Content warning: This story discusses suicide and suicidal ideation at length. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or suicidal ideation, help is available. Contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 833-456-4566, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Click here for a list of LGBTQ2S+-specific resources.
When I was growing up, all of my memories lived in a box—a big cardboard box shoved in the back of my mom’s closet, hidden behind dresses and slacks on hangers. When my sister and I wanted to go through the collection of our past, we would drag the box out and dump the photos out onto the carpet to sift through them. Every round of recollecting was new; you never knew what memories you might wade through that day.
This box of loose photographs is where the memory of my uncle lived. There was just one photo of him; in it, he’s holding baby me in his arms while my sister sits near him on a floral patterned couch. He looks happy, almost proud, our lives captured ever so briefly in Kodachrome. I don’t really remember my uncle—he died when I was very young—but this photo is burned into my memory.
My uncle was gay, a fact I’m reminded of whenever my own queer and trans identity is discussed with my family (he is the only other queer family member I know of). He lived with his partner and did humanitarian work—sometimes at home in Vancouver and sometimes in Africa, helping out in the midst of the AIDS crisis. When I was growing up, I adored when my mom would tell stories of him—how handsome he was, his smile and his love for life, how much everyone loved him. He was a kind and gentle man. I loved knowing there was someone queer in my family, a lighthouse for my own secret queerness. I felt a kinship with this uncle, who I only met as a baby and have no tangible memories of outside a single photo.
Because, when I was young, my uncle killed himself.
We don’t know why, but I have long wondered what led to that final, fateful action. What possessed him that day? Did he fear the end, or was it a welcome respite?
My whole life I have been fascinated by death, by the finality of all things and how it feels to cross the eternal threshold from here to there. I have been fascinated by it because I live with suicidal thoughts as well.
I often wonder if it’s inherited. When I came to realize my own queerness, I felt connected to my uncle; through him I could see where being queer lived in my own family. I wonder if it’s something that travels through family lines, choosing one person to bestow its gifts upon. Suicidal ideation entered my own life as an intrusive visitor, idly living in the corner of my thought patterns and waiting for me to take notice of its existence. Was being queer a gift, something passed on to me by my uncle? And did that come with ideation, too?
I first started thinking about suicide when I was in my teens, when I realized I was a woman and not the combination of organs I had been configured with at birth. This was the early 1990s: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was popular, and everyone remembers the scene where Jim Carrey strips the villain down to her underwear, revealing her breasts and, notably, a comically tucked dick that you can see from behind. Onlooking police, guns drawn, vomit at the sight. I watched it at a friend’s house and pretended to also think the ending was hilarious, trying my best to hide my discomfort as my friend’s father yelled homophobic slurs at the screen. No child should learn that there is no place for them in this world.
From then on, I would go through spurts, becoming consumed with thoughts of how I would come out. Some weeks I wouldn’t sleep, lying awake at night wondering what it would be like to be at home in my body and feel connected to myself the way I knew I wanted to be. And then I would think about those cops with their guns, vomiting on themselves with disgust. I’d think of my friend’s dad yelling, “Shoot the bitch!” enthusiastically at the TV, and I would think about the kiss of a bullet ripping through me, solving my conundrum once and for all.
As I got older, the agency of that bullet was taken from the hands of an outside force and placed into my own. My early ideation was passive: What if I had a gun, and what if there was an accident? Thinking about coming out involved thinking about my own end because, I thought, one couldn’t exist without the other. My dreams became suicidal ones—I could feel the gun against my skin, my finger moving to depress the trigger. Then I would wake up.
My first girlfriend and I were on and off for years. We broke up for the final time in her living room in Red Deer, Alberta, a town where I worked but no longer lived. Every day I would drive the hour and a half from Calgary, where I slept in the corner of a living room, to Red Deer, work all day, and then drive the hour and a half back home again. Highway 2 became my space to be alone with my thoughts and to speak my truths aloud. I would talk to myself about being queer, about being a woman. I just needed to say it, then my secret would be free and I would only have to manage the consequences.
I came out for the first time in 2002, telling my ex, as clumsily as I possibly could, that I wanted to be a woman. She told me pretending to be gay is a bad way to break up with someone, and we moved to permanently broken-up status. I felt the sting of rejection—not romantically, but personally. I felt ashamed of myself, of the secrets I would tell myself in my truck driving the long highway between cities day in and day out. I thought about what a joke my life felt like, how devoid of meaning it must be for me to have grasped at straws and made up a scenario in which I was both a woman and queer. I thought about killing myself without the pretext of coming out. It was an answer to a life filled with the wrong questions.
We can lie to ourselves, but the questions come back. I came out again three years later, in Edmonton, to my partner at the time. I told her and she seemed supportive, loving. She had to run, but we would talk more tomorrow. The next day she blocked my number and ghosted me. Shame sent me spiralling down a path of ideation, planning more concretely just how and where I would do it. I drafted a plan to drive out of town, say I was going somewhere for work, and end my life in a ditch somewhere on the side of the road. Make it look like an accident.
I never did.
Culturally, we fear talking about suicide. People worry that we give it power by calling it out. But the numbers outweigh our collective discomfort, especially for LGBTQ2S+ people: in one Ontario-based survey commissioned by the Canadian Mental Health Association, 77 percent of trans respondents had seriously considered suicide, and 45 percent had attempted suicide. There are intersections that explain these stats, the fact that trans people face disproportionate levels of poverty and discrimination chief among them.
And yet I’ve long been afraid to discuss suicide openly. Just as there are intersections behind the reasons for attempting suicide, intersections also exist for the reasons I was ashamed to discuss my suicidal ideation in the first place. When I was younger, I was worried it would make me vulnerable, or that it would remove me from my life somehow. If my parents knew I thought about killing myself, like my uncle had, what would they think of me? Before I came out, I also worried that if I admitted to having suicidal ideations, I would have to explain why and be inadvertently forced out of the closet. I had to weigh the outcomes of coming out as trans and coming out as deeply suicidal. Both carried with them a public shame.
When people kill themselves, those of us left behind sometimes launch into a campaign of shame against the individual: How dare they take the easy way out? How selfish to inflict that onto a family, onto loved ones and concerned onlookers. The individual becomes the topic, their personhood superseded by the burden of shame on their autonomy. We often avoid discussing why people take their lives. For me, it felt like that kind of conversation was itself a loaded gun, that if I put that energy out into the world it would come back to haunt me.
Carly Boyce knows just how difficult these kinds of conversations can be. A therapist and self-proclaimed facilitator of hard conversations, Boyce makes a living talking to and about people experiencing suicidal ideation, the nature of suicide in queer and trans peoples lives and the ways they live with their ideation. Often, that’s rooted in feelings of otherness or feeling at odds with their environments. That was their own experience, too. “I knew that I was different than the people around me. But I just did not know what that difference was,” Boyce, who is queer, says. “But I think what would have helped me is if there were other people who seemed like they were like me. Whether that was by the language of identification, or just by finding some solidarity.”
People who live with suicidal thoughts are often drawn to each other. Communities are built on that solidarity. “The formal community-based suicide support has a lot of overlap with people who are or have been actively suicidal,” Boyce says, “because those people aren’t scared of it.”
The idea of community, of knowing there were other people like me, swimming against the same tides and using a language I could finally understand, is what stayed my own hand as well.
But before I could get better and find that community, things got worse. In 2015, my suicidal ideation was exacerbated. The things I knew about myself were too loud to ignore, too pronounced in my mind; I didn’t see a path where people would accept them and bring me into their life free of the trappings of my past. So I bought a gun.
My ideation came to me in waves. I’d often sit in my bedroom with the knowledge that I had the final answer to my problems in my house. Then I would drive myself to the hospital and check myself into emergency, just to be somewhere else, somewhere I couldn’t leave. I would fake a stomach illness or a phantom pain, and for a few hours, I was away from it all.
I couldn’t live like that. I knew an end was coming in some form or another; it was either an end to my life or an end to the way my life was going. I would try one last time—if it didn’t work, maybe that was it. I told my then-partner my truth. This time, she listened without judgment. For the first time someone asked me: How can I help?
I saw a therapist to discuss my issues with my gender, and I started to look for people like me in the spaces I could access. Far removed from shared physical space with other trans people, I found them online. There, I realized I had people, that there had long been community and there was always room for one more. Even as my relationship with my partner fell apart, I was bolstered by her initial support. I set upon leading out loud, coming out publicly well before it was safe for me to do so, as if to remove any possibility I could take it back. As I learned the language about myself, I valiantly tried to teach others around me about who I was.
But the intrusive nature of ideative thoughts didn’t disappear with acceptance. Too often we think that suicide is a response to a problem, and if you solve the problem, the ghost of your ideation dissipates. It still thrust itself upon me, but this time it didn’t feel so immediate. I would speak about it openly. Speaking that truth could strip the ideation of its power, reduce it from a storm to a downpour.
My history with suicide lives the same life as the singular photo of me and my uncle: in a box in the back of a closet in my mind, something I drag out every now and then, dump out onto the floor and sift through. Living in my past allows me to not be afraid of it anymore, offering me space to examine it and understand it for what it was.
These days, I live in peace with the ideation. It’s not a thing that goes away—I don’t get to turn that part of my brain off, but I get to learn to live with it. Some days it’s a flash, and I let it sit for a beat before allowing my pathways to lead me to a more practical solution. I can’t quiet my brain’s desire to choose violence, but I understand it better. My uncle might have had the same flashes; I feel connected to him in ways only he would understand, were he around to see the me I grew up to be.
At one point in my conversation with Boyce, as the sun shines outside and summer rages on beyond us, I apologize for requesting such a dark conversation. Boyce counters: “Doing work around suicide has been profoundly hopeful,” they say. “What I get to do so often is sit with people who have survived, are surviving, and are supporting their friends to survive.”
What matters is how we choose to live moving forward. If we choose to vocalize and create a sense of normalcy around the topic of suicide, we can create communities of care and support to help all of us who have felt alone and scared of ourselves at some point. You can never slay the beast, but you can live freely with it.
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or suicidal ideation, help is available. Contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 833-456-4566, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Click here for a list of LGBTQ2S+-specific resources.