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Charlotte-area transgender teens’ suicides rock community

A Facebook profile photo of Blake Brockington.
A Facebook profile photo of Blake Brockington. FACEBOOK

Blake Brockington was a role model for other teens at Time Out Youth, Charlotte’s support agency for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths.

As a 17-year-old senior at East Mecklenburg High in 2014, he gained national attention as the state’s first transgender homecoming king. Since then, he had become an outspoken advocate for social justice. He seemed to be making the transition from female to male as well as anyone.

That’s why the news of Blake’s apparent suicide last week shocked friends and others in the local and national LGBT communities.

Many are asking how this could have happened to someone so secure and confident, someone with so much promise.

But despite outward appearances, Blake had in recent weeks posted online comments that suggested he was angry and in despair.

No one will ever know all the factors that contributed to Blake’s death last Monday, but his decision to be open about his transition could have made him even more vulnerable to criticism that transgender people face every day, said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“It has been a really hard year for trans people,” Keisling said. “It’s because there’s more of us who have come out. We’re winning our rights and our place in society at a really strong speed. So, therefore, there is backlash.”

For many years, the “T” in LGBT was an afterthought, and even some gays and lesbians haven’t always been accepting. But recent victories for anti-discrimination ordinances in cities, such as Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Columbia, S.C., have contributed to a more emboldened transgender community. This coincides with widespread publicity questioning whether former Olympian Bruce Jenner is transitioning from male to female and the increasing appearance of transgender characters on TV, such as the one played by Laverne Cox on “Orange is the New Black.”

Blake, 18, died after being struck by several vehicles on the outer loop of Interstate 485 near Pavilion Boulevard. It’s not known why he was at that spot. His death came only a month after the suicide of another Charlotte-area teen, 16-year-old Ash Haffner, who identified as transgender. Both were killed as pedestrians in traffic, the same way an Ohio transgender youth, Leelah Alcorn, committed suicide in late December.

Also, a month before Blake died, another transgender activist committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

In Charlotte, hostility toward transgender people surfaced publicly when, on March 2, the City Council rejected a proposed ordinance to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender. Opponents claimed the law could make women and children vulnerable to sexual predators if biological males used women’s restrooms.

National surveys show that 41 percent of transgender or gender nonconforming adults have self-reported a suicide attempt, compared with 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population. Transgender men have the highest rate, with 46 percent reporting suicide attempts.

Keisling, based in Washington, D.C, knew Blake by his reputation as a transgender activist and respected him.

“Blake was a real hero to a lot of people,” Keisling said. “He was fairly high-profile for a teenager. ... He really stood up for himself and for all of us. He was just such a good, strong leader and spokesperson. I just know so many people who are just brokenhearted ... and trans people all over the country are feeling it.”

Felt like a boy

Blake was born a girl, LaShonda Marie, on May 15, 1996, in the Charleston area. He was known as a girl until his sophomore year at East Meck, but he said he always felt like a boy and chafed at being forced to wear dresses to church and family affairs.

“When I got my period, my aunt told me, ‘Welcome to womanhood.’ I was like ‘Noooooo!’” Blake said in an Observer story published in January.

He said he chose the name Blake because it came to him in a dream and he liked how masculine it sounds. He said things at home got so bad that he moved in with a foster family, and with their support he got counseling and transitioned from female to male.

“My family feels like this is a decision I made,” Blake told the Observer. “They think, ‘You’re already black, why would you want to draw more attention to yourself?’ But it’s not a decision. It is who I am. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”

At 17, he garnered national attention when he was crowned homecoming king. The crowd at East Meck’s basketball arena cheered, and Blake smiled proudly, carrying a long-stemmed rose. Despite his success, Blake said that homecoming campaign had been the hardest part of his transgender journey.

“Really hateful things were said on the Internet. I saw how narrow-minded the world really is,” he told the Observer. “... I’m still a person. Trans people are still people. Our bodies just don’t match what’s up (in our heads). We need support, not people looking down at us or degrading us or overlooking us.”

He talked more about how hard high school was in “BrocKINGton,” an 8-minute documentary made in 2014 by three Elon University students. He said he was called many names – “tranny,” “dyke,” “homecoming thing,” “pervert,” “an abomination.”

“I felt like I’ve lived my entire life as a lie,” Blake says in the documentary. “I grew up in Charleston, S.C., in a Southern Baptist home. I’ve always been kind of different. It was always a bad thing in my family, but they never really said anything. Then when the homecoming stuff happened, it was like ‘You’re still not a guy to us.’… It’s been really hard. High school’s been really hard.”

In the documentary, Blake talks about having been hospitalized for cutting himself. He also appears with Surrell Thomas, who was Blake’s girlfriend for about a year until they broke up near the end of his senior year.

Thomas, 18, now a senior at East Meck, told the Observer she met Blake when they ran track together at McClintock Middle School, when Blake was still known as LaShonda. “He would tell his friends he wanted to be referred to as a he, but he didn’t come out (publicly) until sophomore year,” Surrell said.

Surrell said Blake was fun to be with but also talked about how hard life was and about ending it all. “It wasn’t so much ‘I should kill myself.’ It was more like, ‘I want to be free.’ He just wanted to be happy.” Surrell said she never expected to get the phone call that Blake had died. “It hurts,” she said. “It hurts a lot.”

Tracy Setzer, whose daughter Corrina White is Surrell’s best friend and had known Blake since ninth grade, said Blake spent a lot of time at her house during high school and shared his struggles.

At one point, after Blake began taking male hormones as part of his transition from female to male, Setzer said he started growing facial hair and his voice got deeper, but he still had menstrual cycles, which embarrassed him. “He felt like he wasn’t who he should be,” Setzer said. “Everything didn’t fit. His body was always in a constant battle within itself.”

The last time she saw him, about a month ago, she noticed his new hairstyle, a combination Afro and mohawk (also called a frohawk) dyed a vibrant red. She said he described the change excitedly, hands flying as he talked, and then suddenly stopped. “I said ‘What’s wrong?’ and he said, ‘Did you see how my hand was going? I was so talking like a chick.’”

Setzer said she was with him and her daughter when people on the street called out names such as “fag” and “shim” (a combination of “she” and “him”). But she said he would shrug it off, saying, “That’s just another day in the life of Blake.”

Blake enrolled as a freshman at UNC Charlotte last fall, majoring in music education. He had spent two years as drum major for East Meck’s band and planned to become a band director and a composer. At the time of his death, he was not a student and had said he was taking medical leave.

‘He was so vibrant’

He became an advocate for transgender issues, speaking at last year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance event in Charlotte. And last December, he led activists protesting police brutality against blacks in a brief shutdown of Independence Square at Trade and Tryon streets.

“We have to address all these problems at once – misogyny, patriarchy, LGBT issues, race issues. We have to address everything at once if we plan to change the system at all,” Blake was quoted in Charlotte-based LGBT newspaper QNotes.

Josh Burford, assistant director for sexual and gender diversity at UNC Charlotte, said Blake worked with him on a recent exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South, “Out of the Shadows: Gay America from Kinsey to Stonewall.”

“He was so vibrant, one of those people that you immediately felt like you knew,” Burford said. “... He was such an example to everybody. He had passion around his work, but he wasn’t an angry or bitter person. He was just so bright.

“What happened to Blake is part of a systemic problem, especially for trans students of color. He didn’t quit. He didn’t give up. ... He’s a victim of what happens every single day to these kids.”

Tuesday, the day after Blake’s death, about 100 people came by the North Davidson Street headquarters of Time Out Youth, where both Blake and Ash had been clients. They shared stories and comforted one another.

“Blake was a figure. People saw Blake as part of a movement,” said O’Neale Atkinson, Time Out Youth’s director of youth programs. “There were a lot of expectations put on him to be a leader at a very young age.”

Of 227 youths served by Time Out Youth last year, Atkinson said 16 percent identified as transgender. In the wake of the recent deaths, he said he tries to remind teens how strong they are.

“They don’t recognize the resiliency and the power they truly possess,” he said. “We need to make sure that it doesn’t get extinguished.”

On social media, many people offered sympathy and support. One wrote: “rip blake brockington. i’m sorry you died a boy; wish you could’ve grown up to be a man.”

Time Out Youth is helping Blake’s friends organize a memorial, perhaps on April 11. Another “communitywide time of prayer and reflection for Blake Brockington” is scheduled for Sunday from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. at Sacred Souls Community Church, 2127 Eastway Drive. A private family funeral was scheduled for Saturday in Ravenel, S.C.

The disconnect between Blake and his family was apparent in the obituary that appeared in the Charleston Post and Courier. It referred to “LaShonda Marie Brockington, also known as Blake” and used the pronoun “she” throughout.

In his Observer interview, Blake spoke of that estrangement from family. “I still don’t talk to a lot of them,” he said.

He also said he lost a lot of friends when he came out as transgender. But he tried to put a positive spin on things, encouraging others like him to find support at Time Out Youth. “You’re not alone,” he said. “This is a large community.”

But postings on his Tumblr account weren’t so optimistic. They showed an 18-year-old taking stands on some of the most polarizing issues facing the country while struggling personally with traumatic psychological and physical issues.

Two months ago: “Even if I got better in my head, I would never want to continue on in a world like this.”

One month ago: “I’m waiting on the moment when me and my darkness split from my body.”

A week ago: “being in my head is like being a quarterback playing against an entire defensive line.”

The day he died: “I am so exhausted.”

Researcher Maria David and staff writers Cleve Wootson, Gary Schwab and Lawrence Toppman contributed.

Garloch: 704-358-5078

A post from Blake’s Tumblr page...

“I remember finding out when I was six that I wasn’t like the other boys. I remember being forced into dresses and under hot combs. ... I remember learning to play the piano, imagining that one day I’d be the piano man. I remember my first orchestra concert when I was eight and I cried because I wanted to wear a tux. ... I remember hating my name and hoping that maybe I could bleed it out of my life. ... I remember crying myself to sleep because my one dream is to be a father, but I always knew that it wouldn’t be the same for me as it is for ‘real boys’... I remember coming to terms with the fact that I’d never be enough. I remember being jealous of my nephew because he’d be tall and man enough for the world like the other beautiful men in our family. I remember hating my body so much that I wanted to burn it alive in the hopes that it would have the effect on me that fires have on forests. I remember when I found out that I couldn’t be a marine. I remember when I lost faith in friendship because misunderstanding manifested disgust in my existence... I remember concluding that I’d never be enough to confront attraction. I remember realizing that there was no place for me here. I remember finding myself and finally loving him. I remember it being too late.”

‘BrocKINGton,’ the documentary

Charlotte filmmaker Mason Sklut, who works at Full Scale Productions, was a senior at Elon University when he and collaborators Sergio Ingato and Maggie Sloane learned about Blake Brockington last year. They decided to make a short documentary as their senior project and shot “BrocKINGton” in spring 2014, much of it at East Mecklenburg High.

It’ll be shown April 16 at Indie Grits Festival in Columbia. You can also see it at gofundme.com/brockington. The filmmakers posted it there to raise funds for the Trevor Project, a group providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention for young LGBTQ people.

“He used those hotlines when he was feeling down,” Sklut says. “He had a seriously troubled childhood. There was not a lot of love and support for his decision to transition, and he’d felt he lived his whole life as a lie. He didn’t want to talk about it too much, but he said he had felt suicidal before. He mentored some kids in high school who were going through similar situations.

“We were going to have him come to the Indie Grits screening and speak. He was so stoked for it, so excited, and people would have loved to hear his story.”

Lawrence Toppman

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