The book Real Queer America, by Samantha Allen, tells stories of the LGBT individuals and communities in our country’s conservative states. The book is a product of a six-week road trip crossing the country. Allen tells the stories of the fellow members of the LGBT community she met with during her trip alongside her own story from, as she writes, “a suit-and-tie-wearing Mormon missionary who cited the Bible to denounce homosexuality” to a proud transgender woman and award-winning journalist.
I actually knew Allen, which is how I found out about this book. We started as freshmen at Brigham Young University at the same time, and Allen was one of the little group of good friends I found there during my first year at college.
BYU was such a happy time for me. My years in junior high and high school had been completely consumed with undiagnosed depression and social anxiety. I didn’t have friends during those times. I was never bullied at school—I was just invisible. What was almost worse than being ignored by classmates at school, I was the same age as lots of other teenagers at church, a large group, almost all rich and popular. I attended the endless required youth activities and camps with them, but I was so awkward and odd that they never talked to me or invited me to anything.
Moving just an hour south of my parents’ home into the freshman dorms at BYU, I got to leave all of that behind. I got to start over. For the first time, I was surrounded by fellow students who were smart and motivated. For the first time, the classes and teachers were amazing. Also new was that I didn’t have to hide any enthusiasm about learning—not just that, but there were things everywhere to nurture my curiosity. I always attended a biweekly lecture series about language learning put on by the humanities department, and after would wander the building to look for flyers for other similarly exciting (to me) programs and events. I took advantage of a free New York Times subscription, and would tuck the daily paper in my backpack every day with it sticking out the top. I would wander the library during my free time, where I discovered that research journals existed. And for the first time in years, I had friends.
BYU was the opposite for Allen.
As freshmen at BYU, I loved hanging out with Allen. She was clever and had a good sense of humor. She was creative, and even had her own website with videos and songs and writings. But this was life before transition for Allen—life as a somewhat awkward, uncomfortable, and a little-bit-odd young man.
Allen writes in her book about this time, and, unlike my own time at BYU, it was not a happy period for her. In Real Queer America, she talks about trying to suppress her true gender identity, about throwing herself into the LDS faith—and about horrible, wracking guilt. She tells of taking long drives at night looking for solitary places where she could secretly dress in a way that matched her identity. She says of Provo, Utah, where BYU is located:
I do not have many fond memories of my time [in Provo]. This is the city where I first felt the strange sensation of being certain that I was going to hell: a sinking feeling that starts in your heart…and slouches into your gut. I felt it every time I wore women’s clothing after dark and tearfully prayed to Heavenly Father for forgiveness the next morning.
Samantha Allen, Real Queer America
I also experienced some secret sadness while I was in Provo. Though BYU was an overall happy period of my life—especially compared to the years that came before it—I still didn’t totally avoid the black shadow of depression that has been a constant in my life since early adolescence. I still didn’t know what to do about it, though. During my time as an undergrad, I was still trying valiantly to hide that shadow. I didn’t seek any treatment, or ask for help, and tried to never let on to anyone what was happening to me.
Reading about Allen’s time in Provo—and about the private darkness she experienced there—reminded me of this. I was struck that both of us experienced secret mental suffering during that time. I was struck to realize I wasn't actually alone in that suffering.
The book also made me think about a mutual friend of mine and Allen's: Kaila Brown. She was one of my BYU roommates. Like Allen, Kaila was a bright star. She was quick and incredibly kind. She was passionate about English literature, and was obviously talented at the subject in a future-professor kind of way. After being out of touch for a few years, I looked her up awhile ago. I found out she had been a PhD candidate in English at Duke University, which didn’t surprise me. And then I found out…that she had died.
No source I can find says the word “suicide.” The best information I can find about her death is a quote from The Duke Chronicle: “…although cause of death has yet to be determined…foul play is not suspected.” And though no one will say it out loud, I think Kaila died by suicide. I wish the memorials about her would say it--say it, so that we could validate it, acknowledge its reality, talk about it. So that we could support each other. So that we could be there for those thinking about the same thing. So that people could say it when they're struggling.
I think back on the dark, horrible nights depression has given me, when it looks like everything in the world is impossible, and like there is no fathomable way to move forward. I think of the times I’ve literally collapsed from sobbing, unable to physically stand in the presence of overwhelming-ness of life. I think of Kaila, and what she must have been feeling when she died. And I think about how she must have been feeling those things accumulate over a long time.
I don’t know the details of Kaila’s death on September 21, 2014, but I believe we may have felt some of the same feelings during our lives. And when I read about Samantha Allen’s nights of anguish, I think the same thing.
Kaila, Samantha Allen, and I all crossed each other’s paths. I was feeling depression during that time. Allen was struggling, questioning. And Kaila—it seems likely that she was, too.
Why didn’t we speak to each other?
Why couldn’t we have stated out loud the things we were all struggling with? When we were all suffering, why couldn’t we have done more for each other—or give people the opportunity to help us with those struggles? Why did we decide—and continue to decide after our paths crossed—that those dark, terrible nights had to stay in the dark?
I guess I can only really speak for myself, and can’t say what these other two individuals did during this time to talk and get support outside of our interactions. But my heart breaks at the realization of the silent suffering of these two spectacular people—and it makes me wonder who else around me is in pain.
Though this book made me think about such sad things, it also offered hope. Samantha Allen did a book tour after publishing Real Queer America, and I was sitting in the auditorium of the Salt Lake City Library when she presented there. The person standing on that stage was a transformed person—and I don’t just mean in terms of gender. Allen was no longer the somewhat awkward-, uncomfortable-, and a little-bit-odd-young man that I knew all those years ago. The intelligence, cleverness, creativity, and sense of humor was still there. But now, there was also someone who was comfortable in their own skin. There was confidence. There was also real achievement—a PhD, a reporter, someone with a real-live published book and a book tour, for heaven’s sake.
That confidence has been heartening. It was proof that, in the words of Helen Keller, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” Speaking for myself, depression is still a part of my life, but so also is my life so much better than it was for that lonely high school student. In fact, I said to my husband the other day: I feel like life keeps getting better.
The stories in Allen’s book also affirm this idea. She writes about enthusiastic members of the LGBT community who live in areas where the political climate seems to be against them—but who choose to grow where they’re planted. She writes about individuals who have struggled, but who have turned their challenges into activism and supportive communities.
It’s an encouraging book, and I hope you get a chance to read it. I hope, as well, that its stories—our stories—help you reach out to others. Help you talk about the hard things in your life. Help you give, and also receive, help. I hope the courage of Samantha Allen in telling her own story, and the stories of others, encourage you to tell your story, too.
It’s time to get talking.
If you’re interested in purchasing the book
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More info about Samantha Allen
See more info about Samantha Allen along with links to her reporting published in outlets like Hello Giggles, The Daily Beast, and Paste, check out her website: http://www.samanthaleighallen.com/
More info about Kaila Brown
"Remembering Kaila Brown," with stories from people who knew Kaila
"In Memoriam: Kaila Brown," which includes photos of and stories about Kaila
"Brown remembered as 'pure, honest soul'." From this article:
"Kaila was luminous. She literally shone with passion for literature and ideas. I am so sad the world will never see the works she could have written.” --Toril Moi
"If she had something nice or positive to say, then she would say it. If she had a critique then she would also say it—but in the most loving way possible. She always spoke her mind.” --Mindy Vawdrey Martins