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Moments of Possible: Queer Joy, Resilience & Community as Suicide Prevention

Essay by Silen Wellington & 2021 winner of Paul G. Quinnett Lived Experience Writing Competition

When I was growing up, I didn’t feel possible. And I don’t mean possibility — my life was brimming with possibility: I grew up in Colorado, upper middle class, white, in the kind of suburban dream that included piano lessons and water fights with my friends in the park, Girl Scout camps, and stuffed animal sleepovers.


But still, something felt deeply wrong. Even brimming with possibility, something about me didn’t feel possible, and by that, I mean, I couldn’t see myself living for very long. When I looked into the future, I had some inklings, but on the whole, I couldn’t see what I would look like, what I’d be doing, or how I would be alive.


I had always been a quiet kid — one of those creepy ones who would stare into your soul and wouldn’t have patience for strangers’ small talk even at 4 years old, but depressed? Suicidal? Those words always seemed far-fetched until they started happening. My parents didn’t know what to do. Therapy, medication — I had all the material resources and privilege in my life to be happy, but still I kept seeing all these grotesque images of death flood my vision, urging me to follow.


I started cutting to get the thoughts of dying out of my head. It looked bad to my friends, to my therapist, but it seemed so much less bad to me than the plans for suicide I kept devising in my mind.


Sometimes, performance felt like a place I could be real. During a piano lesson, my piano teacher sitting frozen on the creaky chair, trying not to interrupt as I reached and reached for the revelation of Rachmaninoff, I hoped that if I played conviction, I would somehow start feeling it too.


But I didn’t. I didn’t feel committed to life. As promising as my future seemed on paper, so few things made me happy, and dreaming and musing about suicide felt calming, comfortable, an escape.


Though therapy and medication helped, what really started to change my life was finding LGBTQIA+ community, discovering who I was, and being celebrated for who I was. It happened slowly, over time, in little moments that gave me glimpses of possible.


In José Esteban Muñoz’s book Cruising Utopia, queerness is described as “the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality,” as “a longing that propels us onward,” as "that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, and indeed something is missing.” In that ephemeral, Muñozian way, I needed people to show me what was missing.


First, I needed to be seen in my wholeness, despite all the self-destruction and cutting that had ravaged my body.


A queer man at a youth summer camp gave me this first gift of possible. The first day of camp, I was paired with a now dear friend, Robin, for our body drawings activity, where we took turns tracing each other’s bodies on paper so we could fill them in with our stories through drawings and collage.


When it came time to trace my body, I laid down in something like a fetal position, but relaxed, my limbs reaching out, as if I’d collapsed on a set of railroad tracks. I was wearing a green dress that usually fell to my knees, but when I laid down, it lifted up a little, revealing the angry purple scars on my legs — battle scars, my friends and I had come to call them. I closed my eyes and stiffened as I felt Robin’s purple marker trace around my legs, anticipating the inevitable question I didn’t want to answer.


Thankfully, he didn’t ask in that moment, but we ended up at the same host family’s house that evening, talking throughout the lengthening shadows of sunset, talking about art and our parents and our journeys and how we decided to arrive at this summer camp. Then, after hours had passed without our full awareness of them, Robin looked me in the eye, gestured to my exposed thighs, and said:


“So tell me about this art.”


It was the most generous and gracious and understanding way anyone had ever asked about my self-harm scars. I’d been stared at. I’d been pointed at. I’d been asked with voices in shock. I’d been asked with voices in blatant disgust. What the fuck happened to your legs?? I’d been asked with smirks that knew the answer before the question, smirks that just wanted to hear how I’d lie about it. I’d been asked with voices laced with tentative fascination. I’d been asked with quiet horror. Never before have I been asked with the intention to know more about the beautiful parts of me. “So tell me about this art.” 


I felt that first glimmer of possible, that I could be seen, even amidst all my self-induced suffering, someone could still acknowledge the beauty in me, and that made me want to die a little less.


The next gift of possible I needed was to see other people embodying their own genderqueer-ness. The transgender, nonbinary, queer magic part of me needed a mirror so I knew how to name myself. I had known of a couple transgender people in high school, but I didn’t know their stories, and it never felt like an option available to me.


The only messages I heard about being trans were those stereotypical I always knew, I’m trapped in the wrong body kind of narratives. A cis-centric world wants to make being transgender the last option, an option only if your life is completely miserable without it, and my life seemed pretty precarious, but I didn’t think it was because I was trans.


I found the mirror of queer magic a year after meeting Robin & healing from my self-harm. I had gone to the mountainside to claim womanhood and Goddess, and found power in that. Part of me needed to claim those things to heal the wounded feminine in me that had spent so many years trying to be small, trying to disappear. In a community of queer people, witnessed by the ponderosa pine and aspen trees, I cut off all my hair to mark my transition into adulthood. Immediately afterwards, I felt this stirring inside me, this tug to talk to the nonbinary people who were with me on that mountainside.


“What does the sacred masculine mean to you?” I found myself asking, and the question unraveled every gender box in my head.


For so many years, I had been afraid of masculinity — equating it only with empire, destruction, violence, but the first nonbinary people I met inhabited a queer masculinity that was theirs alone, and it felt… alluring, powerful, gay, magic, and…possible.


Asking that question might have changed everything for me, because within 18 months, I started performing as a drag king, feeling like it was more a part of me than a costume, joined a transgender choir, started using they/them pronouns, and took my first shot of testosterone. It wasn’t that I felt the possibility of all these changes, it’s that something unnamable in me finally felt possible.


I began to understand myself in a lineage of queer magic. I started taking queer theory classes and learning about queer activists of the past, activists who threw Compton cafeteria trays, finally fed up about regular sexual assault from police, activists who interrupted Catholic mass with “die-ins,” who pulled giant condoms over the Paris obelisk, who, even as all their friends were dying of AIDS, listened to their unshakeable rage, and their unshakeable conviction that they deserved to live.


I felt proud, feeling my queer ancestors, the persistence of love — a community bound by authenticity.


Finally, I was made possible by being seen in community. Back to the mountainside to claim soft queer boy of infinite love, shapeshifter who knows wholeness on the changing wind, guide who lusts for the voyage of the underworld, I was held by queer community, and celebrated for who I was.


When I uttered those words, boy – shapeshifter – guide, to be seen as them, a trans elder took my hands in his and said, “You say you are an edgewalker, walking on the edge of man and woman, life and death, your history with self-harm. It isn’t hard for you to go to intense places, and that is part of your gift. I watched you with your long hair and your scars and it was not hard for you to reveal that to us. It was not hard for you to enter that circle and run off into the dark of the woods. That was your home, after all. Your edge is returning. Go to your ledges— I know you need them. But come back every time. Come back every time. Come back. Every. Time. We need you to.”


At last, I knew I had purpose. I knew I was committed to life.


My life was saved by my peers. By other queers who had gone through it, who found their way through the cisgender world, who listened so deeply to their own authenticity, they found within themselves a truth that had never been uttered before.


Suicide? Of course we’d all thought of it — the world tells us daily that we do not exist, or do not deserve to exist. Finally, I realized that all my suicide attempts weren’t really about me, they were about my environment, and the most rewarding rebellion I could dance was that of self-love.


I am trying to find the words to explain the trauma of erasure. To explain the trauma of not having seen examples of myself, versions of myself happy and trans and alive.


When I look at my family tree, my hands trace the names of ancestors, cloaked in feminine and masculine names, linked and remembered only by their heterosexuality. Floating over the branches, I linger in the absence, feeling all that is contained in the silence of our histories. It feels like the empty space in a cathedral, the after-effects of reverberation — unknowable, haunting, intangible yet lifting the hairs on my neck all the same. There is an unnamable grief within me when I reach for the faces of my queer heritage, wondering what stories, what practices, what magic was not passed down because of this erasure.


At the same time, there is something undeniably magic and resilient about trans & queer people. Though you cannot trace us in your DNA, we have always been here. There has always been this thing that today we call queerness. It is comforting and thrilling and humbling that no matter what I do, the future is filled queer magic. Because of all those moments of queer joy I found in community, I know that now, and I know that I am part of this magic, that I have to be.


A young trans person told me recently — I wish someone had told me about gender euphoria before gender dysphoria. I let out a sigh of relief — yes, yes, yes. Why do we measure our trans-ness by way of distress? What if I was invited to follow my joy? Instead of managing symptoms, what if someone had asked me, had noticed, if I knew enough to notice. What if my identity was not a negotiation, but a creation?


Today, I try to live into that creation, to let myself become again and again, to let myself be guided by queer joy, to express my queer joy so palpably that it sings permission to anyone who can really see me, let loose a current of possible everywhere I walk.


Today, I write from constant bewilderment. It was found along a winding path, one that followed none of my haphazard maps. My legs still show the ways I’ve gone, but the truth of the matter is none of it could have been planned.


Even now, my time is not yet. I’m sure there will come a further day when grief will shatter our bones, when the demon whispers of self-destruction beckon each of us in turn, when the floods turn over and the forest burns down, but we will still be breathing.


When those times come, tears sleeting my eyes, I will bellow a resounding thank you. Because I will be alive, experiencing all the peculiar sorrows and joys that encompass a life, ever grateful that I get to feel all of it. Perhaps it is a blessed curse, but still yet, the richness of living courses through my veins and even in my sorrow, I’m finding it such a gift to experience life. And that is the miracle of it all.


Instead of “remission,” I get to experience my unique sense of joy. It’s a joy always exceeding expectations. I find it dancing in my lovers’ eyes, in the ghosts I talk to through piano strings, in the genderful voices of my beloved trans choir, in the simplicity of holding someone’s hand, in the resilience of the friends that come to candlelit vigils sobbing, in the Silence before an audience claps, and in this tantalizing belief that the best things haven’t happened yet.


I know the worst things likely haven’t happened yet either, but I am convicted in my hope, and convicted in my strength to see this world through. My elders made me promise to come back. I made a vow instead of a promise, since I was the type of cutter who always broke promises.


Perhaps I will get seduced again into the dark of my own design. Perhaps I will get seduced elsewhere into something much more magical, some liminal place sharing awareness with trees and fae. Perhaps when the floods and fires come, I will be tempted to escape the suffering itself, and retreat from the storm.


Today, I stay alive for my queer & transcestors who couldn’t stay alive. I stay alive because the young queer ones need me to be. They need to see that there is more possible in the world. Trust me, I will continue to walk the edges; they are terrifying and beautiful places to be, and I always taste like magic when I travel to them. But I vow to always come back.


I have to—

For you,

For my community,

For all of us,


    most importantly,

For me.


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