Elijah Harkness is a barista. He was 25 years old when I interviewed him in Seattle, WA, on March 01, 2016.
I came out as transgender three years ago. It was never something I ever considered. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home, and I was home schooled.
We went to church every Sunday and every Wednesday. It sounds like an exaggeration, but according to the actual definition, the church we went to was a cult. The standards that were set, especially for women and people being raised as women was so, so divided. You had no rights. Basically, you had to wear full coverage. You weren't allowed to speak unless spoken to, and weren’t allowed to watch TV, movies, listen to music, things like that.
I was completely isolated. Growing up, the last thing on my mind was, "I might be queer!" The first thing was like, "Oh god, what is going on my life? I don't know what normal is, but I do know that this doesn't feel okay." I struggled with that.
On top of all that, I grew up in a really abusive home. There was a lot of sexual and physical abuse, and a lot of emotional abuse and arguing between my parents. Having to grow up in that kind of violent and terrifying atmosphere made me really struggle with finding my own purpose, and finding reasons that I would want to be around, basically. It was like, if this is all there is—which it was, in my own little bubble—then what's the point?
That, combined with abuse, was just stacked [against me]. I first started to self-injure when I was seven. My parents took me to therapy. [It was] the only good thing they ever did.
Unfortunately, it was all religious-based therapy. It wasn't exactly conversion therapy, but it was similar in the sense that it was standardized, like, "You need Jesus. You need these basic principles that we've defined as religion. You need to look like this. You need to act like this and speak like this." All these rules.
I was like, "Okay, all these rules that I keep following aren't changing my home life. It's not changing the people around me, and it's not making anyone who follows these rules happy," so that didn't help. I continued in therapy until I was about thirteen, but I wasn't really honest and I didn't really feel safe in that environment. It didn't help, really.
When I was twelve, they started medicating me. I could write a laundry list of medications. I have a very conflicted perspective on medication. I think it can treat symptoms, but it's not going to treat the cause. It can be a tool, but you really have to focus on yourself before you can use those tools.
My first suicide attempt was when I was thirteen. My best friend at the time saw that I wasn't at school, because I was at home. I had overdosed on a bunch of medication, and she called the cops. For a thirteen year old girl, she had guts. We still talk, and I still say, "Hey, that was a really awful time in my life, but that was a really bad time in your life, too. Thank you for putting your problems aside and doing something so brave and scary."
That was kind of a wake up call to my parents like, "Hey, our kid doesn't want to live anymore. We need to figure out what's going on."
I started seeing a new therapist. After talking with her for a while, she got social services involved with my folks, which wasn't what they wanted, but it was good. Things got harder and harder, and then better and better.
Things kind of died down when I was about seventeen. My emotions kind of tapered down. I was in a sort of perpetual state of apathy: "If I wake up, okay. If I don't, okay. I don't care." I was just kind of going through the motions. I was continuously varying my identity and any thoughts related to that, and [I was] trying to get through the abuse that happened to me.
Realizing that it was abuse was a huge struggle, too—realizing that what happened to you and the way you were treated is not right. It becomes normal for you and you start to expect it. When you're not treated so disrespectfully, you question the other person. You think, "What are their motives? What do they want from me?" It makes you a really timid person. Out of that, I became very angry. I started to drink, do a lot of drugs, and get involved in some not-so-great lifestyles.
When I was just twenty-two, I was living in Montreal with my partner at the time, who was fantastic. Through all of these things that had built up in me, things that he saw kind of bubbling on the surface, he still loved me and supported me, but he was not equipped to handle the amount of shit I was about to explode on him.
The last time I attempted suicide was while I was living in Montreal. I almost died. I was comatose for awhile. I had no health insurance, so I didn't go to the doctor, and my partner didn't know what to do. He called a neighbor and they resuscitated me. I finally got everything out of my system, which took days. When you do something that traumatic to your body, you're going to permanently damage yourself, so it's like, "Okay, if you survive this, you're making things worse," which isn't necessarily something you think about beforehand, but it is a factor.
Later, when I finally was kind of rested and a bit more on my feet, I started thinking about why I had done it. It seemed [like I did it] for no reason. Like, "Okay, I'm feeling a little sad. Why did I jump from sad to this? It's such an extreme."
I realized it was because I'd gone to a drag show and met a couple of the drag kings who were also trans men. In talking with them and talking with some of my friends, I started to understand what transgender meant. By this time, I had had [little] knowledge about it as an identity. I basically assumed, "Okay, so it's men who want to be women, so they get breast implants, or women who want to be men." That's all I knew. When I started to learn more, I was like, "Holy shit. This sounds like something that would make me happy."
I started talking with people and eventually found a therapist who dealt specifically with trans people. She helped me see my identity as my identity, not tied to anything. I had often crossed the two—my identity and the abuse—and assumed, "I feel this way about my body and the way I'm living because of the abuse." Once I realized that my body is my own, it was like, "Okay, if this is mine, and not anyone else's, that means I can choose what I need to make myself happy." Then I started to transition.
I've been on hormones for a couple of years, and that helped a lot. But like I said, it's all about the tools that you're given, because nothing is going to fix you. You can't be fixed. You are yourself, and you just have to learn what you need in order to be happy. If that makes sense.
Des: Total sense.
Elijah: That's the summary of my story.
Des: When you emailed me the first time, you hadn't transitioned yet.
Elijah: No. My email to you was, I think, actually just a few months after I had tried to suicide when I was in Montreal. I was going through that process in my head and I wasn't out to people, but it was something that I was researching a lot.
Des: What happened to your partner?
Elijah: He and I split for a different reason, actually. I moved here because I sort of got kicked out of Canada. I didn't know you could get kicked out of Canada, but you can.
Des: How did you get kicked out of Canada?
Elijah: I was trying to emigrate, and Quebec is really picky on who they let immigrate there. If it had been any other province, I probably could have done it easily. He was going to school, so I wanted to stay there, and in that process we came back to the States for a holiday. Trying to get back in, they were like, "You don't have a job, you've not had an apartment here for a while. We think you're trying to get in here and stay here."
I was like, "No I'm not! Why would I want to stay where there's free healthcare? Where queer rights are already thing? And you guys have good food? Psssh."
He had to go back to school there. Because of the distance, we were both like, "Hey, let's cut it off now while we're still on good terms with each other." A little while after that, I came out, and he was like, "Oh, that makes a lot of sense."
He was like, "Hey, you know what, I'm a straight guy. I'm not into that, so it's probably not going to happen again, but I support you and I hope that you're happy." That's all I could ask for.
Des: Talk to me about trans issues and suicide.
Elijah: To start with, I want to say I have so much going for me. I'm white. I look like a dude. I've got a job, a home, a family. I've got a lot going for me. I have so much privilege. But regardless, transition is always this uncomfortable, unsightly [thing] that you can't hide.
Going through the process, you feel even more in the spotlight than you did before you started transitioning. Any sense of depression or suicidal thoughts you had, I think, can be increased when you first start transitioning. I was already uncomfortable with my body, and things started to change and get hairier or bigger or smaller or gross, and it was just like, "Oh, god. I couldn't deal with this shit for twenty-two years, and now it's getting different. It's not necessarily better or worse, but I don't know what to do."
For awhile there, it was kind of scary. My mood would change a little bit. Not as much as is assumed. Usually people think if you're taking estrogen, you're going to be crying all the time. If you're taking testosterone, you're going to be angry all the time. It's not like that.
Particularly for trans people who are even more at risk, like trans women and trans people of color, they already have so much to deal with just waking up in the morning. If they have any self-doubt, or any sort of depression, that's going to be so much harder to deal with when you're trans. You're a minority dealing with these issues, and if you go to someone, they're not going to see you as someone who wants to hurt themselves. They are not going to see you as someone who wants to kill themselves. They are going to see you as, "Oh, you're one of those trans people. Okay. So, have you had the surgery? How do you go to the bathroom?"
It's like, "Can we cut this shit for a minute? I'm upset. I feel this way because of this, this, and this, and you doing this right now is just making it worse. You're completely erasing the fact that I'm a human being."
I think a lot of people who are trans who [die from] suicide… it's not necessarily because they are being told by people directly, "You're a freak. You should kill yourself." We do get told that. I've been told that many times—but that hurts less than going to your best friend and saying, "Hey, I'm really upset right now, I could use some support," and having them say, "Oh. Well, I don't really feel comfortable around you anymore," or, "I just don't know how to deal with you." Things like that.
Des: I'm guessing that happened?
Elijah: Yeah, but like I said, I'm very privileged, so my experience with depression and suicidal thoughts, I think, have been more easily maintained because of that.
Des: You mentioned you have family. Did you create a new family, or have you made up with your family?
Elijah: A little bit of family. I have created my own family, because family is love and not blood. I have a really big, awesome family because of that. When I came out, I was on kind of tentative, okay terms with my mom. She lives in Minnesota. My parents got divorced when I was sixteen.
She and I have always had a weird, wobbly relationship. She didn't want to deal with me, so I was like, "Okay, that's fine. As long as you don't hit me, I'm okay." There are a lot of unresolved issues there, but she handled me coming out in the way I would expect. She was a very Midwestern mother. Like, "Oh, okay. Well, that's an interesting phase, honey. You just do what you need to do for now, and we'll talk about it later," kind of thing.
She doesn't really like to use my name, even though it is my legal name. She doesn't really use my pronouns, but she also doesn't use my deadname or mis-pronoun me. She just refers to me as her "kid." It’s okay. I'm twenty-five. If I was going to have an amazing relationship with my mother, I think it would have happened already. Like I said, I've got such a huge family that's not blood that I'm okay with having a rocky relationship with my mom. I'm willing to talk and work on things if she is. If she's not, I'm willing to wait.
When I was seventeen and I got kicked out, I was living with my father. He got custody of my sister and I because Washington State has ridiculous laws when it comes to family. They prioritize the father, actually, in custody battles. Even though my father had a police record of abuse and social services being called, and I personally went to the police at twelve years old, saying, "My father touched me," he got custody of me and my younger sister. That's something I'm still obviously a bit bitter about.
When he kicked me out at seventeen and said, "You're no longer part of this family," I basically was like, "Okay. Honestly, at this point, that's alright." I no longer speak to him or his side of the family, because they won't speak to me. I have reached out to my grandparents and some distant relatives, but that's all I can do. If they're not going to reciprocate, then that's okay. I'm going to go on with my life.
The family I have chosen is really important to me. They love and support me, and they nurture me and challenge me a lot, which is something I think you need in family. Like, "Are you being the best that you can be? Because we see so much in you." That's what I've gotten from my family that I've chosen.
Des: How can we make media coverage of queer issues and trans suicide better?
Elijah: They need to stop painting it as black and white. I'm so tired of seeing trans faces as you're a Hollywood star and you got it all going on, or you're a victim, or you're a tombstone. There's an in-between that suffers, but they're not dead yet. Just because they're not dead, doesn't mean we shouldn't care. There are a lot of opportunities opening up, and there's a lot more talk these days about transgender people than when I was growing up, but there still needs to be more outreach and more of a gentle welcoming community, I think.
The community has gotten so defensive because of all that we have faced—which makes perfect sense—but unfortunately, I think it's partly because of that, that young kids might go to their folks and say, "Hey, I think I'm transgender," and their folks probably react standoffish based on their assumptions of our community. It shouldn't be that the ball is in our court, but it is.
I think we need to take the initiative and say, "Hey, you know what? You're a kid, you've got some gender questions, and you're trying to figure stuff out. We love you. Even if you end up being cisgender, straight, whatever, we love you. You're a person. That's what matters in the end—you're a person. If you need help, you should get help.”
I think [it would be helpful] to show trans youth more faces they can relate to, and more people in the media who are like, "Hey, I'm trans and I'm happy! I'm trans and I'm successful! Yeah, I've got rough days. Yeah, I have thoughts sometimes that are dark and hard to deal with, but this is how I deal with them," instead of just one end or the other, like be rich and famous as a token, or you're going to die. It's pretty brutal.
Stop having cis people play trans people. They aren't trans and they don't know our stories. It's really, really disheartening and unrelatable to be watching a film or a TV show where there's someone playing someone who is supposed to be like you. In theory, I get it. They're an actor and they're playing a role. I love theater and I've played men, women, centaurs, all sorts of crazy things. But when it comes to mainstream media, they really need to be more careful and think ahead. It's not like they don't have the resources. There's a line of trans folks who are like, "I went to school for acting! Please let me at least audition.” We're getting denied even a chance to play a role to represent our own community. It's irresponsible. It's spit in the face of our community, I think, when they consciously choose not to hire a trans actor.
That's my perspective though. I know there are a lot of views on it, and there are a lot of specific circumstances, different stories, and things like that, that can change it. All I can do is research it myself and try to advocate for my opinion.
That's what I think these actors should do. If they're going to choose—because it's a choice—to take jobs away from differently-abled people, trans folks, people of color, etcetera, then they need to educate themselves and speak for those folks as best they can since they've pushed themselves into that.
Des: You said you started hurting yourself when you were seven years old. Can you talk more about that?
Elijah: I started cutting. Very shortly after, I discovered my mom had a bunch of pain killers. My main method of self-injury and the way I attempted suicide, predominately, was with [pills].
When I started doing all that, I didn't really know what I was doing. It was sort of like a tic, which is kind of scarier. I wasn't thinking, "I want to hurt myself," or, "I want to die." I was just like, "This feels good. I don't know why."
It does. It releases chemicals that trick your brain into thinking something good is happening. It triggers your pleasure sensors or whatever. I, unfortunately, made that initial association. To this day, that is something I have to be aware of. Self-injury feels good and my brain doesn't register it as bad, or as something I should avoid.
Des: You still have the thoughts?
Elijah: I still have the thoughts. Actually, after my last attempt at suicide, I started self-injuring more as a weird method of coping with not trying to kill myself. Like, in order to feel okay with my body, I'm going to hurt myself, because that's the most control I feel I can have over it right now. That means I'm still alive. That means I'm still around. It's not good, but it's a method of changing your body in order to be okay with it in that horrible spontaneous moment of not knowing what to do.
Des: Has it gotten any easier as you've gotten further in your transition?
Elijah: A little bit. My dysphoria has gotten worse. I think, mostly, because I feel the difference more.
Before, people saw me as a woman, so I could just sort of fall back into that. I have this body that people assume is woman, so they're not going to question it. Now, I have this hidden body underneath the surface that people see. Now I've always got to make sure that this is hidden, that everything is covered, and everything looks the right way.
I'm flamboyantly queer, but it's still this weird thing of not having the right parts and not having everything where it's supposed to be. Seeing things change is great, but it reminds you that there are things you can't change.
Des: What do you do when you are having the thoughts of hurting yourself? How do you distract from that?
Elijah: I usually clean.
Des: I need that coping skill.
Elijah: I don't why that's my initial jump-to, but that's what I do. There's always a chore that needs to be done. I can rely on that. I also try to take a walk. If I'm outside, there are all the health benefits [from that].
Also, especially here in Seattle, when you walk down the street, if you really want, you can have a conversation with every person you move past. You don't have to, but there are so many different kinds of people here that it's easy to have human interaction. Even though I tend to get pretty socially anxious, it's a lot better for me in the long run if I do have some sort of interaction with another person. If I get to talking with somebody, then it's like, "Oh, I'm suddenly in a good mood. I want to talk about this or that."
Then it distracts me and helps break down [the feeling] like, "Oh my gosh, why was I feeling like hurting myself just now? Life is amazing."
Des: Yeah, I put obstacles in place, too. Do you feel like it will ever go away?
Elijah: Honestly, no. I think a big part of my relationship with self-injury versus my suicidal thoughts is that self-injury, for me, is about changing my body, and suicide is about the end of having to be in this body.
I've come to terms with what I have. It’s sort of a love-hate relationship, but it doesn't mean I don't want to change. There's a limit [to what I can do]. Even if I had every surgical option open to me, there's still a limit. [I’m] still going to have these feelings, I think, at the end of the day. When you're transgender, the desire to change all of it is so overwhelming sometimes that I don't think I'll ever be able to completely erase those thoughts of self-injury.
Des: It sounds like the suicidal thoughts haven't gone away.
Elijah: They haven't gone away, but I almost never have real, solid suicidal thoughts anymore.
Des: Is suicide an option?
Elijah: I’ve been thinking about this since you contacted me. I [wondered], "If I were to wake up tomorrow and have suicidal thoughts, would I act on it?" My thought process was: for the longest time I kept trying to kill myself, and then I discovered what transgender identity was. From there, I discovered all these other genders, sexual orientations, and communities I had no idea existed. If I kill myself now, I might miss out on experiencing and learning so much more about myself.
If I'm going to stick around, I'm going to stick around for myself, and that seems worth it to me—to learn more about myself.
Des: Where can trans kids who are having issues with suicide find their people? Where did you find your people? I know you said at a drag show, but what path did you follow?
Elijah: I was fortunate. I went on a blind date with a trans lady. She was part of why I was learning more about things. She let me ask all of the inappropriate questions and make an ass out of myself—and doesn't let me forget it, which is good, because she shouldn't.
Through her, I discovered a group in Minnesota called RECLAIM. They are the therapy group who work specifically with trans people, especially trans folks with a history of mental illness, suicide attempts, and self-injury. Through them, I met a whole bunch of people. They had group therapy, so I met a whole bunch of other trans folks who were going through similar things.
As far as the internet, I know there are a lot of trans folks on Tumblr. There are a lot of trans groups that have connected through Facebook here in Seattle, like, I found a gender non-binary group, which is very specific, and I found them through Facebook. They meet twice a week or something like that.
There is also the Trans Lifeline. They're amazing. The people who are working on those hotlines are honest, good-hearted people, and they know what you're going through.
Des: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
Elijah: Like I said, grew up in a very abusive home. My father sexually abused me, and then later on when I was fourteen, nineteen, and twenty, I was raped by three separate people. I think autonomy and learning to love and own your own body is a big part of what can save you.
If you feel like you're owned by other people, you're not going to respect yourself because you don't feel like you have that right. You start to see yourself as an object, and [you start to think], “If they're going to treat me this way, then there's nothing I can or should do about it, because that's what I'm here for.”
That's not true. Everyone is their own person and deserves the right to their own body.
Des: Did you tell people when it happened?
Elijah: I did. When I was first raped, I told people. And then, because of the reaction, I didn't tell people when it happened later on by these other folks. That was actually a really rough time, for obvious reasons. The first time, I was fourteen. He and I were dating, but he was nineteen. I told him, "No."
My friends were like, "Well, but you were dating."
No. That doesn't matter. If you say, "No," then that means no. Anything other than, "Yes, let's have sex," means don't try to have sex with that person.
There's not an exception. That's something that's been really hard for me to learn, because I would basically give myself out for why it was my fault. Like, "No, no, no. It has to have been my fault, because I'm the one to blame," for some reason. You know, it's my fault for dressing scantily or looking at this person this way. Any excuse.
Des: Or having the body I have.
Elijah: Exactly. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that it doesn't matter if you're on drugs or drunk, or if it's your boyfriend, or if you've had sex before. If you say, "No," that means no. Your body is yours. As soon as someone does something that you're not approving of, and you're telling them you're not approving of it—even if you're not telling them and you've just laid it out, and they're ignoring those standard boundaries, then that's not right. That's a violation.
Des: What would you want to say directly to someone looking at your portrait and reading your story?
Elijah: You're never going to want to stay alive for other people. People are going to tell you, "You mean so much to me, don't hurt yourself. How could you be so selfish?" That's my favorite. When they tell you that, it's because they don't know how to react. They can't imagine that feeling of, "What's the point? Why am I still fighting? Why I am I still doing this?"
It's an uphill battle. You don't see there are changes, that there are subtle differences. It's hard to see because it's so subtle, but every now and again, something big will happen. You'll be able to experience something so new and amazing that you've never experienced before, something that you wouldn't [otherwise] know.
It sounds so cheesy, but you're going to fall in love with someone in a way that you didn't think you could. You're going to even feel things like pain and hurt in ways that you didn't think you could, but it's going to remind you that you're here, right now, because of every decision you made up until now to stay alive.
If you made it this far, you've already beaten so many odds. It's just one more day. If it's the worst, worst case scenario, you can make it through until tomorrow.
A lot of people think that's kind of cynical, and it is. But one whole day? That's nothing compared to the universe, but it's everything compared to one human lifespan. One day can change everything. Give it just one day. If you feel the same tomorrow, you can deal with it then, but if you can make it through one day and find a way to be happy, it's totally worth it.
There are a lot of really big things you can never expect, anticipate, or foresee in your life. Like I said, I never would have thought that, "Oh, I'm going to grow up to be a makeup-wearing dude." It never crossed my mind.
God, I wish I could go back to seven year old me, take away those tools, and say, "Hey. Stop. It's going to be okay." I wish I could tell myself that it was going to be okay.
I can't, but I can look back at all those experiences and say, "You know what? I made it through them not even knowing that I would be as happy as I am." Even though I didn't know my chances of being happy or successful, or the friends and family I would have, or the love I feel for the people in my life; even though I couldn't imagine any of that, I still kept going. And I'm really glad I did.
Des: You didn't even say, "It gets better."
Elijah: It can still get worse! I'm broke and I don't have a car and… there are still little things, but it's nothing compared to the whole scheme of things. So, yeah. It gets better, it gets worse… it gets different, more than anything. Everything changes. You have the opportunity for change.
If you're hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out to one of the resources below. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can't feel it—and you are worth your life.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada), or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. If you don't like talking on the phone, you can reach Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, or check out Lifeline Crisis Chat. If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world. If you are being sexually abused, call the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network's (RAINN) Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE.
Elijah's story is sponsored by a grant from the hope & grace fund, a project of New Venture Fund in partnership with global women’s skincare brand, philosophy, inc. Thanks also to Al Smith for providing the transcription to Elijah's interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.
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