On the Friday before Labor Day weekend, Karin Fresnel was on her weekly shopping trip at the Eureka Co-op when she noticed that she was being watched -- first while standing in the beer aisle, then again at the meat counter. Finally, the petite, blond-haired woman who'd been following her through the store stepped forward and said, "Can I ask you a personal question?"
"My first thought was, 'I've been clocked,'" Fresnel told the Journal last week. As a transgender woman, such confrontations are common. Not three days earlier a stranger on the street had called her "an abomination in the eyes of God." So, fearing the worst, Fresnel drew herself up to her full height (six-three in heels) and answered, "Yes, you may, and yes, I'm trans."
But the woman wasn't looking to insult. "Her response was, 'Oh, thank God. Do you know of any resources up here? My son ... daughter ... is transitioning." This woman was Allison Murphy of Clovis, a rodeo-loving suburb six miles northeast of Fresno. She was in town visiting her 18-year-old daughter, Chloe, who until last year was known only as Justin. Murphy, the portrait of a concerned mom, had unknowingly stumbled across an ideal resource. Not only is Fresnel a trans woman, she's also involved in numerous organizations that fight discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and sexually ambiguous persons, including Humboldt Pride, which she co-chairs.
Fresnel and Murphy talked for nearly an hour in the aisles of the Co-op, and three days later they met up again -- this time with Chloe. "She asked lots of questions," Fresnel said. Chloe had been suffering from severe depression and crippling anxiety for years, but on this day, in the company of her mom and someone who could finally answer her questions, she seemed hopeful, even happy, Fresnel said. "The expression 'bright as a penny' came to mind when I met her."
On Sept. 24, 18 days after this meeting, Chloe committed suicide. She was 10 days shy of her 19th birthday.
Chloe's premature death follows a series of suicides among LGBT youths, including Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, who killed himself after his roommate surreptitiously filmed him having sex, and 13-year-old Seth Walsh, who was bullied for being gay. Nationwide, no fewer than seven gay teens have killed themselves in the past month, according to nonprofit civil rights group Equality Forum. This rash of deaths has inspired a nationwide movement that includes a push for stricter anti-bullying legislation (The Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2010), a YouTube channel for troubled LGBT youths (the It Gets Better Project) and a series of rallies across the country, including one organized by the Arcata-Eureka chapter of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), held Friday evening on the steps of the county courthouse.
Murphy and her husband, Sean Dempsey, drove up from Clovis to attend the rally and share Chloe's story. They hope that by doing so they can help other parents understand LGBT issues and help teens see that they're not alone. The transgender population in particular has dramatically increased rates of suicide and suicide ideation. In a 2009 study by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, more than 30 percent of transgender respondents said they'd seriously considered suicide in the previous year, compared to 4.4 percent among gays/lesbians and 2.3 percent among heterosexuals. Fresnel sympathizes with this impulse all too well: She's a survivor of six suicide attempts, as she told the crowd of more than 100 supporters at last weekend's rally. "I don't intend there to be a seventh," she said, prompting cheers of support.
Murphy climbed the steps to the podium, where she took the microphone and, with tears in her eyes, told the crowd about Chloe, her only child. Many in attendance personally thanked her for doing so. After the rally, Chloe's parents headed over to the Lost Coast Brewery where they revealed more details of Chloe's abbreviated life. Murphy spoke of Justin and Chloe as two separate people who, for a time, happened to share one body. Justin was the child she had when she herself was only 18, the boy who wanted to be a sniper, loved snowboarding and covered his room in camouflage. Chloe was the kid who felt weird on the day in kindergarten when students were separated by gender and she was lumped in with the boys. She was the person who believed deep down that there was something weird about her, that she must be some kind of freak. And she's the one who in seventh grade caught an Oprah Winfrey-type talk show about transgender people and had an epiphany: That's me.
Murphy didn't learn of this epiphany until years later. While she'd noticed that Justin was depressed, she simply chalked it up to their unstable family life (she and Justin's dad divorced when Justin was 5). The first sign of Chloe showed up one night on her computer screen after Justin, then a high school sophomore, had gone to bed. He'd written her a letter in which he asked her to buy him some girls' clothes. He said he'd been talking to a doctor online who recommended that he open up to his mom. Murphy sees in retrospect that this letter was actually from Chloe. "She was talking to me about it, but the word 'transgender' wasn't used," she said. "I was very ignorant at that time. You go into panic mode because it's your kid: 'Oh my gosh, is he gay?' I thought he was trying to explain to me that he had sexual fantasies." She went downstairs and found Justin already in bed, asleep. She crawled in beside him and whispered in his ear, "I love you regardless." Remembering this moment, Murphy broke down crying.
When she brought up the letter to Justin later, he brushed it off, saying it was just a phase he was going through. In truth, it was much more. It was around this time that Justin/Chloe started having panic attacks. Murphy urged him to seek counseling. A therapist they consulted together recommended Justin be put on antidepressants, but he feared they would turn him into another person. Murphy said the most painful thing now is looking back and thinking about how much pain her child was in. Justin may not have been bullied, she said, but his true self -- Chloe -- lived in fear and shame. "Growing up in the community we grew up in, the high school Chloe went to, there was no way she could come out. She coulda been beaten up. There's so much hate in these kids these days." Self-hatred, too: Chloe, Murphy recalled, always showered in the dark.
After graduating high school last year, Chloe (publicly still Justin) moved to Humboldt County with a friend, looking for adventure. They ended up living on Clam Beach for a while, which worried their parents (Chloe was just 17 at the time), who helped the two find a rental in Eureka. Chloe attended classes at College of the Redwoods (though never officially registered) and talked about majoring in environmental science. On her way home for Christmas vacation, Chloe finally came out completely to her mom in a series of text messages.
"I embraced it," Murphy said. In fact, while many parents struggle to accept their transgender kids, Murphy considers it a blessing, despite the tragic end. "A mother and her son is a pretty close bond. A mother and her daughter is a pretty close bond. And I got to have both of those," Murphy said. "I'm lucky that I got to meet Chloe -- and do her hair, her makeup and have her tilt her head at me and say, 'Thanks, Mama.' What a blessing."
Ultimately, though, Murphy understands why the road ahead must have looked bleak to Chloe. Even people who support gay and lesbian causes can have difficulty understanding transgender issues, she said. Hatred, bullying and discrimination aren't limited to high school. Through Chloe's death, she and her husband hope to reach out to parents and teens in an effort to change that landscape. (They're currently working to establish a nonprofit to those ends.) And they're hopeful that society is slowly, reluctantly making progress. "Unfortunately it wasn't soon enough for my little Miss Chloe," Murphy said, crying again. "But I think she's going to be pretty amazed when she sees us 20 years down the line. I definitely believe that, and I'm gonna be part of that movement."