The Anguish of North Carolina’s First Transgender Prom King
For more than two decades, Time Out Youth has been a central, celebratory hub for Charlotte’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens. On Wednesday afternoon, however, the mood at Time Out Youth was less than celebratory. Just two days earlier, Blake Brockington, a popular 18-year-old who was one of the group’s transgender members, apparently took his own life. “He was a leader, not just at our center, but in our community,” Rodney Tucker, Time Out Youth’s executive director, told TakePart.
Brockington’s death comes just weeks after the Charlotte community mourned the passing of Ash Haffner, a 16-year-old transgender teen who committed suicide. In recent months, several transgender teens across the country have committed suicide, driving a broader debate about our society’s understanding, and treatment, of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.
Just a year ago, Brockington drew national headlines for becoming North Carolina’s first transgender prom king. Photos from that night show the short-haired senior at East Mecklenberg High School, in Charlotte, grinning ear-to-ear—with all the trappings of prom royalty: a light-blue button-up shirt, a black tie, a red-velvet coat, a yellow-studded tie.
“Throughout my life, I haven’t always been treated equally as a male, so I’ve always wanted this, and everybody has told me I couldn’t do it,” Brockington told local reporters at the time. Brockington hoped his story would inspire other transgender youth, and said: "Even though you go through some things, and have some negative encounters in your life, anything is possible. You can do anything you set your heart to."
Brockington’s journey toward manhood began early. He was born into a deeply religious home in Charleston, South Carolina. Apparently, he was forced to wear dresses to church and family gatherings. “It didn’t make sense,” he told the Charlotte Observer earlier this year. “I felt like a boy.”
By the time he’d turned 12, Brockington had moved to Charlotte with his father and stepmother. The move complicated the already tricky puberty experience. “When I got my period my aunt told me, ‘Welcome to womanhood.’ I was like “Noooo!” he recounted to the Observer.
Brockington was a sophomore at East Mecklenberg High School when he began his gender transition. Eventually, he chose the name “Blake,” apparently because it came to him in a dream. He told the Observer that he liked how masculine the name sounded. It was at Time Out Youth’s annual prom that he finally got to bask in being a transgender man, a friend of Brockington, Joanne Spataro, wrote on a local blog. “It was the first time that anybody had referred to me as my preferred name, my pronouns,” he said. “It was the only place where I felt kind of accepted.”
But Brockington’s family struggled to accept his transition. Eventually, he moved in with a foster family. “My family feels like this is a decision I made,” he told the Observer. “They think, ‘You’re already black, why would you want to draw more attention to yourself?’ But it’s not a decision. It is who I am. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”
Brockington was caught in a web that’s familiar to many transgender youth. It’s difficult to accurately gauge the size of the LGBT youth population. But researchers have found that some LGBT youth—particularly those who lack family support--are eight times more likely to attempt suicide, and nearly six times more likely to report high levels of depression. Up to forty percent of the nation’s homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to some estimates. In some cities, like New York, a significant share of homeless LGBT youth are of color.
The stakes are particularly high for the black transgender community. According to a National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 34 percent of black transgender people reported a household income of less than $10,000 per year, and 21 percent reported being refused medical care due to bias. More than 40 percent of those surveyed had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.
Brockington spoke bravely, and publicly, about his own battles. “I felt like I’ve lived my entire life as a lie,” he says in the trailer for a short documentary about growing up in Charleston. “I’ve always been kind of different, and it was always a bad thing in my family,” he remembers. Even after winning homecoming king, and after raising more than $2,300 to help build a school in South Sudan, he said his classmates didn’t accept his gender identity. “It’s been really hard, Brockington says in the trailer. “High school’s been really hard.”
A representative from East Mecklenberg High School declined to discuss Brockington’s time there.
But Brockington’s challenges seem to have been magnified after his homecoming win. Articles celebrating his accomplishments appeared in local and national news outlets. While there was a great amount of support following Brockington’s victory, online critics were relentless. “That’s unfair to young men who were nominated and to the young woman who was voted queen, smh,” wrote one . “Maybe they voted for HER out of pity,” wrote another. “Its homecoming KING and QUEEN not TWO homecoming QUEENS [sic].” The criticism also found its way directly to Brockington. He later told the Observer: “This was single-handedly the hardest part of my trans journey….Really hateful things were said on the Internet. It was hard. I saw how narrow-minded the world really is.”
Brockington was a politically active member of North Carolina’s LGBT community, and his death is reverberating across the state. “He seemed like a really loving, exuberant person,” recalls Qasima Wideman, a 19-year-old LGBT activist who met Brockington at the first Trans Pride Parade in a nearby city, Greensboro, last year. “I admired how brave it was for him to put himself out there as a black trans man.”
At Time Out Youth, Tucker, the executive director, says there’s been an effort to increase its support transgender youth in recent months. That work includes adding a new weekly transgender support group that’s attracts about 15 participants each week. The recent deaths, Tucker says, “are definitely bringing to the forefront questions of how we can be supportive of people in transition and or who are gender non-conforming.”
And that support is crucial, as Brockington told reporters before his death. “I’m still a person,” Brockington said. “And trans people are still people. Our bodies just don’t match what’s up (in our head). We need support, not people looking down at us or degrading us or overlooking us. We are still human.”