What first comes to mind when you think about your child?
When I think about my youngest son, Skylar, I think of the dancer excited to learn. I recall a caring boy picking wildflowers and delivering handwritten cards for loved ones needing his support. And most of all, I see his loving and giving smile.
But I also remember the saddest and most painful day of my life. On Sept. 28, 2015, Skylar took his own life after struggling with depression. He was only 16 years old.
When my oldest son, Avi, came out to me as transgender in June 2014, I didn’t know how to react. Raised with a conservative Christian upbringing in Seoul, Korea, I hadn’t even heard of the word "transgender." In Korean culture, topics regarding sexual orientation and gender identity are often taboo and unspoken. As if he had anticipated my disapproval, Avi soon moved away across the country.
Two months later, Skylar also came out to me as transgender and queer. Once again, I was in shock. Rather than seeking help or speaking with friends or family, I kept my personal struggle with accepting my transgender sons to myself.
Still, ever the activist, Skylar tried to explain to me what it meant to be transgender, something I struggled to grasp. I made some progress, but it was too slow. And in the end, I lost the chance to love and support him.
Every parent wants the same things for their children: opportunity, safety, dignity, equality. But for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth, these basic rights are often under attack. And the results can be devastating.
Even in relatively accepting communities, too many LGBTQ children are rejected or physically and emotionally harmed for being who they are. Too many face bullying at school. And over a quarter say that lack of family acceptance at home is the biggest problem facing their lives. Parents are urged or misled to subject their children to dangerous conversion therapy, often leading to lasting trauma. With all of these cards stacked up against them, LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight counterparts and an alarming four out of 10 of transgender adults report having made a suicide attempt, most having done so before the age of 25.
It can be disorienting and difficult as a parent when your child comes out. During my own struggle to accept my sons, I distanced myself from them. But in doing so, I failed to understand Skylar’s immeasurable pain, as well as the challenges he faced as a young transgender boy. As a mother, I had an endless amount of love for my son -- but I didn’t speak up or stand up for him when he needed me most.
On his funeral day, I stood over Skylar’s casket where he lay peacefully. Looking down at my son one last time, I told him, “OK, Skylar, you rest. Mom is going to work and fight for you, just like you wanted me to during your life.” I had never been an activist for anything before, but on that day I promised him I would dedicate the rest of my life to protecting and saving LGBTQ youth.
Since then, I’ve joined the Parents for Transgender Equality Council at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, to advocate for the rights of transgender youth ilke Skyler and Avi. When I meet other parents, my message is simple: Love your children. Talk to them and show your support for them.
When I was still struggling to embrace my sons, I wish I had known about the potentially lifesaving resources available for the families of LGBTQ children. Resources like "Just As They Are," a new guide on the harms of conversion therapy published by the Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, can provide information to parents who want to learn how to better support their children. And just like our kids need to hear it, parents of LGBTQ youth should know, too: You are not alone.
This month, as we commemorate Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I ask you to join me and parents around the world as we fight for the right for all children to grow up feeling loved and accepted in their homes, in their schools, and in their communities. And in memory of the second anniversary of his passing later this month, I urge you to hear Skylar’s own call to action, published just 18 days before his passing:
“It is not justice if we leave behind members of our communities. It is not justice if we ignore the interconnected oppression of those we share community with.”
Joanne Lee, of Madison, is the mother of Skylar.
If you are a trans or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide, Trans Lifeline can be reached at 877-565-8860. LGBT youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 can also be reached 24 hours a day by people of all ages and identities.
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