It was Thursday, May 29, 2014, a month after I publicly disclosed myself as a transgender woman in an article for The American Prospect, after being away from the community for more than a decade. I didn’t expect to spend that morning on Facebook trying to convince a trans woman I had never met not to commit suicide.
“I’m stuck in hell,” Lilith Gütler wrote. “I’ll never get srs. Guys hate me. What’s the point if I know I can’t change it.”
The sentences flashed on my laptop screen one after another, sent from Lilith’s phone. SRS stands for sexual reassignment surgery, the only permanent relief Lilith could envision from the crushing gender dysphoria she’s experienced since childhood.
“I was trying to cut it off since I was a kid,” she wrote, referring to her genitals, “till I found out that I needed it for bottom surgery.” It had been only a couple of weeks since we’d first “met” online; Facebook offers a kind of instant intimacy, especially among trans people looking for support. Lilith was one of the first people I friended who I’d never met in person—because she’s trans, and I decided that trans women needed support more than I needed privacy.
Lilith’s story was hard but not atypical. She was still thinking of transition by high school, but her girlfriend (who later became her wife) dissuaded her, repeatedly saying that no one would accept her if she came out.
In a way, her wife was right. Growing up in Atlanta and working there as an electrician, Lilith could eventually no longer bear life in a male role and began to transition, even as her wife left her. Then no one would hire her as an electrician, because everyone had known her as a man. Then she took a series of receptionist and customer-service jobs that followed the same pattern. Things would be fine for a while, then someone at work would learn about her history and out her. Employers would either find reasons to let her go, or debilitating anxiety would force her to quit.
When Lilith told me she wanted to end her life, the words struck me so much harder than I expected, from someone I only knew on Facebook.
She was working as a bartender in a restaurant when a friend came in and accidentally outed her after getting drunk. Shortly after, Lilith decided to end her life.
“There’s just no way I can save for surgery,” she told me. “I’d have to do sex work just to afford to eat and buy my hormones.”
Such desperation was familiar in the closed Facebook group where Lilith and I met, one you could only find if you know how to search for it. Every day, there are at least a dozen posts to what I’ll call Top Bottom Girls (not its actual name). According to its senior administrator Rani Baker, it’s already the largest trans-woman-focused group on Facebook, with almost 1,300 members. Lilith’s dysphoria, though, seemed more extreme than most. She posted highly feminine pictures of herself yet lamented that she would never be an acceptable woman, and no one would want her. “Guys don’t want a fat girl that is sad all the time and has a penis,” she once wrote.
Having grown up in a Philippine culture more socially tolerant of gender nonconformity, I was perplexed by the extreme difference between how I saw Lilith and how she saw herself. And her pain became even clearer when we became Facebook friends, as I saw her interact with her wider circle. She expressed her loneliness, then met a guy who said he could accept her being trans—then disappeared after one of Lilith’s friends posted a picture of the two of them together. By the time she told me about wanting to end her life, the words struck me harder than I could have predicted, coming from someone I’d never met in person.
“If I can come up with the money for you to get SRS within six months, will you promise me you won’t end it?” I asked.
“Why do you want to help me?” she replied.
I didn’t have a simple answer for Lilith then—or now—though my gut reaction was that Facebook had something to do with it. I wondered how different this feeling was from my experience when I was transitioning in 2002, when the only consistent online contact I had with other trans women was on a now-defunct chat room in a still live but much less popular site called TGForum. Back then I was just a name and a picture, not even Meredith—just Em, those two letters and a face designating my identity. And even though there were regulars on chat, my memory is that I didn’t form intimacies with strangers there in the same way I’ve done so quickly on Facebook. I certainly never tried to help anyone the way I’ve tried to do with Lilith.
“There’s just no way I can save for surgery. I’d have to do sex work just to afford to eat and buy my hormones.”
I started to question my memory, though, after I got in touch with someone from TGForum chat, Jenny. We hadn’t talked in about 12 years, but she read one of my articles and found me on Facebook. Jenny was 17 when she first joined the chat, and she transitioned shortly after we lost touch.
Like a lot of early transitioners from that time, Jenny’s not publicly disclosed as trans (or “stealth” as we call it in the community), so Jenny isn’t her legal name.
She told me TGForum was the first place where she could safely recognize who she was, and the site became an important resource during her transition. And even though she didn’t keep track of people’s lives as someone would on Facebook, she still found herself deeply interested in people there, without feeling anyone was compromising anonymity and safety.
“I think the relationships could be just as intimate on TGForum as they are on Facebook,” she told me over a Facebook voice call. “They might happen faster on Facebook because you get to know more about people sooner, but the connections on TGForum can be just as deep.”
I remember Jenny’s vivacity, how excited she was to be transitioning as a teenager. I think many people there saw themselves in her and projected onto her their regrets over not transitioning earlier. They accepted her—maybe even envied her. Back then she had already somewhat masculinized, but because she transitioned so early, few people today could visually detect that she’s trans.
“For years I’ve looked for ways to fill that void,” Jenny said about the relationships she formed as a teenager on TGForum, “and I haven’t really been able to find it.”
Jenny doesn’t see Facebook as a real substitute, because she doesn’t feel safe identifying herself as trans online, even in a closed group. “Back then there were moderators and etiquette,” Jenny said. “You had a sense that things weren’t going to be put out there. I don’t feel that with Facebook.” The social network’s real-name policy makes it hard to maintain a “stealth” account, because it’s so easy to report it as fake and get it removed.
Rani Baker, the senior administrator for Top Bottom Girls, said that’s happened many times, including to another group administrator. Baker joined the group in June 2012, two months after it was founded; she became an administrator more than two years ago and has already seen dozens of other admins come and go. She’s repeatedly had to manage privacy violations; in just my year or so there, I’ve seen multiple accusations of people being involuntarily outed. Pictures posted privately within the group would find their way to the wider Internet, including voyeuristic “before and after” videos on YouTube.
Back then I was just a name and a picture, not even Meredith—just Em, those two letters and a face designating my identity.
“TBG wasn’t meant to be this big of a group. We’ve had to do a lot of adjusting,” Baker said of herself and the other admins. Much of that adjustment is necessary not just because of the group’s size but because of Facebook’s. It’s the dominant social network, so everyone wants to be there, but it forces you to be “real” in ways that TGForum and other anonymous sites do not. That lack of anonymity raises the stakes, especially for undisclosed or semi-disclosed trans women at constant risk of losing their support systems and livelihoods if the wrong people find out they’re trans.
Yet Facebook also provides a richer view of fellow group members. “In a forum you just get this tiny window,” Rani said. “But on Facebook you get a more robust idea of the personal struggles that people go through, their interests and all sorts of stuff you wouldn’t otherwise know about them.” That can create intimacy but also a certain kind of vulnerability—which can lead to tense exchanges. Arguing on Facebook feels like arguing with a “real” person, one who knows a lot about you. In the anonymous space of TGForum, in contrast, it was easier for me to dust myself off after a disagreement because the people I was arguing with knew nothing about me except a pseudonym, a picture, and whatever I chose to reveal. Again, though, the pseudonymous spaces led to different, perhaps less long-lasting connections. Maybe unsurprisingly, I’ve lost touch with everyone except for a couple of people, while I maintain ties with dozens of people from TBG through Facebook.
After all I’ve been through with Lilith, I can’t imagine ever losing touch with her. That morning last May, when she told me she was serious about taking her life—that this was going to be her fourth suicide attempt and this time, she knew how to do it right—I set up my camera and recorded a plea for help. I set up crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, hoping to raise the money for Lilith’s surgery.
My feelings were so raw that I find it hard to watch the video, to hear my words spoken through tears: “I made a deal with her so she won’t kill herself, to wait six months to see if I can find money for her surgery.”
At that moment, I genuinely believed she could die if I didn’t get her help. Every day after was an effort to find hope. By the third day, we had reached $1,000. For a moment, I believed we’d do it. We’d get the money; Lilith would get the surgery she long needed.
But the initial flood of donations slowed to a trickle. There would be $20 donations a couple of times a day, sometimes more, but certainly not enough to fund a $25,000 surgery. I felt awful that I was overoptimistic, and as the campaign came to a close two months later, having only raised $1,500, I worried that Lilith might complete. She started to sound hopeless again.
“It just took me almost two hours just to get the strength to make it out of the shower,” she told me one day, when she was at her worst. I kept talking her through it, proposing solutions, trying to find ways to make things work. I helped her strategize, trying to get her to see herself through my eyes, to see that she had options.
“I made a deal with her so she won’t kill herself, to wait six months to see if I can find money for her surgery.”
Her emotional ups and downs continued, but over the next few weeks her mood seemed to improve. She didn’t talk about suicide so much, and she started joking with me like she used to, about my new boyfriend and our budding relationship. When I said I wanted to visit her, she hesitated, but eventually said yes. It would be the first time we’d actually met, after three months of only interacting over Facebook.
“Thanks again for being so kind to me,” she wrote at the beginning of August. In her worst moods, Lilith would try to push me away, telling me to leave her alone. Maybe thanking me meant that she could let someone into her life, someone who would deeply care if she stopped living.
We dedicated the money we raised toward her transition-related expenses: the hormones that cost her several hundred dollars a month over the next year. It helped her to contemplate her long-term future.
Eventually, she decided to move from Atlanta to Portland, Oregon, a much more trans-friendly city, with low-cost trans-related medical care. Another trans friend she met online offered her subsidized rent. She had a plan and goals.
I finally visited her in Atlanta in August, shortly before she moved. She and a friend picked me up at the Amtrak station, and as we spoke for the first time in person, I began to realize Lilith was everything and nothing like the person I knew online. Talking about her issues so much, I never had the chance to learn how smart she is, about her immense engineering knowledge, or of her fierce commitment to social justice. I only knew a facet of her well; suddenly, new aspects of her revealed themselves.
I also witnessed the real effects of her dysphoria. In the South, the stakes of being identified as trans felt so much higher than in New York, and I saw the stress bearing down on her—a type of stress I had never felt. I saw it affecting her friends, too; they seemed to struggle to leave the house for fear of being misgendered or, like Lilith, worried about finding the money to get sexual reassignment surgery. This was not unusual in a crowd of trans people, but I also sensed an anxiety I rarely felt back East, where at least, most of the time, the environment felt like one supportive of trans people in theory if not always in practice. For all our online camaraderie, we lived in very different worlds.
We planned to spend the night at a campground with her friends. It was dusk, the rain warm in the summer, and light enough that if we ran between trees, we wouldn’t get drenched. It began to pour, so we decided to wait out the storm outside the women’s bathroom.
A group of teenage boys left the men’s bathroom and waited outside along with us. They were lost in their own conversation, and the rain was loud as it pelted the roof and the ground, but we were still careful to talk softly as we discussed Lilith’s plans, in case we said something they would overhear. It was the first time I had done that since I publicly disclosed as trans—talked about it within earshot of other people who I was afraid of taking so much offense that they might get angry and beat us up.
For all our online camaraderie, we lived in very different worlds.
These were young boys, though, I realized as I listened to their voices and observed their thin, shirtless bodies. There were four or five of them, maybe between 13 and 15, all with dirty blond hair. Maybe they were brothers or cousins. I don’t remember what they talked about and I wasn’t even listening, but as Lilith and I talked, I observed their comfort in their bodies, the sureness with which they inhabited their beings at the cusp of manhood. For trans women like Lilith and me, this was that part of life, adolescence, when the conflict between our inner and outer genders usually became more desperate, so much so that many trans women describe puberty and its rush of testosterone as akin to their own bodies producing poison.
I don’t know if that was what affected Lilith’s mood, but that night, as we went outside during a break in the rain and roasted marshmallows by the fire, she refused to leave the tent, cried and cried, talked about the hopelessness of her life. We tried to console her and help but she said she just wanted to be left alone. I stayed at the tent for a while though, just next to her, stroking her hair as she cried. I fell asleep that night to the sounds of Lilith’s sobs.
Lilith was in better spirits when we woke up the following day, and she drove me to an Airbnb where I would stay for the next few days to work on an investigative piece. I never did get to see her off at the airport; she didn’t want me to come say goodbye. In a way, those three days we spent together were just a blip in a friendship that will always exist primarily on Facebook, where we first met, where we still have most of our talks.
Over the next few months, I found out that Lilith’s doing better. She started going to classes at Portland State. She met a trans guy and started living with him in a trailer, camming to pay the bills. It’s hard work, but she feels she has no choice. It’s so hard for her to find a stable job.
“I’m tits and a dick and that’s what I have that is worth something right now so it’s what I use to survive,” Lilith wrote. She told me how important is to her that people hear this story—her story, and the stories of so many trans women—especially when the only trans stories most people hear are of celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner.
“I want people to understand that this life is real and it sucks,” Lilith wrote.
• • •
In January, just before leaving for the Philippines to write a story on the murder of a trans woman by a U.S. marine, I contacted about a dozen different surgeons. To change her gender on legal documents in Georgia, Lilith had to have an orchiectomy (a surgical procedure to remove a person’s testicles), despite it making later reassignment surgery more difficult. She worried that the orchiectomy would negatively affect the vagina she hoped one day to be able to afford. I made the calls and reassured her by finding a surgeon who said the orchiectomy wouldn’t have an adverse effect on depth and appearance. It was just another of the many indignities trans people deal with every day.
“Thank you. <3 You give me hope. I need hope. <3,” she wrote, three flashing sentences on Facebook chat.
And even though that was a scary day, it made me feel good to know that she at least saw into the future, saw that there may someday be a day when she could finally be the kind of woman she always wanted to be.
“Love ya darlin. Thanks for caring. It means the world.”
Her words flashed on my screen when I told her I was writing this story, more than a year after Lilith said she had lost hope. And even though we will go through our ups and downs, I’m still determined to help her find a way to get her that surgery, so that I will continue to see her words flash before me, words that Facebook and human connection online make possible.
For more information about suicide prevention or to speak with someone confidentially, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.) or Samaritans (U.K.). If you need to speak to counselors with experience dealing with transgender issues, contact Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860 (U.S.) or (877) 330-6366 (Canada).
Meredith Talusan is a transgender writer, photographer, and advocate whose work has appeared in VICE Magazine, The Guardian, The Nation, The American Prospect, and Buzzfeed among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @1demerith.
Illustration by Tiffany Pai