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Artillery Row

On the politicisation of death

The tragic death of Brianna Ghey deserves a better response than the culture war

Those who live public lives also die public deaths. When a famous or infamous person dies, it is inevitable that their life is held up to public judgement, that final praises are offered, last insults hurled. Whether or not this is a dignified spectacle, it is an inevitable one, and it would be better to concentrate our minds on how to do it well and justly, than chase after the sometimes mythical idea of the private dignity of grief. 

It is understandable and laudable that when someone is grieving a loss, that we wish to offer them respect and understanding, that we give them space to mourn. This admirable instinct is in practice confused in our minds and actions with the modern recoiling from death and dying. We cover death in euphemisms and mumble sympathetically about “passing on”; just perhaps we are relieved by the social conventions that draw us back from the side of the coffin. 

I had not wanted to write this piece and am hesitant even as I write it

Like birth and so much else in our society, the end of our lives has become privatised and individualised. The truism “we all die alone” is the very opposite of the Biblical perspective — “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself” (Romans 14:7). 

Public rituals around dying were just that — structures and liturgies with strict rules and bounds. They are still familiar in memory or habit: customs like wearing black armbands, removing your hat as a coffin passes, sitting with the body of the deceased until the time of burial. 

The question that complicates mourning and remembering the dead today is that of which community participates in grief. Family? Friends? The neighbourhood? The school? The general public reading a sad story online? Who is united in the solidarity of sorrow, who is a prurient interloper? 

The loss of shared rituals makes it harder for the person caught on the boundary of tragedy to know how and whether to act, to express sympathy without intruding on the intimacy of a death.  This quandy only becomes harder in relation to the very saddest cases: those who become public figures through their violent or unexpected death. 

I had not wanted to write this piece and am hesitant even as I write it, because it concerns a death that I believe should never have been subject to the scrutiny or debate that it has received. I’m writing about it now only because it has been so widely debated that I judge I will do more good than harm by further discussing it. 

It concerns the death of Brianna Ghey, a young and seemingly much-loved trans girl, who was stabbed by two other teenagers for reasons the police are still seeking to establish. Police have as yet no evidence that the gender identity of the teenage victim motivated her murder, but there has been extensive speculation online, including by former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who wrote that “She was killed because she wanted to be herself.”

There was also ferocious debate involving a Times article which was (briefly) edited to include Brianna’s birth name; about the sex recorded on Brianna’s birth certificate, with commentators including Owen Jones calling it an injustice that it did not reflect Brianna’s chosen identity; and over callous remarks made on social media by critics of trans activism. 

I have no knowledge whatsoever about Brianna’s identity, other than that which has been reported in the media, and her parent’s statement that they were mourning the loss of a “much loved daughter, granddaughter, and baby sister”. I do not believe that people can change their sex, but I have chosen to refer to Brianna by the name and gender that her family has used in public statements. 

The ethics of how to refer to trans victims is far from clear-cut

It is taken as self-evident by those who campaign for trans rights that it is an attack on the dignity of this murdered teenager to refer to the name and sex they had at birth, both in the media and official documents. 

The simple and damning reality is that we do not know enough to say. We do not know the motive for her heinous murder, we do not know how her family felt about her trans identity, we do not even know, really, how Brianna felt, or had she lived if she would have persisted in her choice to identify as female, or, like so many teenagers who identify as the opposite sex, whether she would have chosen to revert to identifying as the sex into which she was born.

Whatever you feel about the contentious issues of transgender rights and identity, consider the position of the family. Her parents may have embraced and celebrated her choice; they may have objected; they may have felt profoundly torn and ambivalent. Their statement is all we have to go on, and in the absence of other evidence that is what I have decided to respect.

The ethics of how to refer to trans victims is far from clear-cut. Brianna’s family appear supportive of her identity, but what of parents grieving a child whose trans identity they reject? Should the media respect the wishes of the family that loved them, or the choices of the individual who has died? Are parents who “misgender” their child, in a public arena in the midst of their grief, potentially inviting the anger and condemnation of activists? 

At the heart of this argument is the idea that it is an attack on the dignity of a trans person to refer to their biological sex or the name they were given at birth. We are not just individuals, however. The friends, parents, children, husband or wife of a trans person may have deep attachments to the person they no longer feel themselves to be. There is a basic ambiguity at play — is trans identity a matter of celebrating the fluidity of gender, honouring both what one was and now is, or a commitment to erasing the sex and name with which one was born? If there is no one answer to that question, how can there be one right answer to how to refer to a trans person who has died?

It would be naive and wrong to imagine that death is outside of politics, even the death of a private individual. When, in the 1950s American South, 14 year old Emmett Till was dragged out of his family home by members of the the Ku Klux Klan and lynched for whistling at a white woman in the street, his death was political. His friends and family members wanted his tragedy to spark change, wanted a justice that went beyond the punishment of his killers to further the deep, moral transformation of a racist and corrupt American society. 

It is viciously cynical of activists to use a teenager’s tragic death

It is one thing to raise political issues in relation to this murder if it was motivated by prejudice and the victim’s trans identity, but in a context where there is no indication that this is the case, it is utterly wrong to politicise it. It is especially and viciously cynical of activists to use a teenager’s tragic death to push for a more “liberalised” system of gender transition in the same week that a damning report showed that patients at Tavistock gender clinic were given dangerous puberty-blocking drugs in vast numbers, with thousands of patients pushed through the system by doctors and with the help of ever-present activist groups like Mermaids. 

This is another problem with the quality of our public debate. Trans rights activists and advocates claim that only the most maximally permissive system of gender transition — legal and medical — is the morally legitimate response to the needs of people with gender dysphoria. Anyone who questions putting young people on an often irreversible path to lifelong medicalisation, who dares to suggest the once anodyne wisdom that we should learn to love and accept our given bodies, is treated as lacking compassion for trans people. 

You can see how this politicisation of Brianna’s killing has come about — the boundaries between public and private are inherently blurred by the violent death of a young person, and still more confused by the way social media elides the division between private and public personas. Brianna Ghey herself had a social media following of 11,000 on TikTok, and no doubt this helped spread news and commentary about her death online. 

Sadly, many members of both “sides” of the trans debate have behaved disgracefully online, more concerned with pushing their respective agendas than with the loss of an innocent young life. One reason we have all behaved so badly is that we are in a moment of deep uncertainty about social and moral norms, in which we truly don’t know the right way to behave. 

Not one of us, who are all strangers to a grieving family and a dead child, is truly in a position to mourn or honour her, as we have lost the tools and the knowledge of how one offers sympathy, shows respect and offers honour to both living and dead. These lost traditions did not just confer dignity to all; they also, contrary to our modern assumptions, made sure that individual humanity was not forgotten. As we grieve and try to understand this terrible killing, we must try to rediscover our common decency, even when considering the hardest and most contentious of questions.

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