Unanswered Questions Following Death of Toronto Trans Woman of Colour
Sumaya Dalmar was the first Somali trans woman I ever met. She was a liberatory personality—no small thing in our community.
Just a few short months ago, I was exchanging messages with a friend of mine on social media. She was an aspiring model based in Toronto, a naturally gorgeous gazelle of a human being who had big dreams. When her travels brought her to New York last fall on a photoshoot, we were making plans to meet up in Brooklyn where I was completing an internship. When I thought of Sumaya, I thought young money, a glamorous jetsetter with ambitions.
This past weekend, I was on social media again when, as it has so often lately, my screen flashed death. I was looking at a picture of two friends of mine, posted along with a cryptic message memorializing one of them. Clicking through, it never even occurred to me that this would be how I would learn my friend was gone.
Sumaya Dalmar, who went by Sumaya Ysl but was just Sumaya to many of us, was a light and a breath of fresh air. An out and proud Somali trans woman, she was the sort of person who was so authentically herself she gave others around her permission to do the same. But now Sumaya is one of an alarmingly high number of trans women of color whose lives have come to a premature end so far in 2015.
To speak of her beauty in the past tense is painful because like Lamia, Leelah, Ty, Penny, Bri, Yazmin, and so many other transwomen of color who have died just this calendar year, she left us too soon. When she passed early Sunday morning at just 26 years of age, she left her community reeling with loss. Police are investigating her death but it has not been ruled a homicide, despite posts on social media claiming otherwise.
Sumaya was the first Somali trans woman I ever met. She was a liberatory personality—no small thing in our community. Her portrait, taken by my friend artist Abdi Osman as part of a documentary project entitled Labeeb, hangs in a loft he shares with his partner. I remember spending time with Sumaya at the loft; the larger-than-life picture was once a source of laughter when she stood in proximity to it. Sumaya was the subject of Abdi's work because her visibility in the Somali and LGBT communities was so pivotal. Somali queers are a tribe, and it seems like everyone in that community knew her.
Sumaya's death throws into sharp relief that, in moments when we collapse the personal with the political, as Teju Cole has said, certain bodies become unmournable. While we are busy making a literal and figurative cult of death around trans bodies, we forget to pay attention to the ways we shortchange living, breathing trans women in our communities. The pain felt by trans women of color always becomes legible when it's too late, and even then, their humanity is not respected.
As my friend Asam Ahmad explains: "Death is only tragic if we insist on pretending that violence and suicide isn't the norm when it comes to the lives of trans women, especially trans women of color. If anything can be called tragic, it is a society that has normalized such disproportionate levels of violence against trans women that self-harm is the only answer many can find. This normalized violence impacts every single aspect of trans women's lives—from using public bathrooms to accessing healthcare to interacting with law enforcement."
Not long before her death, Sumaya posted a message to Facebook that now makes me queasy to think about. She was in disbelief at the violence that her immediate community was subject to, and emotionally fatigued that so many of her sisters were disappearing before her eyes. It's not just that we ask trans women of color to live impossible lives—it's that we ask them to do that while watching themselves die over and over again.
As Morgan Collado writes for Autostraddle, "The names of trans women of color will be in the mouths of the queer community after they've been murdered, but support for us while we are still alive is sporadic at best." The ugly truth is, people love to speculate over and fetishize violence—violent acts committed against trans women's bodies even more so. Social media has been cruel in the wake of her passing, but Sumaya's life is being celebrated and honored by those who loved her.
Sumaya's family and friends are demanding that police take the investigation into her death more seriously. An LGBT liaison is not much of a comfort to anyone when the TPS communications department posts updates on the investigation into your friend's suspicious death sandwiched between routine traffic posts and a photo of a lost dog. On the contrary, the rage this inspires is subsumed into an even sharper grief. If trans women of colour aren't outright ignored by institutions that should serve them, they're insulted, misgendered, or blamed for their own deaths.
Sumaya's life mattered to so many of us. Trans lives matter to so many of us. In a Facebook post before she died, my friend asked many questions of the world that I now find myself asking. When we speak of Black lives mattering, do we mean Black trans women? I am asking because things need to change. It feels pointless to say at this moment, but it's time to ask whose life really matters. Whose economic justice matters? Whose self determination matters? Which lives do we care about and when do we care about them? Why can't we put our emotional, material, and psychic efforts into changing what is so painful for so many people?
All we can do now is ask the questions that we should have been asking all along.