When visibility doesn’t translate into support for trans teens

blake brockington as homecoming king

The death of Blake Brockington raises this question for me: how do we turn visibility into support? 

Brockington died on Monday. The 18-year-old committed suicide. A year ago, he became the first trans person to be named homecoming king of his North Carolina high school. He drew lots of media attention and was celebrated widely, and now he’s dead, having seen suicide as the only way to escape the torment that accompanied the increased attention.

And Brockington had support. He was member of a local LGBT youth group, Time Out Youth. Still, that wasn’t enough. He was the second trans teen in the Charlotte, NC area to commit suicide in the span of a few weeks, coming after 16-year-old Ash Haffner walked in front of a moving car on February 26.

You’d like to believe Brockington’s story was going to be different. You’d like to believe that the recognition bestowed upon him from his school as homecoming king, an affirmation of his identity, meant they cared. You’d like to believe this would only bolster Brockington’s sense of self and provide the resolve needed to face the cruel aftermath of the public eye. We need to believe those things so we never have to actually lend our support.

Because if we were being honest with ourselves, we would have to reconcile our desires to celebrate symbols as progress with our deep resistance to fundamental change. Slap a homecoming crown on a transgender boy, smile and clap when a transgender girl puts on a dress, and there you have it — instant social justice. And the best part for all involved is that you never have to do anything afterward. You don’t have to worry about their safety. You don’t have to teach about gender/gender expression/gender non-conformity/gender spectrum. You don’t have to nurse any wounds after a vicious attack. You don’t have to stand against mis-gendering of people in the prison system that puts them at risk for more violence.

You get all the rewards of the feel-good moments and none of the burden that accompanies representation and visibility.

But, as Jos has written before, visibility isn’t necessarily a good thing and even positive visibility can have negative consequences. Which isn’t to suggest that visibility is a tragedy. For some it is and for others it’s a tool. The visibility of marginalized people pushes us into conversations that otherwise would be ignored. But what’s the value of conversation that isn’t aimed at justice? In the absence of justice, what good does visibility do if it doesn’t provide protection?

Kids like Blake Brockington and Ash Haffner deserve answers. More than that, they deserve answers that don’t create more moments of self-congratulatory symbolism. They deserve to have their lives cared for and grow until fully affirmed adults who can later care for and affirm other trans kids and teens. That doesn’t happen in a world where the rest of us are content with sitting on our asses while Blakes and Ash’s decide they are better off dead.

How do we turn visibility into support? I don’t know the answer, but we damn well better start asking the question more often. For now, here are some places to turn if you, or someone you know, needs help.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian,, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon.

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