5 March 2015
BORDERLANDS: Unidentified, but known to God; reflections of a transgender CPT delegate
by Kody Hersh
Memorial composed of items discarded by migrants
Every year, the Pima County, Arizona Medical Examiner’s office receives hundreds migrants’ bodies who lost their lives in the Sonoran Desert after crossing the border from Mexico to the United States. From physical features, clothing, and other personal effects, the Medical Examiner can identify some of the migrants and return their bodies to their families. In other cases, the migrants’ names remain officially unknown. The bodies of those whose identities cannot be determined are labelled with dates and names: “John Doe” or “Jane Doe,” depending on the gender they are assumed to have based on the evidence of their body—or even, in some cases, a single body part.
Early in our trip, I and other members of the Christian Peacemaker Team’s Borderlands delegation—twelve people who traveled from around the United States and from Atikameksheng Territory to learn about the human rights situation at the U.S/Mexico border—visited a cemetery in Douglas, Arizona. We prayed together, and left candles, paper cranes, and other tokens at the graves of a handful of unidentified migrants. Their small markers read “Unknown Woman” or “Unknown Man,” gave the date their bodies were found, and sometimes listed a Medical Examiner’s office reference number.
As a transgender person whose gender is often perceived incorrectly, I live every day with the reality that we can’t tell a person’s identity by looking at them—and it often really hurts people when we assume we can. The deeply ingrained beliefs that the characteristics of our bodies mark each of us clearly as a man or a woman, and that those are the only options, underlie much of the discrimination that trans and other gender-nonconforming people face in our lives. So I have cringed, on this trip, every time I’ve heard a tally of the number of male versus female migrants who have received services from an organization, or watched the gender labeling of a body by a Medical Examiner who never met the person when they were alive, never had a chance to ask them about their identity and hear them describe it for themselves. I think about the people who might be hidden or misrepresented in these numbers and labels. I imagine my body laid to rest under a headstone that reads “Unknown Woman,” at the end of a lifetime spent claiming the dignity and integrity of my male, genderqueer, and trans identities.
Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be an out trans person. While some progress has been made legally in recent years, rates of violence and discrimination against trans women, in particular, are staggering, leading significant numbers to seek asylum in the United States. Some of them cross through the desert. Some of them end up in immigration detention centers in the United States. One of our visitors, Carlos Strazzari, who was held in a detention center for a year, told us, “It’s horrible what can happen for transgender people in detention. They are systematically mistreated by the officers, moved around all the time, put in solitary confinement, not given good work opportunities. There is a lot of sexual abuse.”
My experience of this CPT delegation to the Borderlands has created a greater commitment in me to remember the dead, and explore how to be in solidarity with the living. I am very far from having a comprehensive understanding of what either of those things means. But I do feel confident that both require listening to people telling their own stories and naming their own experiences. Both remembrance and solidarity will fall flat if I am relating to my own preconceptions rather than each person’s unique truth.
When the Douglas, Arizona vigil first started, the organizers made a conscious decision. When a cross was made to remember a migrant whose body had not been identified, the cross would read “No identificado,” not identified, rather than “Desconocido,” unknown. The migrants names, the vigilers wanted to remember, are always known to God—just not to us. I hope we can learn to hold in our hearts, with the same tenderness, that the genders of those who lose their lives in the desert are known to God—and not to us—and that to know the genders of the living, we need to listen.
Because of the financial crisis in 2008, Christian Peacemaker Teams had to close its Borderlands work. Your support will help us maintain connections with other NGOs providing support for migrants and provide scholarships for low-income people wanting to participate in Borderlands delegations.