'Mom, I'm Dying': How Family Rejection Charts Trans Youth Toward Death
Violence against transgender people is at an all time high. For many, every day is a struggle to survive. Without parental support, that fight starts earlier and becomes much more dangerous.
Illustration by Jennifer Kahn
In honor of the transgender men and women who lost their lives to extreme violence and suicide in 2016, we're taking an in-depth look at the social factors that contributed to their deaths. Read more of our coverage here.
In October of 2015, a transgender woman from Richmond Virginia named Noony Norwood shared a photo of murder victim Zella Ziona to Facebook. Ziona had been shot to death in Maryland that month and Norwood, also a black trans woman, was disturbed by her death. "Wow," she wrote, "we really need to stick together." One year later, on November 5, 2016, Norwood was also shot and killed, becoming the 23rd transgender person lost to violence in the United States this year.
Norwood's mother reportedly told the Richmond police to refer to her child as male. But despite the language used, Norwood's activity on social media suggests that she was loved and accepted by her family. There are several status updates celebrating them, posted over many years, alongside photos of Norwood smiling, pressed cheek to cheek with her cousin. In 2013, Norwood wrote, "I don't have no one but my mother." Images that she uploaded from that time indicate that she was in an earlier stage of transition. "Oh how I love being Noony," she mused.
Data shows that family acceptance is critical for transgender people. As a population, transgender Americans are known to experience disproportionate levels of mental health problems like anxiety and depression because of discrimination. But when trans youth are accepted, these disproportionate rates drop to levels similar to the general population. Accepting parents, specifically mothers, are found to play a core role in building family support for trans youth. When that acceptance is missing from a young trans person's life—or if it is replaced by rejection—there can be devastating consequences, from serious health issues like substance abuse to suicide.
Last year, Catherine Hyde, the mother of a transgender girl, addressed Congress. She told them, "It's very important that we as a society help families support their children," explaining that she'd seen the way that rejection can ruin a young trans person's life. Hyde drew a parallel between ignorance among authority figures in the government and ignorance among authority figures in our schools, our local communities, and our homes, insisting that "ignorance is not benign." It's "dangerous," even "deadly," she attested.
In an interview with Broadly, Hyde explained that her child first said that she wanted to be a girl when she was three years old. Hyde and her husband dismissed these wishes, and continued to reject the idea that their kid could be transgender for 12 more years. Under the guidance of a psychologist, they chastised their trans daughter's feminine behavior and encouraged her to act like a boy, resulting in severe consequences for her medical wellbeing. "My child took on self-medicating behavior, started cutting, had a couple of attempted suicides that we were unaware of," Hyde said. "She was on a very dark path."
She was on a very dark path.
The problems only worsened as time passed, and there was little reason for Hyde and her husband to believe that their child, then 15, was going to start going in another, happier direction. Then one day Hyde listened to a radio interview with a six-year-old trans girl who said the same things that Hyde's child had once told her. She suddenly realized that she had been wrong all those years and began educating herself. After she told her daughter what she'd learned from her research, the family began a journey together toward a brighter future. "We had a lot of rough moments along the way, but my kid went from this angry, distrustful child to the beautiful, lovely, openhearted, magnificent person that she is today," Hyde said, adding that her daughter is now 23 and very happy. The effect of acceptance was transformational, as if the girl had been revitalized from a forgone state. "I am absolutely convinced my child would not be the happy, successful young adult that she is today had she not had the eventual support and love of her family."
For some reason, many parents find it difficult to accept their transgender children. Rejection comes in varied degrees. Friends of Keisha Jenkins, a young black trans woman murdered in 2015, claimed that Jenkins' parents were at best tolerant of their child's transgender identity; instead of accepting Keisha for who she really was, according to those who knew her, her parents simply looked the other way. Other parents are more explicit—and cruel—in their rejection, such as the mother presently suing her transgender child for accessing medical care.
Hyde believes that this phenomenon is, in part, caused by ignorance about transgender identity, and by fear about the consequences of being transgender in this world. "We were so afraid: Who is going to love my baby?" Hyde said, explaining the questions she and her husband asked themselves. "Will anyone hire my child? All that stuff is going through your mind."
Susan Maasch is a director of the Trans Youth Equality Foundation, an advocacy organization that serves transgender youth between the ages of two and 18. Their mission is broad: TYEF runs camps for gender diverse kids, but they also help the youth who call them come out to their parents or obtain proper medical care. In an interview with Broadly, Maasch explained that parents tend to fit into a few different categories. Some are open-minded and educable; they want to learn what they can to help their child. Others may be initially hostile and unaccepting but ultimately understanding. Many take a lot of time to process feelings. However, according to Maasch, there are some parents whose rejection is resolute. They simply won't, and may never, choose to accept their child for who they are, regardless of the consequences.
The single strongest factor that helps our children avoid these horrible risks that we're talking about is family acceptance.
One of the reasons that family acceptance is so crucial is that the family unit is a fundamental social institution, according to Emilia Lombardi, a medical sociologist and professor at Baldwin University who studies transgender populations and health. (She also happens to be trans.) "The transition process involves changing some core identities within the family," Lombardi said. "In regards to a person coming and saying, 'I'm not your son, I'm your daughter,' that is something that a lot of parents don't have the resources to fully understand. So many parents, most of them, will respond with disbelief at some levels, [or] with anxiety, sadness and anger." This reaction can have negative consequences, in part, because young people depend on their families "for pretty much all forms of support." Children don't have the experience or resources to take care of themselves.
When families don't accept trans youth—sometimes even throwing them out of their homes—those young people quickly run out of options. "Some kids will of course become homeless, schoolwork suffers, and they turn to drugs and sex work," Maasch said. According to data collected by the Williams Institute, family rejection is the most significant factor responsible for homelessness among LGBT youth, who make up approximately 40 percent of the overall homeless youth population in the United States. Once they're on the street, these kids are very likely to start trading sex for shelter, according to data collected by the Urban Institute, a Washington DC think tank. Many of the transfeminine people who are honored on the Transgender Day of Remembrance every year are slain by men while they're working in the sex trade.
Hyde believes that parents would be more willing to accept and support their trans kids if they knew the harrowing consequences of family rejection. "If they understood that the single strongest factor that helps our children avoid these horrible risks that we're talking about is family acceptance and family support, I think the parents would find it in themselves to learn," Hyde said.
Family acceptance is an invaluable resource for transgender people, but, as Norwood's story illustrates, it is not always enough to stave off the other social forces working against them. Many of the transgender women who were killed in 2016 seemed to have supportive immediate families. One woman's grandfather told the press that he "got along great" with his granddaughter when they lived together, and that he regretted not spending more time together.
Other women are accepted by some of the people in their family, but not all of them. Rae'Lynn Thomas of Columbus, Ohio, was close with her mom. News reports from after she was murdered indicate that most of her family had accepted that she was transgender many years ago. But James Allen Byrd, her mother's ex-boyfriend, was not a source of support. Family members told reporters that Byrd had regularly referred to Thomas as "the devil." According to the victim's mother, on August 10, she and her daughter were watching television when Byrd called Thomas the devil again. Then, moments later, he emerged with a gun.
Mom, please, please don't leave me.
Reports say Byrd shot Thomas, and then attempted to beat her with nearby objects. Her mother begged him to stop and called the police. When they arrived, Byrd was taken into custody, and Thomas' mother was brought outside for questioning as her daughter lay dying on the floor of their apartment. She could hear Thomas crying, and she later told reporters what she heard: "Mom, please, please don't leave me. Mom, I'm dying," Thomas pled.
"Mom, I love you. Tell my sisters and my brother I love them. Tell my family I love them. Mom, I'm dying, I'm dying. Please don't leave me."
In October of 2015, the same month that she mourned the slaughter of Zella Ziona in Maryland, Noony Norwood wrote on Facebook. In the post, Norwood slammed some communities for turning their back on transgender women, and she praised the precious few who commit to support them.
"When you're a straight man, your boys, friends, and surrounding associates will put you on; provide," Norwood wrote. "When you're a woman—men, friends and family will help you (pussy got power). But, when you're us (the queens, the gurls), all we have is our natural hustle, and motherfuckers who truly care."