One year ago, in this very issue, Our Lives had the honor of publishing an insightful essay by Skylar Lee, a transgender, Korean-American young man who was very active with the GSA at West High School, GSAFE, and the National Youth Council, with a focus on intersectionality and racial justice.
Like so many people all across Wisconsin and beyond, we were heartbroken when, in September of last year, we received word that Skylar had succumbed to depression and taken his own life. It’s hard to comprehend how such a bright light can go out so soon, and the outpouring of grief and support within the LGBTQ community (and its allies) was further testament to the impact Skylar had.
At the center of all of it there emerged the presence and voice of Skylar’s mother, Joanne Lee. Since her son’s death, Joanne has been doggedly speaking out for the rights of LGBTQ people—transgender youth in particular. She joined the local chapter of PFLAG. She gave moving testimony to oppose the anti-trans bathroom bill now circulating in the Legislature. And Joanne intends to do whatever she now can to be the supportive mother to transgender youth and anyone else in need of that love.
We sat down with Joanne to talk about her life, her family, her struggles, and her crash course in LGBTQ activism, and are honored once again to feature the Lee family within these pages.
“Skylar’s death changed everything,” says Joanne, frequently speaking through tears. “I didn’t accept him as my transgender son, I didn’t participate in his life for enough years. I loved him so much, but I never showed that I loved him. That’s my regret, but to honor his life I have to continue his work and advocate for transgender youth and give them opportunity to live to their full capacity, help the parents and communities and society to make them understand they’re not so different and they have the right to live to have equality and dignity. I’m going to outreach to the parents who don’t accept their transgender children. I will show them how to love their children and not to lose them like I did. That’s the start.”
Both of Joanne’s children are transgender. Her eldest, Avi, came out as trans in June of 2014 shortly before moving away to live on the east coast. Skylar, she says, came out to her about a month later.
“Two children, I raised them as beautiful girls until that moment when suddenly my girls became transgender sons; it was very hard for me to accept them,” Joanne remembers. “My initial thought was, ‘what did I do wrong?’ Now I understand it is not what they chose, it is what they felt. They are born with it. I had no understanding about being transgender and the issues they have, and then they became depressed because society rejected them, repressed them, and wanted them to be invisible. I had no idea about that.”
Skylar asked to go on hormone therapy at age 15 but, Joanne says, she refused at first, worried that it was too soon for medical intervention and not understanding how crucial it was for her young son’s sense of self and well being. She told Skylar to wait until he was 18 to do it.
Skylar couldn’t wait, though. He began self-injecting with hormones he got through a friend. Finally, Joanne says, she acquiesced and signed off on treatments through a doctor. He only had three legal injections before his death. “I wish I could change it. I wish I could give him that opportunity,” she says.
Joanne grew up in Korea where, she says, it was (and still is, for many) simply taboo to talk about having LGBTQ family members.
“Korean community, Asian community, is a very closed community,” she explains. “We don’t expose ourselves to other people well. There are (LGBTQ) people out there but they’re not treated well. If they come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or especially transgender, the society doesn’t accept them at all. The family keeps it a secret, or kicks them out. So if someone has a transgender, lesbian, gay family member, the family has a problem because people don’t want to connect with those families. They have to choose between community, society, or their children. So they can become homeless; they’re not well treated by society.
“I wouldn’t tell even my close friend. I would keep it a secret. Because once you talk about those things you are done with the society, you are going to be alienated from them. They don’t want to make contact with you. I was raised with a Christian background. Here in the USA there are lots of different kinds of Christians—extremist, more in the middle, or very flexible—they might welcome them. But in my country they are all extremist, and they condemn the family and parents. So we cannot even talk about it. We cannot even tell the closest of friends. They are going to tell everybody. (LGBT people) are treated in a bad way, like a disease. I cannot even imagine what kind of life they have. If I have a chance to work with them, or the Korean, Asian community, I want to reach out to them. I want to help them.”
Asked what advice she wishes she could have given herself a year ago, Joanne doesn’t hesitate to mention seeking resources like PFLAG. The guidance counselor at West High had recommended that she attend once Skylar came out, but Joanne says her demanding work schedule, along with little sense that it would be such a crucial resource for her, kept her from going. She says just hearing the testimonies from other parents, about what they’re going through and struggling with, and having access to education about LGBTQ people and issues, would have made a world of difference. She encourages any parent of an LGBTQ-identified youth to attend, especially if they’re having a hard time with it. “One time at the meeting would change my life. I would understand my child more. You have to go to the meeting to understand your child. It was actually a life-and-death situation for me and my child.”
Joanne says she only really became aware that Skylar was struggling with depression in the last year, when he first attempted suicide. There was more conflict within the family, and certainly enormous pressure from outside, too. Skylar wrote about the intersecting identities of being young, trans, Asian, and queer, and all the baggage for it placed on a person by society at large. He worked hard to fight on behalf of all of those identities and more.
“I had no experience with this and then my husband kept telling me this is going to pass, and then it will go back to the way it was,” Joanne explains. “I wish I could go back and get those experiences so at least I can start talking with my child about that experience, and expand my knowledge and share something, at least, with my child. That is my regret. He didn’t get support from his family.”
Working for Love
On the day of the public hearing at the Capitol about AB469, which would bar transgender youth from using school facilities that align with their gender identities, Joanne Lee was there to offer her testimony against it. It was, she says, too important to miss.
“The night before he died, Skylar came to me. He said he would go to a friend’s house to sleep over and go to school together, then he hugged and kissed me. But the hugging and kissing I could feel was not from Earth, it was from outside of the world. The kiss was so gentle, like a rose petal kiss. And then I felt, ‘Oh my goodness this child is forgiving me.’ I felt he understood me; he forgave me. Then the next morning he was dead. At the funeral, my pain was so big. But now, I will take the love I had for him and give it to other children so I can save their lives if I can.”
Brian Juchems of GSAFE reached out to Joanne to see if she would speak at the hearing, and she agreed immediately. “Whenever I have a chance, I will talk,” she says. “They’re my children now, too, and I am going to tell them that they are beautiful, very beautiful, and the future is going to be changing. I want to tell them to dream it and hope it so they can see it. I’ll tell them, be patient with us because there are families who will fight for them. If we work with them, then they can change society, little by little. This is going to be a movement.”
Her son is gone from the world, Joanne says, grief-stricken, “but he gave me the gift of his friends, and so many transgender children and youth; they are my children. Skylar gave that gift to me, to take care of them.”
She’ll be working with the GSA network to travel to the LGBTQ Korean national gathering in California, as well as the Leadership Training Institute for transgender youth here in Wisconsin.
“Wherever, from now on, if they want my help or to do something, if I can go I will go wherever and whenever I can,” Joanne says. “That’s what I’m going to do.”
A Mother for Many: Below is a transcript of the testimony Joanne Lee provided at the public hearing for AB469, the discriminatory anti-transgender bathroom bill that is moving through our state legislature.
My name is Joanne Lee and I am a mother of two children. Two months ago I would have agreed with this Bathroom Bill. I didn’t know anything about transgender issues, what it is like to be transgender until my son’s death.
My child’s death. My child, Skylar Marcus Lee, passed away less than two months ago with severe depression that was due to so many things. He was transgender. My other son is transgender, too. I did not listen to them. I ignored them when they talked to me. I would not have walked my children to school to speak to their principal for bathroom accommodations. It did not make sense to me. It did not seem serious to me at the time, even though my son complained to me last year. He did not know which bathroom to use.
I am a medical professional as a nurse. I should have known the issues if they did not use the restroom. Urinary tract infections are common when a person does not use the restroom on time. Yes, on time. It is hard to concentrate at school when you can only think of using it.
Being transgender is something we cannot as parents control. They grow up. You want them to be what you think they are, but it is not always what it seems.
My heart is broken. I am grieving the loss of my child who will always be 16. My other son just turned 20. I want to talk about how this country is representing freedom. They should be treated as equals. Not discriminated by their gender identity.
Humans have rights for choosing happiness and voicing who they are. We need to give them this equal opportunity regardless of their sex and/or gender. They deserve dignity.
What we need to do is to protect these youth to get the same opportunity as other students do. If we force them, transgender students, the attempted suicide rate is higher than 40%. Their mental status is very fragile. They feel rejected because major community and society don’t acknowledge their existence and validity.
This Bathroom Bill sounds simple, but it is not. Bathroom Bill makes students to go to bathroom by birth genitalia. Transgender students are not who they are by birth pronunciation from medical professionals anymore. If we force them to be who they are not anymore, they will commit suicide. If we force them to kill themselves because of Bathroom Bill, the blood will be on whoever participates and forces them, administration or politicians. It is indirect killing. I am sorry, but it is the truth. We don’t want this on our consciousness when this Bill is passed.
Every transgender students’ life and death are in your hands. We don’t want to see sudden outbreak of urinary tract infections in school districts or sudden rise of transgender students’ suicide.
Please give them opportunity to live, fulfill their goals, and save people, and contribute to this country. Make them proud to be citizens of America like other people. Don’t deprive them of their rights to use the bathroom or the locker rooms. Do not just make it two genders. There are intersex students, too. I am a mother of two children. One is no longer here. Please listen to their voices. Thank you.