As is being reported everywhere it seems, Holly Woodlawn died yesterday. She had been waging a long battle against cancer, and finally succumbed aged 69. She wasn’t the only trans person featured in “Walk on the Wild Side”, but she was the one whom Lou Reed specifically identified as trans, which got me to sit up and take notice about what he was signing about.
I have to say that Holly, Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis (who appears to have been non-binary, though we didn’t use that term back then) were not the best of role models. But they were pretty much all we had back then, and they got the media talking about trans people. That was so much better than being swept under the carpet.
Candy and Holly both died young, but Holly was a fighter. Even cancer had a lot of trouble beating her. 69 is a damn good innings, especially given what she’s been through. Heck, I didn’t expect to make it to 50 when I started to transition. And of course Holly had a long career as an actress entirely separate from her involvement with Andy Warhol. For all sorts of reasons, she is an inspiration to Girls Like Us.
I never met Holly. Neil Gaiman did, and let her know he’d named his eldest daughter after her. Roz Kaveney did too, and she reports today that Holly turned up late at the Stonewall riot but made a point of throwing a brick.
Of course her death means that the media are running obituaries. Trans people are flavor of the month right now. It is instructive to see how they treat her. I got into a long conversation about this with my friend Andrew McKie who, among other things, is an obituary writer for the Telegraph. The point about an obituary is that it is a factual report of the life of the deceased. It is undoubtedly relevant to Holly’s life that she was trans, and I would not expect an obituary to omit that. Deadnaming is another matter entirely.
Lots of people change their names during the lives. Actors, pop stars, authors and so on often go by assumed names. Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer has done so. He didn’t like the name his parents gave him, so he changed it; at age 13: respect. On the other hand, many of these people only use their assumed names in public, and most of them (Mr. Osborne presumably excepted) are not embarrassed by their previous names.
With trans people it is different. The names we are given at birth tie us to the identity forced upon us at birth, and many of us are very keen to get away from them. Journalists know this, and make a deliberate point of including our birth names wherever possible, implying that these are our “real” names, and by extension that they indicate our “real” gender. It is code for saying, “this person is a fraud and a liar”.
(I note in passing that it is common for a certain type of left wing activist to refer to Mr. Osborne as “Gideon”, the name he was given at birth. Exactly the same dynamic is at work here. They are deliberately using a name that their target has indicated a distaste for in order to cause hurt. I’m sure they feel that Mr. Osborne deserves it, but the purpose is clear.)
When you are writing an obituary, you always have to make choices about what to include and what to leave out. Sometimes these are uncomfortable choices. It may be necessary to talk about things that the deceased and their family would much rather forget, because those things define the life — or at least the public life — of the person you are writing about. But at the same time you are writing about someone who has just died, and a certain level of respect is in order. Trivial detail, no matter how titillating, is still trivial.
The salient parts of Holly’s life at that she was an actress, a friend of Andy Warhol, was mentioned in a very famous song, and was a trans pioneer. The name she was given at birth is rather less important. To foreground it at the very start of the obituary (as The Guardian has done), or to include it in a very short mention on radio news (as I understand the BBC has done), is to say that you believe one of the most important things people need to know about Holly is who you think she “really” was. It is, in other words, a deliberate denial of her gender, and an insult.
You can find a fine obituary of Holly at Transgriot.