By Their Own Hand

I probably met Brian McKinney only once, but his death more than thirty years ago still haunts me.

I recall lingering at the bus stop in downtown Flint while in high school in the early 1980s as an achingly lonely gay boy, watching for him.  He was a student at the barber college on Saginaw Street and, with lilting hair dyed blond and green, dared to be visibly queer at a time when being queer and being visible were unfathomable in my hometown.

I think maybe Miss Bobby introduced me to Brian one time at the Copa, and at some point Skater Dave told me he’d fooled around with him.  To me Brian was bold and striking, as photos of him in Metra attest, someone to admire for being so damn out.  And then, on November 18, 1984, at age 21, Brian asphyxiated himself in his car parked at the beauty salon where he worked.

In the decades since, I’ve sometimes come to view his suicide as an indictment against a homophobic world.  Other times I’m less sure how to understand his loss.  After all, I never knew him, and certainly cannot know what led him to his end.  Whatever his departure from this world means, I somehow feel an obligation to remember.

The recent suicide of my friend Bob’s friend from high school—a closeted gay veteran over 50—inspired my last blog entry, which explored stigmas and erasures related to sexuality and gender identity.

Stigmas and erasures also surround the deaths of loved ones by their own hand.  Shame associated with suicide and with LGBTQ realities often overlap, and often lead to intertwined silences.

According to CDC statistics cited by the Trevor Project, lesbian, gay, and bi teenagers are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight teens.  Other data show that nearly half of trans youth seriously consider suicide and a quarter of trans youth make suicide attempts.  This is a lens on today.  But what about our past?

The year before Brian McKinney’s death, the late author and activist Eric Rofes published I Thought People Like That Killed Themselves, whose title expressed the prevailing attitude about homosexuality for much of the twentieth century: that the anguish of being queer would inevitably result in suicide.

Indeed, many cultural depictions of gay people before Stonewall invariably ended in self-destruction, from the 1931 novel Strange Brother by Blair Niles to the 1961 film The Children’s Hour.

As a historian, I believe that an honest appreciation of the LGBTQ past requires that we understand suicide as part of our collective history.  As a middle-aged gay man, I feel we need to see how suicide continues to be part of our lives today.

My friend Susan Kettler works as a clinical social worker in northern Wisconsin.  She has had and continues to have LGBTQ clients.  She has also served Native American people who live on a nearby reservation.

Earlier this week I sought her insights on suicide, silences, and shame.  In our phone conversation, we explored some of the motivations for concealing suicide, the importance of talking openly about suicide, and warning signs that people considering suicide might show.

Susan suggested that some survivors want to shield people who killed themselves from being judged and being judged harshly.  People who don’t understand still take the view that suicide is selfish or cowardly.

Family, friends, and those in the deceased person’s inner circle also experience their loss with additional guilt and grief.  Susan explained that many feel ashamed that the suicide happened, that they were in some way responsible.

In other instances, as with overdoses, survivors might not acknowledge or even realize that a death was intentional.  “There’s a lot of pain and it’s easier to think that it was an accident,” Susan said.

Susan noted that the shock this summer of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bordain taking their lives highlights how depression is so well hidden in our society.  Here, she pointed to the continued stigma of mental illness itself and an inability of people to talk frankly about suicidal feelings.  “There’s a stigma around admitting it and getting help for it,” she said.

From Susan’s perspective, encouraging candidness is key to addressing widespread social shame.  “The only way stigma changes is that the people who have experienced it or been touched by it speak openly about it,” she said.  “I tend to be encouraged by families that do address it.”

In terms of ethics, there are parallels between outing someone’s sexuality and disclosing that they committed suicide.  Who gets to decide to disclose or to conceal?

The parents of Bob’s friend did not want the world to know that their son killed himself.

Yet increasingly, such secrets can be hard to keep.  When transgender teenager Sam Taub took his own life in 2015, friends quickly took to social media to spread the word.

Taub’s father later spoke openly with the media about the suicide and factors that contributed to it.  At the same time, one side of the family did not wish to recognize that Taub had begun to identify as trans.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevent identifies a number of warning signs to watch for with regard to suicide.  Among these are an increase in alcohol or drug use, social withdrawal, changes in sleeping patterns, fatigue, and giving away prized possessions.  Changes in mood might include displays of depression, anxiety, humiliation, agitation, and sudden relief or disinterest.

Susan Kettler noted that suicidal feelings are not necessarily situational but can be chronic.  She also cautioned that signs of suicide are not always evident.

Prevention programs have begun teaching that people should not shy away from broaching the topic if they suspect someone is experiencing emotional distress.  Susan posed two questions for each of us: “Do you know someone you’re worried about?  Have you asked them?”

It is hard to grasp the level of psychological pain a person experiences, the extent that someone experiences unbearable misery, dread, and isolation combined with feelings of hopelessness.  When someone carried through with suicide, the gravity of losing someone is personal and piercing.  In some instances, it is also communal.

Deaths to suicide are tragedies that have shaped our LGBTQ history and our LGBTQ lives.  We should remember them, and we should respect them with compassion, without blame.

 

Since the beginning of Michigan LGBTQ Remember, I have included people who committed suicide.  To do otherwise would distort the history the project seeks to convey.

I’ve felt less certain as to whether or not to tag postings for those who killed themselves, as I have for people who were murdered.  For one, I’ve been unsure how to handle cases where suicide was implied but not definitively known.

I deferred the decision of tagging from the start, anticipating that I would eventually seek input from people who read this blog.  The project has established itself well enough, now, to open the question up to wider discussion.

If you have a viewpoint either way, please comment on this entry.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24 hours a day at (800) 273-8255.  It serves people of all ages and identities.  People considering suicide who are trans or gender-nonconforming can also call the Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860.  LGBTQ youth aged 24 and younger can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at (866) 488-7386.

Tim Retzloff

One thought on “By Their Own Hand”

  1. Thank you Tim for this sensitive and open-hearted entry. What you tell is so tender and personal, for me and most likely for many readers of Queer Remembering. Inevitably it touches a deep time, the death by suicide of a friend, almost 40 years ago. We, her friends, could not heal her suffering. When I think of her sad decision I am thankful that we found ways to mourn her loss and heal, openly and communally.

    Like

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