When Joanne Lee thinks about her son Skylar, she remembers a loving child, a passionate young person committed to so many things – from racial justice to LGBT equality to fundamental rights for students in his Wisconsin high school. She remembers an artistic person – someone who loved the ballet, who loved to draw, who bought wildflowers from the farmer’s market and brought them to classmates who needed support.
“That’s who he was,” Joanne said. “He was love and compassion.”
Joanne and her family are in mourning, remembering Skylar nearly a year after September 28, 2015, when Skylar took his own life near his home in Madison, Wisconsin, explaining in a note that he was depressed and in pain.
He emphasized in his note that the fact that he was a transgender boy – transitioning from female to male more than a year prior – was not a factor in his death.
His mother Joanne has worked for the past year to carry the torch that Skylar left behind, still lit, still working to illuminate injustice and share the reality of what it means to be transgender – and why there is no reason for transgender people to face discrimination because of who they are.
Now, as she continues her work as a nurse, she said she is committed to working as an advocate for transgender issues, contributing to a better world for people like her son – her son who, for example, petitioned his high school to elect a gender-neutral homecoming court instead of sticking to the strict terms of Homecoming King and Queen.
Skylar’s words stick with Joanne wherever she goes. “It is not justice if we leave behind members of our communities,” Skylar once wrote, explaining the need for all people across the country to call out discrimination and prejudice wherever they see it. “It is not Justice if we ignore the interconnected oppression of those we share community with.”
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Skylar had come out as transgender in the middle of 2014, two months after his sibling, who was born biologically female, also came out to his mother as transgender.
“I had no idea what that meant,” Joanne said about her sons’ declarations of gender identity. “I did not accept them as transgender sons.”
Since he was very young – eight or nine years old – Skylar repeatedly told Joanne that he had misgivings about his gender. “Mom, I know this is my body, but I don’t feel like I belong to this body,” Joanne remembered him saying.
“I thought that was just the confusion of a young girl,” she said. “That’s what I thought. But it was not. It was his identity – and I had no idea what I was talking about that time.”
Joanne regrets her lack of understanding and discomfort with pursuing the topic further.
“I talked about the superficial things about school – about friends or classes,” she said. “But I never talked to him about being transgender. I tried to do my best to understand him, so my husband and I took counseling to understand what the meaning of being transgender is and what issues transgender people have.”
“But my progress was too slow,” Joanne said. “And I will regret that for the rest of my life.”
For several months Skylar had been seeing a therapist for depression.
“He loved his family, but the depression was so deep that I did not know his pain,” Joanne said. “In his journal he shared so many thoughts about the world – so much pain.”
Skylar made clear in a note that his suicide was not specifically because he is transgender – but for Joanne, it does not change the fact that she realizes how much of a challenge daily life in our country can be for transgender people.
“Transgender children are vulnerable,” she said. “They are invisible. They are invalidated. Society does not want to support them – and so they face discrimination and rejection, and they become vulnerable and develop anxiety and depression.”
“Transgender children are vulnerable. They are invisible. They are invalidated. Society does not want to support them – and so they face discrimination and rejection, and they become vulnerable and develop anxiety and depression.”– Joanne Lee
Joanne pointed to a hearing held just under a year ago in Wisconsin, where she lives, on a bill that sought to restrict transgender students’ access to using the restroom in line with their gender identity. Legislation like this that specifically seeks to target transgender individuals is wrong – but it also sends a message to transgender children that they are less than, that they are doing something wrong. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.
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Now Joanne is committed to reaching out to the parents of LGBT children:
“My husband and I, we promised that I never wanted to see any transgender children go through the same things that Skylar did – and I do not want anyone to lose their life,” she said. “I want people to understand what we went through, and I think I can help people avoid this unnecessary death and pain, and that’s why I came out as an activist.”
“I want to tell them, ‘Love your child as they are, and try to be with them and talk with them while you can.’ I would want to tell people that when children are born, they are joyful, they are happy, and they must be raised with love,” she said. “If they come out as transgender, they are still there inside – it’s just their gender identity that changes.”
She has been inspired in the past year to see more and more parents of transgender children standing up to support their children.
“This is the time that parents of transgender people are coming out to protect their children,” she said. “People are starting to open up and talk to the public – and it feels like finally I see parents supporting each other. We want to get together. We want to fight against discrimination and discriminatory policies.”
“I want to tell them, ‘Love your child as they are, and try to be with them and talk with them while you can.’ I would want to tell people that when children are born, they are joyful, they are happy, and they must be raised with love.”– Joanne Lee
She knows that anti-LGBT legislation like the bill restricting restroom access for transgender children in Wisconsin is poisonous, creating a climate where children feel targeted, forced up against a wall because of who they are. Joanne wants to change that, and she intends to tell her story far and wide in an effort to eliminate such pervasive efforts to discriminate.
“It’s important to speak out about transgender issues because this was what Skylar cared about,” Joanne said. “I had a tremendous love for my son, but I never spoke up or stood up for him when he was alive.”
“I want the public to understand that transgender and LGBT children are born as who they are – and it’s not their fault,” she said. “They are blamed as sinful, or as abominations – but they are not. They are born as who they are. They are beautiful. I want to tell the public, I want to open their eyes and have them look at who they are. That’s my mission now. That’s what Skylar’s mission was.”