On November 21 2007 a person from the Philippines, Sally, or Salvator Kamatoy, was found dead behind a shopping mall in the United Arab Emirates. She was working as a hair dresser. No cause of death was found, but the Filipino Embassy apparently told her family that her head had been beaten in.
Sally was one of the Paper Dolls, someone in a documentary I’ve been writing about in my thesis. The Paper Dolls were a drag troupe of Filipino/a trans/gay/drag queens who lived in Israel from 2000-2005, mostly as aged care workers allowed in under really precarious guest worker conditions. The film Bubot Niyar is their story, although it’s also the story of this gay Israeli film-maker who is naive and repulsed by drag at the beginning of filming and becomes galvanised into political action of a kind by the end, trying to intervene when one of his subjects was deported. Sally is the only person featured in Bubot Niyar whose employer, Chaim, is fine with her dressing as a woman. He comes to regard her as his daughter, and she calls him Papa. She is a presence: well, they are all presences, these people who are not actors, in a film that depends for its drama on the fact that its subjects are consummate queens who joke, whoop, giggle, bitch and flirt in the limelight of the camera just as defiantly as in the real limelight on stage, no matter whether the film-maker is a bit of a jerk, or whether club promoters totally exploit them, or whether they are about to be deported.
Sally isn’t the only Paper Doll who is dead. Rika, too, died in Israel, during production. She is not named in the film, not featured as one of the "five drag queens" written about in the director’s statement. You don’t even know she died until the end credits, and next to her name are the letters "RIP". But she is in the film. She talks. At one point she attacks the director about his dumbass views on transness with a wary, annoyed yet sardonic intelligence.
This just makes me really sad. And angry. I have little time for the Transgender Day of Remembrance, it’s not my way of doing politics. To me, it feels like the appropriation of deaths whose causes are inextricably tied to a bunch of things that aren’t about gender identity: most of the people included in TDOR vigils are people of colour, most of them are poor, and most of them are sex-workers. Often the people most loudly commemorating TDOR are people who are trans, yet whose skin colour and class and privilege makes them pretty immune to violence, or at least protected in some way a lot of people just aren’t. And it’s geographically so specific: to the USA, mostly. So many deaths aren’t counted.
In the stupid fucking irony at which this world excels, Sally was killed just after the transgender day of remembrance. And she is not remembered. But because I’ve been watching the film a lot over the last two years, and it makes me cry even without knowing that at least two of its trans subjects are dead (probably murdered), I want to remember her now. And for others to remember her as well.
It’s yet another irony that the only way Sally can be remembered is through the film she was in, which makes it impossible not to view her through a lens in which her migration to Israel from the Philippines was figured as liberatory, freeing, as her and other’s search for a place where she could be herself. (In fact, in the film they all say how they expected Israel to be primitive and ultra-religious, and were surprised it had a Pride March.) But do watch the trailer. Her face is freeze-framed before you click play.