Mom becomes advocate after losing transgender teen to depression

Mom becomes advocate after losing transgender teen to depression
Joanne Lee holds a picture of her transgender son Skylar

People are changing the way they look at gender and how they identify themselves. But the depression and suicide rates for transgender youth are alarmingly high.

Joanne Lee said for those reasons, it’s time to have a real discussion about gender identity. For her, the conversation came too late to save her son Skylar.

“When Skylar was very young, he came to me and he was sad,” Lee said. “He told me, ‘Mom, I know this is my body but I don’t feel like this is my body.’ I didn’t understand at that the time. I didn’t get it.”

Lee is a Korean immigrant who moved to Madison to continue her work as a nurse. She admits now she spent a good portion of motherhood lost in translation. Her children were not the daughters she thought they were.

Her oldest child, Avi, now 19, came out to her in high school.

“No matter what I wore, no matter what I did, it never looked right when I actually looked in the mirror,” Avi said.

Avi said he knew at age 3 he was transgender but didn’t tell his mother until high school.

“It was awful,” Avi said.

Shortly after high school, Avi moved to the East Coast, leaving behind his younger sibling Skylar.

Skylar asked his mother for hormone therapy, but she denied him.

“My upbringing made me think, ‘This is not real,'” Lee said. “I’m a nurse and thought maybe he would change his mind, so wait until [he’s] 18. But they cannot wait.”

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Gender identity discussion

Skylar started chronicling his journey on YouTube in 2014, even admitting he was going to start getting testosterone shots without his parents’ knowledge. Friends say it is believed he may have received early shots from a friend who is also transgender, though Joanne eventually allowed Skylar to get hormone therapy legally. For six months he chronicled his transition online, but his attitude changed dramatically.

“I’m still noticing social changes and how people are talking to me and treating me in my early days of transition,” Skylar said on YouTube. “I feel like I’ve been getting more uncomfortable around people.”

Avi also recalls Skylar growing more unhappy.

“No matter how much I change, they’ll still see me as a girl,” Skylar once posted. “And that’s hurtful.”

By the end of September, Skylar ended his life at a public park. His suicide note appeared on his blog on Tumblr as a scheduled post, long after he was gone.

Family and friends have never revealed details of his death because they don’t want it to influence other young people to follow in his footsteps. Skylar’s last note even said that he didn’t want to be a sob story or another hashtag.

“He wrote, ‘Suicide is not beautiful,'” Joanne said. “And then he asked us as parents to fight. Their pain is immeasurable. I want to help parents who are in the same situation like me. It is the lifeline they accept who they are.”

Joanne once thought Skylar was too different but now she realizes all her child wanted was the same love. It is a message she will spend the rest of her life sharing with others.

“My Skylar wants to show me he exists, that he is valid,” Joanne said. “I never gave it to him. I’m really sorry but I cannot change it now. I learned now but it cost me my child’s life. I’m so sorry.”

Skylar was a fierce activist in the LGBTQ community who also believed racial justice and LGBTQ issues intersected.

If you or someone you know believes they are depressed, call the Trans Lifeline. That number is 1-877-565-8860.