With Fern Feather the State and Media See a Prop, Not a Person

As a newly out trans woman, out to friends and family, hearing and reading Vermont politicians in recent weeks has reinforced my fear for my safety and made clear how little I can trust state actors to protect my life. I feel such sadness for Fern Feather, who was only able to live a month as her true and best self. While I didn’t know Fern, I’m filled with grief for her family and friends, who only got a brief window into the amazing woman she was.

I say this with a bit of selfishness. We were similar ages, and we came out as trans women within months of each other. We both spent decades with trauma, repression, guilt. 

It’s scary to be treated as a man for over a decade and realize that you aren’t and never were a man. It’s heartbreaking to see someone finally begin to find their true selves and meet the abrupt end that every trans woman fears will be around the corner for her.

It took me a long time to accept that I am a woman. I grew up during a time when, even in New England, few high schools had Gay Straight Alliances. Trans kids and youth were practically unheard of; trans adults were punchlines on Ace Ventura and Crocodile Dundee. Even when I saw people younger than me come out, I was in denial: I was too old, I thought. I had missed my chance. 

I wish I could say I was surprised that even in death, Fern was disrespected: Vermont State Police and media outlets like WCAX deadnamed her in a rush to break the news (WCAX eventually published a correction after a public outcry). When the media isn’t sensationalizing our deaths for pageviews (so they can sell more advertising to our landlords and bosses), they’re platforming local bigots like Peggy Luhrs and running pieces that explore “both sides.” No articles about how we are in debt to cover our medical expenses, no articles about living paycheck to paycheck, no articles about scrambling to pay rent every month. 

To local media our lives are worth nothing — but our deaths are worth advertising dollars. 

Supposedly progressive politician Kesha Ram Hinsdale posted about Fern’s death online shortly after the news broke, but she didn’t use Fern’s correct pronouns. Rather than delete a tweet and apologize for the mistake, Ram Hinsdale claimed she was “honoring” Fern by finally using her correct pronouns in a later tweet

While our lives hold little value to a capitalist, cis, heteronormative society, our deaths only hold value if they can be hoisted up like a flag so that wealthy politicians, under the guise of liberalism and diversity, can grab more power for themselves. 

Ram Hinsdale, in that same tweet, mentioned that she helped pass a law making it illegal to use “trans panic” as a reason to assault someone. Only after we have been hurt, beaten, assaulted, or killed, are we thought of. We are thought of so that politicians can pat themselves on the backs, so that our crowded prisons and violent police can swallow another person into the misery and horror of state violence. 

Trans Day of Visibility happened weeks ago, a day on which I wish I had felt ready to come out to the wider community, but because of increased violent rhetoric from conservatives and hand-sitting from liberal and progressive politicians, I did not want to come out. 

It is true that Vermont politicians finally see us. They are working to make it easier for us to legally change our names and for trans teens to access hormone blockers. These are both good starts, but the message from local progressive politicians has been that we should be grateful and keep our mouths shut. Their support is conditional, and it would be best if we didn’t point out that many of us can barely pay rent or access basic healthcare, let alone the numerous aspects of transitioning—like hair removal or facial feminization surgery—that cost tens of thousands of dollars and are not covered by health insurance or Medicaid. 

We are visible to politicians until we need to pay our bills, to thrive, to make a GoFundMe.

Our allies won’t keep us from dying, nor will they protect us when we are alive. In the same week we lost Fern Feather, two of the longest-serving, highest-ranking Progressive Party state representatives were asked by trans and queer people to stand up to the hate, bigotry, and violent rhetoric of Burlington GOP Chair Christopher-Aaron Felker. 

After Felker called the first trans politician in the state, State Rep. Taylor Small, a sexual predator, and implicated politicians supporting pro-trans legislation, many of us looked on aghast as former Vermont Progressive Party chair and State Rep. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak offered to talk to Felker on the phone. Fellow Progressive Party State Rep. Selene Colburn also chimed in to advance the myth of the “good Republican” — as if conservatism weren’t an ideology based on patriarchy and oppressive gender and sexual norms.

When allies criticized their shameful behaviors, both Mulvaney-Stanak and Colburn fled from Twitter. Colburn took to another platform to say she had never had a “worse day on the internet.” Mulvaney-Stanak likewise posted a photo on her personal Facebook page, writing that it had been a rough day and asking us to ignore the “haters.” The haters, of course, were the trans people telling her to do more, to do better, to not platform a bigot who is trying to incite violence against us. The people being attacked were no longer visible — we had to make space for a politician’s feelings. Even when we have victories, they are mired in loss.

Politicians will not join our fight for collective liberation, no matter what they tell us. Republicans will either turn us into the monsters that lurk within their own souls or confine us to exist quietly and namelessly. “Good Republicans” like Phil Scott, who couldn’t be bothered to mention Fern by name, will at best only tolerate us as long as we stay in the shadows and let his landlord and business-owning friends take every last penny we earn under the threat of hunger and homelessness. Democrats will put us on a pedestal, sing our praises, but will scamper into their holes when our lives are threatened. 

While I do not believe in a heaven or hell, I hope Fern’s friends and family can heal. It’s scary out there for all of us, and the only people we can trust, if we are lucky, are some of our friends and family. 

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