(content: suicide, transphobia, Protect Trans Kids)
Today I would like to remember Blake Brockington, a young trans man and Prom King who committed suicide 3 years ago today.
I first came across Blake’s story in a short doco called BrocKINGton, which you can watch the trailer for here:
It was one of many shorts I watched while interning for Queer Screen and it stuck out at the time as a rare instance of a trans story about triumph. Blake had endured discrimination and transphobia, had struggled, but I saw him there, triumphant and happy and a King – someone who took control of his own story and got to be happy.
Even now this kind of trans narrative is rare – three years ago it was almost unheard of.
Three years ago in 2015 – as a young, media-literate trans person venturing for the first time into queer storytelling – I was drenched in stories of death and despair, films and characters that fizzled out at youth, or skipped over youth entirely. You could either be a trans teenager, and then you would die, or you could be a trans adult in your 40s or 50s who seemed to have survived youth only by suppressing their identity and then springing fully formed into the middle-aged figure I saw on my screen. As a trans artist, but also as a trans 20 year old with few trans role models in my life, there was a huge gap between “trans child” and “trans adult” that no story seemed to fill.
And then I found success stories like that of Blake Brockington, and I realised it wasn’t that there was no way to succeed or be happy as a young trans person – it was that no one was interested in a trans person who was happy.
And then Blake Brockington committed suicide. I was a couple months out from the first staging of my first play – then a one-man show about a trans man – and I felt suddenly, hopelessly lost. What right did I have to tell that story – in some ways – my story, when I was here and he was not? What right did I have to talk about struggle when I’ve always had the safety of a community of friends, family, allies, to remind me I wasn’t so alone that my only reprieve was death? What right did I have to be a success, when he had become a tragedy?
And of course, these are the thoughts you think when you’re riddled with survivor’s guilt and suppressing your own mental health issues. But I felt, perversely, betrayed, that a success story I had so value had been snatched away – that a happy life had turned out to be a “tragedy” after all.
Three years later, I can understand that trans characters, trans stories, trans lives, are hardly ever so simple as success or tragedy, win or lose, live or die. BrocKINGton depicts a trans story that ends in the overcoming of diversity and the achievement of some happiness, or closure, or recognition. And no, Blake’s life itself didn’t end that way – as many trans lives don’t end that way. But that does not detract from the beauty of that success story, and the magnitude of that moment of affirmation and joy. Now I can look at this and mourn his death, but celebrate the fact that he got to tell his story on his own terms before he died.
There’s a funny thing that happens when you’re a young trans person, and the news is full of dead trans people – in some way, every one of them, every murder or suicide or abuse is you, or it’s someone you know. Try as you might, you can’t not make it about you a little bit. It gets a little bit harder to get out of bed, a little bit more terrifying to walk home at night. We all feel these deaths with such intensity, such fear, such grief – and it’s hard not to turn those emotions inward. It’s hard to see your community dying and still, day after day, decide to openly fight for your community to live. But we do, as do countless other minority communities.
1 in 2 transgender people have attempted suicide. The closest estimate we have to a trans life expectancy is 30 years old (from a poorly constructed study some years ago). Leelah Alcorn, Zander Mahaffey, Ash Haffner, Eylül Cansın, Taylor Alesana, Cameron Langrell, Kyler Prescott – Eric Verbeeck not even two weeks ago. At least 28 transgender people murdered in just the US in 2017.
We have so much work to do. Our governments, our communities, our media have so even more work to do. Just this week we’ve seen the JK Rowling nonsense play out all over Twitter and Facebook, while the broad majority ignore the much bigger issue of trans exclusionary politics in the UK Labour Party, as well as Trump doubling down on the deeply unconstitutional and socially damaging choice to try to ban trans people from serving in the military.
There’s so much work to do – but as trans people we also need to take care of ourselves, and each other. We need to celebrate our successes, the successes of others, as well as looking to our tragedies as a guide to make things better. We’re allowed to take the good with the bad. We don’t always have to struggle.
The show I’m working on right now, Still Point Turning: the Catherine McGregor Story at STC, is precisely this celebration of the peaks and troughs of a trans life. I sit in the rehearsal room and we delve into tragedy and struggle and ascend to those lofty heights of success and affirmation, humour and hope – much of which mirrors experiences in my own life – and it helps. It reminds me that I, like every trans person, have struggled, but that I also have reason to be joyful.
I’m thinking about the smiling face of Blake Brockington describing his senior prom, and whilst that memory hurts deeply, whilst his death still smarts – makes me furious, fills me with fear, makes me want to snarl in the face of every cis person I see – I’m smiling too.