With Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” playing on his phone, my 18-year-old nephew took off his Star of David necklace and jumped out of the window of his fifth-floor dorm room. His father—my younger brother—says that my nephew—his first-born son—took most of the fall on his left foot, dislocating his left femur when his pelvis shattered. Much of his spine, including his cervical vertebra fractured, and many organs were trashed. He lay there on the University of Montana grounds in the wee hours of Saturday, February 20, bleeding out from a tear in his aorta. I sure don’t know, but I wonder if the subfreezing temperature slowed the bleeding and kept him alive until an off-duty volunteer firefighter discovered him with the most meager pulse. With his parents racing from Bozeman, he died on the operating table. He didn’t leave a note.
In January 2015, my nephew came out as a transgender* person. After years of trying to help their son grapple with increasingly troubling behavior that appeared to have no cause, my brother and sister-in-law must’ve felt some sense of relief that they finally had something to address. For me, the revelation was heartbreaking. My first thought: for 18 years, my nephew suffered in some utterly isolated existential hell few of us can imagine, and for a portion of that time, my brother and sister-in-law suffered too, desperately looking in all of the wrong places for a way to ease their child’s unhappiness. Finally, it appeared that they had a way forward. But that way forward proved to be torturous. Not only is transgender identity a bewildering phenomenon to wrap your head around, it soon became clear that their son took no solace in the tag.
My nephew was extremely bright and gifted, as accomplished a snowboarder as he was a saxophonist, a tae kwon do black belt, an avid gamer and Star Wars aficionado. He** was also extremely determined. And he was a teenager. I don’t know how much therapeutic work it took for him to arrive at a place where he could begin to speak openly about his existence, but this destination failed to provide much comfort. He was conflicted by the transgender label for the simple reasons that he didn’t choose to be transgender and he was absolutely certain that he was a woman. He loathed his physical appearance and physiological circumstances and would’ve given anything not to be transgender, and nothing less than being the beautiful, vibrant woman he knew himself to be would suffice. Despite understanding the transition process and having the full and unwavering support of his immediate and extended family, newfound friends on campus, and an array of professionals, his struggle with this cosmic cruelty became too much to bear. In September 2015, about a week after starting his freshman year at U of M, he ingested basically every pill in his room, but had second thoughts and dialed 911, saving himself.
From that moment on, my brother and sister-in-law were immersed in a boundless purgatory of gnawing worry. I’m no stranger to anxiety; for me, it’s a smoldering grease fire in the pit of my gut. It’s an exhausting state to be in; for me it’s periodic. They resided there 24/7. From where I was standing, it seemed, as my brother’s family just tried to get from Point A to Point B every day, their life took on this precarious sense of… I don’t really know how to describe it… working without a net.
On the morning of February 20, they came crashing down and the whole world crashed down with them.
What does it mean? Unbullyable. For the Martins, who coined the term, it expressed their unwillingness to bend to the strong-arm tactics of a hundred-million-dollar corporation whose CEO publicly admits he runs his business like an outlaw motorcycle gang. Unbullyable resonated to such an extent that, in official communications, the corporation described the world’s reaction to the idea as a “movement.”
I spent a week in Bozeman trying to console one of the few great men in my life and feeling deeply inadequate and deeply immersed in a bisque of platitudes, clichés, and the occasional artful insight as everyone labored to make sense of a teenager’s choices narrowing down to a single fixed way forward.
My wife’s reaction to the news of our nephew’s suicide*** was a shocking lamentation that gutted me, really the emotional essence of the symbolism in the Jewish Kriah. Why, why why? She couldn’t understand it. Not then, not now. Why? Nobody will ever really know. I asked why too—I can be an incessant ponderer—and 9/11 came to mind and what it takes for someone to leap off a skyscraper, and that awful scenario seems a terribly apropos analogy.
But, really, why? I think those of us close to this tragedy are constructing our own sort of mythologies to help understand what drove this kid, whose identity and personhood were only just starting to manifest, to adopt a such a tunnel-visioned perspective. One that not only seemed to be impervious to any kind of comfort that his family’s unequivocal support and his steps taken toward transition might provide but also to any misgivings at the idea of the utter devastation and pain his decision would cause his family. I’ve thought a lot about it, and my mythology centers on the notion that he found some comfort in the decision he made and was therefore at peace just prior to and during the act, however irrational or ill-begotten that decision and act may appear to us from the outside. And that’s just it, none of us were on the inside, none of us could see what he could see (and couldn’t see) from his (disad)vantage point, and I’m thinking that his worldview was driven in part by the world’s view.
Yeah, suicide is a solitary act, one that many condemn as the worst kind of selfishness, and one that is as complex a phenomenon as any we wrestle with. But suicide doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. How people have hated on the Other throughout history is well-documented, and the treatment of the LGBTIQ community is just another sad example. I’ve said this before: hate breeds hate. I’ve long hated homophobes, bigots, and racists. Fucking hate. Can’t stand motherfuckers who simply don’t allow different folks to live their lives. I imagine them congregating in fearful cockroachy clusters, chittering medieval ignorance at each other, leaking a pernicious plume of thought and deed that creates a sort of Greenhouse Effect of intolerance and prejudice and banal evil that bears down on everyone else.
A lot of those scale-eyed cockroaches fear the transgender community. Their self-righteous outrage over all things Caitlyn Jenner comes to mind. I wonder just how many of them have even the tiniest inkling about the difficult circumstances of transgender youth, some of whom might look to Jenner as a role model and few if any of whom have Jenner’s resources for transitioning? Before these haters spewed their venom, which despite their target splashed on so many others, did they understand at all how many transgender teens suffer from depression and other mental illness? Did they know that 50+% of transgender teens attempt to “complete” suicide? Half try to kill themselves. Did they know that?
I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that a goodly proportion of these haters would describe themselves as staunchly pro-life. I wonder how they are simultaneously “pro-life” and against the existence of a whole segment of the youth population? I wonder too what percentage of these pro-life/anti-some-people haters are enamored of the creeping and creepy authoritarian cancer winning the Republican day.
My nephew turned to Judaism a few years ago. Lord knows I’m not a fan of organized religion, but I have a lot of respect for his self-discovery, maybe because he embraced it all on his own. He was particularly fascinated with the idea of interfaith relations. He wanted to know how different groups could come to grips with differences, find common ground, and coexist. Such an interest is particularly poignant in light of his personal struggle. This offers us the slimmest look at the direction his life might’ve gone, and it would’ve been far, far removed from the populist buffoonery currently polluting US political culture and strikes me as more truly life affirming than viewpoints that seem rooted in dictating how others must live.
What does Unbullyable mean? Unlike suicide, being Unbullyable is not a solitary state. To become Unbullyable means standing with others, all others, on the common ground of the right to live our lives as we are meant to. Unbullyable means recognizing differences and not giving a fuck about them because no one thing defines an entire person. Because there are haters, petty tyrants, and assorted pieces of frightened shit whose existence is defined only by denying the existence of others. We become Unbullyable when we discover, nurture, and sustain the strength of our convictions, the knowledge of what is right and decent, our essential humanity and human-ness, and use that strength to reject that assault on the basic right to (co)exist.
When we’re able to do this, the scales will fall away and our insular perspectives will open without limits, and then maybe everyone can “complete” their lives.
But we’re not the same.
We get to carry each other,
Carry each other.
Stay strong, lift others.
* There is some debate in the LGBTIQ community about the use of transgender vs transgendered. Both sides have a point, and I usually find such discussions interesting, but at the moment I don’t care—not being flippant, dismissive, cavalier or disrespectful; however, this is not meant to be a gender studies treatise. I’m not pretending to speak for the LGBTIQ, or more specifically, the trans, community. I am not an authority on transgender identity or identity politics in general; I barely understand who the fuck I am and I’m sorting through an experience that has devastated my family. So don’t start quibbling with me over discursive issues or social power or heteronormativity because you will awaken a giant and I will fuck you up.
** By the way, my nephew had indicated that he was not yet ready to change pronoun use.
*** In some circles the phrase “completed suicide” is preferred to “committed suicide.” Holy failed euphemisms. And redundant too—suicide seems pretty complete to me.
Gender Expansion Project