Levi MartinAge 17 (born 19 Mar 2005)
18 Dec 2022
Lakeville, Massachusetts (USA)
Levi died by suicide.
We’d like to thank Dave and Kimi Martin for graciously sharing the precious life and story of their child, Levi, with us this week. Levi would have turned 18 this last Sunday, March 19th. (Trigger-warning: suicide)
Levi is our intersex, transgender, gay son who was assigned female at birth. While he was raised as a girl, we didn't know that his DNA was male. He had a condition called Swyer's Syndrome.
Levi's death by suicide had many reasons - a major one was his terror over how society treated transgender people. The recent actions of several states to ban transgender care for minors validates the fear he felt. Unless you have proximity, you have no understanding of how awful these bans are and how many precious lives will be lost.
Kimi and I share Levi's story, (he was too afraid to come out in his mortal life), in the hope that those without proximity to transgender people might gain understanding, and thus, compassion. Our call as humans is to learn to love better, not judge better.
Here is Levi’s story as given in his eulogy:
I want to tell you a story. A love story. And nothing to do with a Taylor Swift song about Romeo and Juliet, but about our son Levi. Like any good love story, it begins with love and in the middle, there is difficulty, hard times, and even tragedy. But like any good love story, it ends in love. With a love that doesn’t end but keeps growing and moving forward.
We hoped we were done after six kids. We were pretty sure. Not totally sure. Surely God would agree that six completed our family. We were tired, busy, and old (in our 40’s). However, the thought our family was not complete was constant, even though Kimi did her best to ignore it. We had to pray about it. And we did. And then we weren’t sure. So we decided to move forward with faith.
Well into Kimi’s pregnancy, we had a very bad week and all got sick. Following the admonition of James, we sent for the elders, in this case our friend, Quinn Millington. to receive a blessing by the laying on of hands. He gave each family member a blessing. Then he began to bless Dave, and part way through the blessing, he fell silent, a silence that went on and on. When he concluded the blessing, he explained that he had been overcome by a feeling, that it was almost like a massive wall or building that descended on him, that it was so large he couldn’t put it into words for a long, long time.
Quinn shared with us what he could at that time, and recently shared even more. He said, “There was a sense of deep gratitude and love that burned in my heart. I believe the Lord wanted to express His deep trust, gratitude and love for you and Kimi for your willingness to bring another of his precious children to earth. I also believe he wanted you to know of his deep love for Levi.”
On March 19, 2005, in Montgomery, Alabama, this child was born. We named the child Emma. Because we didn’t know. Our son Garrett had older sisters and one younger sister, and he desperately wanted a brother. He and our newest bonded quickly.
The child was different from the first day. Most babies are loose, relaxed, uncoordinated, and need a lot of support. This baby was tense and triggered by stimuli. As early as the second day of life, he could tense up so thoroughly that holding him was like holding a stiff board. He showed early signs of anxiety, even as a newborn. If Kimi held him facing out while walking down the stairs, his little body would tense up until his arms were raised above his head.
He was so loved. His siblings fought over who got to hold him. We weren’t sure he would ever learn to walk.
When Levi was eighteen months, we moved to Massachusetts. Our surroundings are information, and too much happens in them for us to take it all in. But this child seemed to take in far more than average. He would not wear jeans nor new clothes—everything had to be used, broken in, smooth. We later learned that one of Levi’s challenges was Sensory Modulation Disorder which basically means a condition in which non-painful stimuli such as types of touch or certain sounds or volume are perceived as abnormally irritating, unpleasant, or even painful.
We lived in a house with an in-ground pool, and he loved the pool, loved swimming, loved the feel of cool water against hot skin on a steamy summer day. He wrote these words at age 13: “Swimming, to me, is very peaceful. When you go fully submerged underwater, you feel warm and comforted from all the pressure around you. Most of the time it is very quiet underwater, if not completely silent, and you can make sounds that nobody can hear. Because I love music so much, I sing songs and vocalize songs from shows and movies and games. Whenever I get out of the pool, all that I want to do is go back into the peaceful water. It is almost like nothing exists.” As he grew older and his body began to change, he did not like swimming in front of other people—he was self-conscious and felt the eyes of other people on him.
He learned to read at a young age—not sight words and picture books. Kimi recognized that he was ready, she had taught his siblings to read, but with Levi’s independent nature, he didn’t want any help. She set him up on a computer program and he was reading within a matter of hours, prior to starting kindergarten. He learned to read deeply, and it became critical to how he processed the world. In fourth grade, he read Huckleberry Finn. In Sunday School, his teachers gave each child chances to read. He grew impatient with those who could not read big words, struggled to sound out words, measured their words awkwardly. His mind raced and chased ideas in circles and spirals. We could not name a topic on which he hadn’t researched and for which he had no opinion.
He took piano lessons from various teachers, and he gained a sound early mastery, but he came to hate performing. In time, he asked to be able to stop taking lessons even though he loved to play. His social anxiety made them too difficult. When he gave up piano lessons, he continued to teach himself piano on his own. Sometimes, we would leave the house and come back to find him playing beautifully on his own. We hated to announce our presence because he would stop—he did not perform.
Yet, for all his reluctance to perform and to be seen, in school and elsewhere, he was a constant chatterbox, and one with no filter. The words he inhaled from reading books and articles online had to find their outlet, and he spoke them without regard to the audience. In school, he talked constantly to whoever was seated next to him, and frequently, the two of them got into trouble. Further, even at the earliest ages, he challenged everyone on everything if he was convinced he was right. He pushed teachers with incisive questions, argued with points he believed to be false, almost never backed down.
In third and fourth grades, it was too much, and we home schooled him. Academically, he soared, and he was relieved without the social strain, but keeping pace with him and giving him social opportunities to develop generated new challenges in the family, and eventually, he returned to public school. Whether at home or at school, his grades were impeccable: straight A’s. But socially, everything was a strain. His constant chattering ultimately led to people shutting him down and out. It hurt, and he withdrew and became more suspicious of people.
And then, seventh grade.
We did not know, and we could not see the big picture. When you live with someone, changes creep up on you, and you amalgamate them into your understanding of a person without necessarily seeing how dramatically something has shifted. In seventh grade, he began to struggle to complete homework. He appeared uninterested and unmotivated even though the work was intellectually easy for him. One would not think that B’s would signify much—they typically don’t. But what did was the apparent lack of effort, the tendency to have assignments slide by with no recognition that finishing them was important.
What do we think now? Based on what we now know, what should be happening in puberty was not, and the disconnects in identity were probably starting to create foundational strains.
In Church, he remained talkative and challenging. One of his Sunday School teachers described him as “savagely smart” and “the smartest kid I’ve ever taught” (to the chagrin of his siblings whom this teacher also taught). This teacher emphasized that students must try to stay ahead of him, and he sometimes sent home subjects to research. He needn’t have bothered—our child had been researching everything all along, and Levi didn’t bother with these.
In eighth grade, we were finally able to find him a therapist. After a few months, the therapist indicated that he might be a threat to himself. We had him admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and he enjoyed it—played Phase 10, talked openly, did outdoor activities. He came home with a series of medical appointments and diagnoses. He was ADHD, prone to severe depression and anxiety, capable of dissociation. He went back to school, took on medicine and therapies and disliked all of it. He spent much of his time in the counselor's office, completing school work there. Kimi also spent a lot of time there, working with the counselor to determine which classes could be dropped, and which needed to be continued to avoid a failing grade.
He was convinced he would die young. He read up on all his diagnoses and added his own—he became convinced he was on the autism spectrum. Later, another doctor would diagnose him with borderline personality disorder.
One day, a friend’s mother called to tell us that he had been cutting and had drunk a small amount of nail polish remover. We explained to him that he had to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital again. This time, the experience was a slog in a drab building with lots of boredom.
No, he told them, he wasn’t suicidal. Yes, the program was helping. No, he was not a threat to himself. No, he would never cut again. Yes, he would seek out therapy and ask for help and take his medicine and talk to his parents and do stress relief and exercise and meditate and journal and relax. Could he go home now and not come back? Of course.
His ninth-grade year started out well. Because of his poor grades in the spring, the school wanted to lower the rigor a bit, but he argued with the school to let him take honors classes, showing that he was impossibly bored in standard classes, and that he could manage honors classes. He wanted to handle it himself, seeking out the guidance counselor without letting Kimi know what he was doing. He had to argue hard and long for honors classes. He prevailed. And then, he didn’t or couldn’t keep pace. We did not understand. We wondered if it was lack of willpower, failure to manage mental illness, lack of desire. Meanwhile, his ever-bright brain burned hot, and he researched and researched, endlessly chasing ideas. There were no definitive answers to the questions he asked because there were always more questions beyond them.
When he was in tenth grade and just as the pandemic was developing, a friend of ours had a son come out publicly as gay. This friend stepped away from Church leadership positions. On Sunday one day, this friend went to the pulpit and gave his witness of the love of God and the need to love all our brothers and sisters. He affirmed the dignity of LGBTQ+ people. As our friend walked away from the pulpit, our youngest looked at him with a huge smile and made two huge thumbs up. We should have known something. But changes creep on us. We fail to connect details to the narratives of our lives. Or we shape the details to fit the narrative we have formed.
“Emma” should have started having her period but hadn’t. So doctors resorted to hormone therapy to help trigger them. Sure enough, we found our youngest wasn’t taking the medicine. Kimi challenged him and insisted that the medicines had to be taken because failure to do so could be dangerous. The performative non-performer looked at Kimi and said, “Well, the thing is, ha ha, I’m trans.” Kimi was unmoved. “Throwing something like that at me isn’t going to change the fact that you have to take the medicine.” This time he was more serious, “Mom, really, I’m trans.”
Kimi accepted him. He didn’t want Dave to know. Dave had been a Latter-day Saint bishop and a member of stake presidencies. He followed rules and obeyed Church authority.
Dave proved to be surprising. He accepted our youngest as he was, and he began to read and research. He was a Sunday School teacher, and soon he was giving lessons on what the Bible had to say about helping the marginalized.
A few months later, when developmental changes were still not happening, our youngest underwent a battery of tests, and soon, much greater information emerged. Through genetic testing, we gained an understanding we never had.
All of us are both profoundly similar to each other and all of life, and yet, we are also completely unique. This is a duality, and dualities exist everywhere.
Our youngest had Swyer Syndrome. Swyer Syndrome describes a series of genetic mutations that cause an individual to express female anatomy, while the person is genetically male. In other words, our youngest had all the body parts associated with females except he wasn’t female. He had XY chromosomes—if he were to die and have to be identified via DNA, a medical examiner would say he was male. In our youngest’s case, he was his own special brand of unique: doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital had never seen his particular mutation in the portfolio of Swyer cases they had dealt with. Ours was literally a sample size of 1.
Levi reacted by doing what he always did—he researched. In short order, he was more expert on intersex conditions than most medical professionals. Doctors would begin to discuss something with him at a simpler level, then say, “Wait. I forget that you are you,” and they would switch and begin to speak with him as a peer, as if he were a medical resident.
DNA is what makes us both unique and similar. It should not be a surprise that it is a duality of sorts, itself. In 1953, Dr. James Watson struggled to understand DNA’s shape until he had a dream in which he saw intertwining snakes with heads at opposite ends (other accounts indicate he also saw a double-sided staircase).
We asked our youngest how he identified himself, and he said that he was “intersex, leaning toward male, and gay.” We asked what name he should go by, and he originally selected “Twine.” We didn’t understand and thought it a curious choice. He never explained, and in short order, he came to dislike the name and would eventually discard it. Intersex individuals with Swyer often select the direction they wish to go, and many choose to honor the anatomical presentation and proceed with female-related hormone therapy. Our youngest did not feel female and did not believe he had ever been meant to be female. He began early steps toward transition.
We asked if he might wish to cut his hair, and he declined. We asked if he might wish to discard his dresses, and he said, “No, I might still wear them.” The duality was powerful and also almost entirely misunderstood by everyone.
When we are born, we begin to die. And most faiths view death as a birth into a new life. These, too, are dualities. When we felt that there must be another child, we accepted, as well, that we were birthing a child into both life and death.
On Sunday, December 18, 2022, we had finished preparing dinner and we called to our youngest, our only child at home. No response. Dave went to the basement. The door was closed tightly, and a note had been placed there. It began, “Don’t open Door. Call Police.” It was a small act of grace that preceded the pouring out of the years of pain and fears that he had experienced. He apologized and expressed his love. He feared turning eighteen and trying to navigate as an adult. He explained that he could not get himself to do anything and couldn’t see being able to do so. He couldn’t live as a woman but be a man; he couldn’t bear to come out even to some family members, though he knew he was loved. In his words, “I … can’t take living like a girl, being the way I am, yet I am too much of a coward to come out to my siblings, or to do anything to make my body match my mind more. I am terrified of how society treats transgender persons.” He made clear that the decision was his and no one was at fault; he indicated that the media and what he read or saw should not be blamed. His final sentences state that “This is not the fault of any of you. My brain is just faulty. I’m excited to finally be free.”
Ultimately, he signed his letter. His signature is clear, certain, and confident. For it, he used a name he had recently come up with and had asked his parents to use. Its origins are Hebrew, and in the same way that twine’s first dictionary definition is “a strong string of two or more strands twisted together,” his new name means, “united, joined, adhered to, joined together, or joined in harmony.”
We don’t know if he chose it deliberately, but Levi is the perfect name.
We are here today to celebrate the life of Levi. He was spunky, sassy, feisty, and confident, until he wasn’t. He was funny, intelligent, quirky, argumentative, loving, stubborn, and kind, always.
We are here to mourn Levi. This is a tremendous loss in so many ways, not just for our family or for all those who knew him, but for the world. He had so much potential. His future contributions, whatever they would have been, are lost to us now.
We are here to acknowledge Levi’s pain. Being transgender in this world was too heavy a burden for him to bear. He suffered tremendously until he just couldn’t suffer any longer. We like to think of him as happy now, something that we haven’t seen in a very long time.