire generation of gay men and transgender women were wiped off the face of the earth, with health officials slow to act, commentators publicly rejoicing in their deaths, news channels entertaining the idea of rounding up all gay men into camps, health professionals refusing to even be near people sick with AIDS… It was an atrocity. Gay men and transgender women were explicitly, publicly relegated to a status where they were either deserving of death, or their deaths were no tragedy anyways.
“Necropolitics” is a term which brings this reality into theoretical analysis. Necropolitics covers the state’s determination and control of who may live and who must die. I’ve talked briefly about necropolitical topics before, without mentioning the term: In Lives Worth Living I tried to fight against the flow of determining who may live, providing needed skepticism to the project of relegating some lives to the trash bin, and in Homicide and Liberalism I explained that a good liberal must be resistant to the state’s power to end lives. Necropolitics’ relevance in the context of LGBT issues couldn’t be clearer. Are gay lives worth living? Are trans lives worth living? As one Twitter user put it, it seems that Republicans have decided that when it comes to transgender people, “this one particular type of suicide is okay.”
I have one last comment to make regarding death, almost entirely irrelevant to the above. (I never promised this article would flow well; it is titled “Miscellany on Death” for a reason.) I have an argument that suicide is often entirely irrational. I didn’t bring this up on my essay on suicide because I didn’t think it fit well. But now’s a good opportunity, and maybe someone will find it interesting.
A common sentiment expressed by suicidal people is that they would be better off if they were dead. I don’t think this makes any sense. If they were dead, there is no “they” to be better off. I don’t think the non-existence of something can be directly valued. Only the larger world can be valued. For example, a soldier jumping on a grenade may be suicide, but it can be a very reasonable and very commendable act, because it saves the lives of those around them. But I don’t think you can valuate your own death directly.
Look at it this way: Death is radically unlike life. You can look at this as the perspective that death is like before you were born—how are you supposed to valuate yourself prior to your own birth? You can’t. So how are you supposed to valuate your nonexistence? You might also view it in a more religious context. In many traditions, the afterlife is radically unlike life. For example, it may be that since God is completely transcendent, the direct experience of God would be entirely unlike anything in life. By definition, you can’t compare them. Similarly, if hell is real and involves the ripping away of some kind of fundamental stratum of existence—like for some it’s essentially considered non-existence, or the absence of what little feeling of God there is in life—then that can’t really be comparatively valuated.
So suicide, in the most common forms I encounter it, is irrational. Which means this argument, if true, is useless, because it’s supposed to be a rational argument. See why I didn’t bring it up in the essay on suicide? It’s the most useless argument I’ve ever developed.
A lot of people in American society try to avoid the idea of death, and if they encounter it, they try to gloss over the surface and hardly touch upon it. I think a lot about death. I think it’s really important, both to my life, and to how we structure our society, and to LGBT issues. Death is relevant, and needs to be discussed.