Unbullyable™ => Stay Strong, Lift Others – The Brand X Method

Unbullyable™ => Stay Strong, Lift Others


Unbullyable™ => Stay Strong, Lift Others

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.

One life,
But we’re not the same.
We get to carry each other,
Carry each other.
One, one.

– U2

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





12 Responses

  1. Tracy D

    Amazing, eye opening, real, right on article, Dan. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing. I truly want to reach out and hug the hell out of you!!

    1. Dan Edelman

      Hi, Tracy. Thanks so much for reading this and for the kind words. I really do appreciate that you took the time to read and comment.

  2. Melissa

    Another option is died by suicide. Not redundant and acknowledges that it is a tragedy not a criminal act. Hugs to you for working so hard to sort out so much. I am sorry for your loss.

    1. Dan Edelman

      The power of discourse generates some interesting things. People get so caught up that they’ll either torture the language or convince themselves that they’ve created a “safe” or “fair” or “respectful” alternative that really isn’t any different from the original except for the meaning it’s imbued with; but what happens when people start to twist the meaning or simply attach the old stigmas to the new phrase? When it comes to suicide, well, it’s still suicide with all of the darkness surrounding it.

      That said, your suggestion certainly offers about as neutral an option as possible.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

  3. Kris Kailey

    Wow! You have a way with words, Sir… Thanks for sharing… I agree wholeheartedly with so much of what you wrote. Empathy is not just a word, it’s a lesson society needs to be taught daily…. ” Walk in someone else’s shoes people,” ……I’m beyond words to express our heartfelt sadness for all of you. I knew Sam in junior high and school, and had the pleasure of having His sister as a student in 6 th grade. You’re all in my thoughts and prayers.

  4. Kim

    Dear Dan, Thank you for this honest and clear writing. I saw your nephews obituary and told my husband that I could not believe this beautiful child was gone, it left me wanting to know how, why? Both of us being depth psychologists we live at that the paper never tells the truth of the matter. Only that the “passed away”. We need to hear these deeper truths you speak, shout them to the world like you have instead of hiding behind decorum!!! Thank you, thank you for your words. Your family is in our hearts in Bozeman,

    1. Dan Edelman

      Thank you for reading this, for commenting, and for your support This may sound pretentious and a bit dramatic, but I think real writing has to be honest, otherwise it’s fraud–I wouldn’t know how else to share this tragedy. Not enough people understand the struggle of kids faced with the kind of situation that my nephew was dealing with. His was not a choice and he would’ve given anything to have different circumstances. Again, thank you for your understanding.

  5. Grace Johnson

    Thank you Dan.

    I will admit this piece was heart breaking. I didn’t know the medical particulars of how Sam died. Only that he did. I’m not certain if knowing makes it worse or not. But, I will admit, I’m glad to know the whole of it and not have it abridged to make it more palpable.

    Sam joined UM Hillel seven months ago and we welcomed him with open arms and hearts. One evening he completely spilled to me about his depression, his gender identity issues and his questions in faith. He shocked himself with how much he’d talked about himself in forty-five minutes. I just remember telling him “Sam, it’s perfectly okay. You obviously needed to tell someone. That’s why I’m here and I’m honored you felt you could trust me with this.” I am under the impression he didn’t share with many people, at least in Missoula, what all he was struggling with. He was very private and we respected that.

    We’ve been asking ourselves “why” as well. What could we have done to help? What signs did we miss? He seemed happier than ever when we saw him a week and a half before. Would it have helped if more of us had known more about him? We’re heart broken here at Hillel. You don’t always realize just how fond you are of someone you just met until that someone is gone. We don’t have any better answers than what you have come up with. Only that we loved him very much and we were here to support him. We’eve learned a lesson and we’ve been working on better supporting each other.

    We miss him very much.

    And personally, I want to thank you for expressing far more eloquently than I have that politics have no business being involved over transgender issues and defining unbullyable as “recognizing differences and not giving a fuck about them….” That is PERFECT. It’s something I wish more people understood.

    Thank you. Hugs to you and all of Sam’s family. Not that my virtual hugs will help you any of you heal much but do know you are not alone in your sorrow. Should you, or any of his family need anything, please feel free to contact me.

    1. Dan Edelman

      Thanks, Grace, for reading the post and for the thoughtful comment. From what little I know about Sam’s short college experience, UM Hillel was a true bright spot. We all appreciate the wonderful support that you provided Sam and that he was able to open up to you speaks to your kindness and generosity of spirit. I think Sam’s parents will always remember you and UM Hillel as a positive in Sam’s life. Thanks again.


  6. Myka Perry

    She had a lot of shame regarding being trans because it’s viewed as a phenomenon and not as a valuable peice to our humanity. She suffered an enormous amount of stress due to her psychical appearance because unfortunately trans women are scrutinized to extremely high level. Even today she is being called a he, a son, a nephew. She was a daughter, a neice and a sister! Her soul was already inside the body that she was given and she knew this. I’m trying to be sensitive around the subject but there is no easy way to say it; our failed effort in helping her become comfortable with herself and her body were due impart to gender policing. she didn’t feel like she could claim her womanhood fully and felt as though she needed to resort to such high expectations placed by society on what it means to be a woman to simply be viewed as such. She didn’t want to be ostracized which was her message in her letter about the city on the hill.

    Sam was always a women and as much as that’s hard to hear; that’s the truth regarding transgender lives. We simply want to become comfortable with ourselves because we live with ourselves and deal with the inner working of our conscious and subconscious. She had a great amount of trouble dealing with personal acceptance and it wasn’t that she didn’t get help from the rights places. She sought psychological counseling, support groups and outside friends. The problem with the stigmatization of somebodies dreams and aspirations to become the person they felt like they were is that they hinder in potential and simple ability to love yourself. She needed more than acceptance she needed a community of allies. she needed to be loved as the woman she knew she was. It’s incredibly hard life we live but it doesn’t have to be this way. Rest in Peace Sam.

    Love Myka

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