There is something deeply disturbing about social media; the dead live on through it. It turns out that the dead never really die nowadays; they live on in virtual reality, their pictures and their words floating forever in cyberspace.
I had a friend called Carol. I had never actually met her, but in a world where social media connect people across continents and oceans, that is not so unusual. We knew each other for over two years and the one time we were due to meet — in the same city at the same time — in the end I was unable to go. But she was still my friend and I looked forward to seeing her posts on Facebook, her jokes on Twitter, although they often had me scrambling for my Filipino dictionary. Carol, who was only 21, was getting her life together and she seemed happy, though, as ever, penniless.
She had begun competing in beauty pageants again and her Facebook page was full of Carol in glamorous resplendence, clearly loving every minute of it. These competitions gave her validation and reward. The prizes, though a pittance compared to the top-line pageants, were almost enough for her to live on, she told me.
Then, one day, I saw a rash of frightening posts in my Facebook feed: ‘RIP Carol,’ they said. I quickly sent out messages of my own to mutual acquaintances and soon came the dreaded replies: ‘Carol is very sick,’ and then, ‘Carol is dead already.’
I soon found out that Carol had developed acute urinary tract infection. Having no health insurance, she must have suffered in agony until she collapsed and was rushed to hospital. But it was too late and the sepsis had spread too far. She was pronounced dead soon after admission.
I was deeply saddened by her death. Yes, you can be moved by the death of a person you never met. These are not false emotions. Humanity can transcend distance.
The first pictures circulating of Carol, after she died, were those I was familiar with; in happier days, taking selfies, having fun with her friends, modelling, performing in pageants.
I was not ready for the shock of the new pictures.
In the highly Catholic Philippines, it is customary for the deceased’s body to be put on display in an open coffin while the family and friends grieve. Pictures are always taken and sent to those who can’t be there and of course, they came to me. When I saw them I cried.
I had known a vivacious, funny, sweet girl who would happily spend hours chatting to someone half way round the planet, just because she liked to. We were never lovers but we had become friends. I had known a woman with a searchlight grin and long, beautiful hair that she kept immaculately, with perfectly manicured nails and her make-up flawless. Carol was a pauper, but she always dressed her best. She was cheeky, moody, vivacious and optimistic. She was never down for long and, when I saw the pictures of where she lived, I could only wonder at her fortitude.
The casket pictures, when they began to arrive, were of a young man, hair hacked off, in a shirt and slacks several sizes too big. At first I honestly did not know who they were of; then I realised.
Oh, it’s not what you think; I always knew Carol was transsexual. What sickened me was the grotesque lack of respect. Carol died in horrible circumstances. She must have been terrified and in extreme pain, until she slipped into unconsciousness.
We all have a right to be respected on death. Carol had that right no less than anyone else. But her family — in the person of, I was told, her aunt — decided to dress her up as a man, presumably as a sop to public opinion.
I don’t judge the family. For poor, devout people, browbeaten by an authoritarian church into rejecting any non-conformity, such a decision would have been easy to take and, let’s be honest, Carol was past caring.
But still, she was betrayed, not just by her family, or even the society around them, or by me; I could have sent her money but then I would have had no moral choice but to send to many others, and I can’t afford that. But we all betrayed Carol. Every one of us.
They live among us
Transsexual women do not only exist in far off places, in exotic tropical paradises; they live among us, wherever we are, and they live in fear. The greatest threat to them is not violence — though it is constant and often extreme — but erasure. Erasure of who they are, of their very persons, of, if you are minded to think in such terms, their souls.
And this is sometimes done in love. I am certain that Carol’s family loved her and were crushed with grief; but nevertheless, they erased her in favour of a person who didn’t actually exist at all.
When religious families do this, and it is a commonplace, or subject their children to abuse and mental torture to ‘condition’ them out of ‘being transgender’, they don’t do it out of spite. The act of erasure is horrible and cruel but these people actually believe it to be one of kindness. At least poor Carol did not see how her person — the person I and many others knew — was snuffed out of existence, not by death, but by the living. By us.
It would be understandable, if, right now, people were to think that suddenly all was well for transwomen like Carol; but they would be wrong.
No-one with an internet connection or a television can have avoided hearing that Bruce Jenner, a former Olympian athlete and reality-show host had transitioned into a woman and launched another reality show. Oh well, then, that’s all right. We can forget about it. See? Transwomen are all the rage.
Sexuality and Gender: Two sides of the same coin
On her journey Carol had thought perhaps she was a gay boy, but realised that she was actually a girl. She was fully aware that she had male genitals, but it didn’t bother her that much and, had she had the money, I am quite sure she’d have spent it on breast implants before GRS. Carol’s understanding of herself came from the inside and progressed out.
She understood: her sexuality, her passionate desire for men and her understanding of herself as a woman were two sides of the same coin. Her gender and her sexuality were inextricably linked.
RIP Carol. I don’t know if we can say, in a world where thousands of the innocent perish every hour, that you had a right to life. I just don’t. But what I do know is that you had a right to be you, and for no-one, ever, to rob you of that.
In a way, the internet is her epitaph. Her Facebook page is still up and in June, her birthday, her friends still congratulate her. Do they know she’s dead? Do they still post the wishes in celebration of a life now gone? I do. It is sad enough to make you cry, but funny too. Carol lives on as a shade, a conglomeration of pixels and code, held in the server of the mighty Facebook.
It is almost like the strange Victorian photographs of the dead, dressed and made up as in life. I would prefer Carol living, being cheeky and trying to tap me for money; but all there is left of her is right here. And, given that I never met her, in a way she never died, even as she never really lived, for me. All I ever really knew of her was in her profile, her pictures, her status updates and her chat messages; and nearly all of those are still there. Next year, on her birthday, which Facebook will remind me of as it always does, I shall look again to see if she is still there. And I hope she is, strange though it may seem.
What is there is not the bizarre and disturbing image of someone in a white casket that none of us knew, but instead, of the girl we loved. That, in some small measure, eases the hurt.
The Day of the Dead celebrates life too.
I came across this picture, today. It’s of me saving a girl’s life earlier this year. No big deal; I was there and I knew what to do. It’s as well I was, because nobody else did, and what they were doing to her would have killed her.
She had been pulled out of the sea by some fishermen, and wasn’t breathing. I just gave her mouth to mouth and put her in Recovery; she came back and recovered consciousness. But she had been swimming with three others who were not so lucky.
I don’t know her name and I seek no credit. But seeing that picture — purely by coincidence, today, the Day of the Dead, made me think a bit. I’m glad I was there for her. I consign the moment when she dodged death to the limitless pool of the Internet, for all those who were not so lucky. It is my sincere hope that she lives on in happiness and enjoys a full life.
I wish I, or someone else, had been there for Carol.