A Qualitative Examination of Discrimination After Death: The Distortion and Erasure of Transgender and Other Marginalized Post-Mortem Identities
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A Qualitative Examination of Discrimination After Death: The Distortion and Erasure of Transgender and Other Marginalized Post-Mortem Identities


Abstract This dissertation is comprised of three qualitative studies that examine the phenomenon of post-mortem discrimination (PMD). Using an innovative application of the communication theory of identity, this line of research is particularly focused on the process through which agents of the dominant culture become empowered to enact the identities of marginalized individuals after they die. The first two studies explore the persistent practice of families who de-transition their transgender or gender diverse (TGD) family members after they die. Communicative actions associated with this practice were examined through interviews with older (Study 1, aged 40 y. o. and above) and younger (Study 2, ages 18 to 30 y. o.) TGD adults. Findings showed that most TGD individuals had not engaged in end-of-life conversations (EOL) that could help them to preserve their identity after death, nor did they intend to engage in the near future. Other findings revealed a TGD community that is, for the most part, optimistic that their gender identity will be authentically expressed by their family after they die, but concerned regarding the post-mortem expressions of others. Far from a monolith, the communities’ wishes for the enactment of their own gender identity after death proved as varied as their enactment of that identity before death. The third study investigates the articulation of human value as expressed in memorial messages posted by loved ones to the Hart Island Project website. These postings could be seen as an attempt to re-humanize the impoverished, disenfranchised, and unclaimed individuals buried in New York City’s potter’s field. The study particularly highlights the post-mortem negotiation that occurs between CTI’s relational and communal layers of identity – without the participation of the subject. Examined and analyzed through the lens of the CTI, and informed by elements of queer theory, social identity theory, and the writings of Judith Butler on grievability and ungrievability, the data from these three studies reveals an ongoing, oppressive tradition of both interpersonal and systemic acts of post-mortem discrimination that work to reinforce the vulnerability of marginalized individuals and communities. This work suggests that, when the deceased is a member of a marginalized or vulnerable population and the empowered others are associated with the dominant culture, problematic enactments that distort, disrespect, and/or disappear the identity of the deceased can and do occur. Implications of each study and of the entire line of research are identified and discussed.

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