Legacy

Trans Woman Ashley Hallstrom: Let My Suicide Be a Lesson

As friends of Ashley Hallstrom grieve and remember her, we ask: What more needs to be done to combat the high suicide rate among transgender people?

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Ashley Hallstrom’s funeral took place on Wednesday in Downey, Idaho. It was, according to the Horsley Funeral Home, which organized it, a “private family graveside service” for a transgender woman—and much-loved daughter, sister, friend, and colleague—whose suicide has made international headlines.

Hallstrom, 26, killed herself on Oct. 14, in accordance with the words of her final Facebook post, which made clear that she was about to take her own life.

As with many suicides, the ripples of her death are being felt by family, friends, and former colleagues, who are asking themselves the painful, familiar, and probably fruitless questions of why, and could they have done anything more to stop it?

Some of those who knew her spoke to The Daily Beast about Hallstrom. Her mother and brother did not return calls.

Hallstrom’s suicide—reportedly the 20th of a transgender person this year—has been widely reported by the media, striking an echo to the response of Ohio teenager Leelah Alcorn’s suicide last December.

At a time of greater trans visibility than ever before—Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover and subsequent show, I Am Cait; the Emmy-conquering success of Transparent; the inspiring presence of figures like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock—still these tragedies occur, and Hallstrom made it clear to the world in her final Facebook post that life was unbearable for her.

“These are going to be my final words,” Hallstrom wrote. “I can’t stand to live another day, so I’m committing suicide. The reason why I’ve decided to do this is because I’m transgender.”

Shortly after posting the note, at around 11:15 a.m. on Oct.14, Hallstrom stepped into traffic and was hit by a large construction dump truck on U.S. Hwy 89/91 south of Logan, Utah.

“According to witnesses and information that we gathered on the scene, it appears that the pedestrian had jumped in front of that northbound vehicle,” Logan City Police Capt. Tyson Budge told the Cache Valley Daily. “We believe that the act was intentional. Evidence at the scene gave every indication that the driver had attempted to swerve and brake, to avoid the collision but was unable to do so.”

Hallstrom, a police statement read, was pronounced dead at the scene, and the driver of the truck was taken to hospital for medical care. Logan Police Chief Gary Jensen did not return a request for comment.

Hallstrom’s post lays out, with great clarity and eloquence, the isolation she felt, growing up—as her friends have told The Daily Beast—in a Mormon environment.

“From a very young age I was told that people like me are freaks and abominations, that we are sick in the head and society hates us. This made me hate who I was. I tried so hard to be just like everyone else but this isn’t something you can change.”

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Hallstrom made other things clear in this message: She had family, she was loved, she went out and took a place in the world, she enjoyed the world.

“I don’t want to be just another number of a tragic statistic. People need to know that I’m not just another face of someone they never met. I was alive. I have a family and friends that I love very much and I’m so sorry to them for the hurt this will cause them.

“I loved being around those that I love. I loved listening to music and singing. I loved going out to eat with friends and enjoying good food. I was a real person.”

She also saw her final words as a piece of advocacy: “I still want to help people and I believe I still can. Please share my final words. I believe my last words can help make the change that society needs to make so that one day there will be no others like me. Please help make this change because trans people are everywhere. You may never know who you’re hurting until it’s too late. Please help fix society.”

***

The thing Holly Glover most affectionately remembers about Hallstrom was also mentioned by others who spoke at a candle-lit wake held in her memory on Saturday night in her hometown of Smithfield, Utah.

Hallstrom sat, at the Logan, Utah, HQ of tech support firm Convergys, at a desk near the door.

“She looked up, waved, and smiled to everyone, everyone, who walked in,” Glover told The Daily Beast. “We would say hi, pass each other in the corridor. If there is one thing I wish now, is that I had hugged her, not just said ‘hi,’ and showed her how much she was accepted and loved.”

Glover was shocked when she heard Hallstrom had committed suicide. “I had seen her a couple of days before, said the basic greetings. I wish I had hugged her, done more than just said ‘hi,’ reached out more. I wish I could have been kinder to her. If I had looked deeper, I would have seen she needed more, she needed our support. It’s made me think that it’s not enough to just accept somebody. That acceptance needs to be active.”

The candle-lit vigil was organized by another colleague, RaLee Reidhead, who told The Daily Beast of Hallstrom: “I didn’t know her well. I would occasionally speak to her in the break room. Her story really affected me though. She was honestly a beautiful soul. She didn’t deserve to go through what she was put through, to be discriminated against as she was. It’s heartbreaking, and I felt I needed to do something about it.”

Reidhead works with the girlfriend of Hallstrom’s brother Brian, and heard the family might not have enough money to organize the funeral, so set up a GoFundMe page to help raise $3,500 toward its costs, a target that well-wishers generously met.

Dawn Blakely, a close friend and colleague of Hallstrom’s at Convergys, frequently burst into tears when speaking about her friend.

“I knew something was wrong,” she said of the day Hallstrom killed herself. “Ashley never missed work, and when I got home my phone was blowing up with, ‘Did you hear what happened to Ashley?’ I didn’t make it to the vigil: I wanted to go really bad, but under the circumstances I just couldn’t do it. I’m having a hard time sleeping right now.”

When Blakely first met Hallstrom about a year and a half ago, she was on her lunch break. “I saw her across the room, and she seemed lost. She didn’t seem to have anyone in her life, or maybe it’s better to say, like a friend to talk to.”

While Hallstrom had this sense of distance about her, Blakely, like others, recalled also how “she talked to everybody at work, she always seemed so happy.

“We had an inside joke. We worked in a place where we wore headsets. We would sing in a stupid way, ‘I’ve got my turtles on,’ because the headsets looked like Ninja Turtles. It would warm my heart to see her smile and laugh, and that is a memory I will always cherish.”

Hallstrom told Blakely she hadn’t felt comfortable in her (born-male) body from a young age. She had started taking hormones, maybe last summer, Blakely thinks. “She had long hair and always wore jeans. Her voice was soft, sweet, and tender. She was very against her male name being used.”

The workplace seems to have been mainly a positive, welcoming environment, though there were isolated, negative comments. “One woman at work said something about her when Ashley wasn’t there,” recalled Blakely. “I told her I didn’t ever want to hear the words she said come out of her mouth again.”

Glover said: “Ashley very much wanted to be accepted, and wanted to be engaged. I think she was guarded about welcoming people in, she wanted to make sure people accepted her.

“There was one lady who, not in Ashley’s earshot, said she didn’t agree with her being able to use the ladies’ restroom. Overall people were OK, but comments were made behind Ashley’s back that shouldn’t have been made.”

Hallstrom was one of the first people to engage people at work, Glover said. “One lady at the vigil said she had sat in the same training session as Ashley, and this lady was older and had some difficulties with the various programs, and Ashley had helped her.”

“We spoke about how she was doing,” Blakely said of her conversations with Hallstrom, “her treatment, the progress she was seeing, what the future held, when she was going to have reconstructive surgery. She was so open about it, and so willing to talk to me about it.

“Never—not one time—did I sense anything that was so bad it would lead to this. Trust me, if I saw any type of sign, I would have done everything I could to stop her or talk to her or something. I didn’t know she was feeling terrible.

“She never seemed so unhappy that she seemed like she would do what she did. It was completely out of the blue. I think she found Logan welcoming, but people here, society, can be so mean.”

Blakely had felt an immediate identification with Hallstrom. “I’ve been in her shoes. Being lesbian myself, I know how hard it is in society to be different, and so I befriended her and we became good friends.”

They both suffered, Blakely said, from “depression, being different, and living in a society that doesn’t accept you. I was lucky: My family is amazing. I was married to a man for 14 years, have three beautiful children, and now my first grand-baby. I tried to live ‘the right way,’ but it was not ‘the right way.’ When I came out, my family supported me.”

Hallstrom’s mom “was very supportive, but that had taken a lot of time,” said Blakely. “It was a hard thing growing up within the Mormon religion… I think that’s what was kind of in her mind when I saw her across the room: She needed a friend, she needed somebody.”

***

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, told The Daily Beast that Hallstrom’s death was “a deep tragedy. It rips apart a community. It also reveals and exposes a gap in outreach and services. We do a really good job in urban spaces, but not in rural areas, where the networks don’t exist.

“There is a sense of isolation in places like Logan. When we see a young woman like Ashley fall through the cracks like that, we must ask ourselves what more can we do to help. We want young people to feel they are loved, have value, and have gifts to offer the world. When you have a sense of purpose, the despair goes away.”

Utah—to those outside of it—is associated most resonantly with the Mormon Church, previously not known as a bastion of LGBTQ-friendliness.

The church has been making moves to change that image, most recently criticizing Kim Davis’s anti-marriage-equality campaign.

Salt Lake City itself may be on the verge of electing its first out-lesbian mayor, Jackie Biskupski.

Williams says, “Utah is a red state, not a redneck state. It’s very religious, but the Church of Latter-day Saints tend to be kind and good people. The LGBTQ community is tight-knit, and the Republican-controlled legislature passed a pro-LGBTQ bill for housing and workplace protection, including gender identity.

“We are protected in a way that LGBTQs in New York State are not. We have transgender lobbyists training the legislature here. They are present in Utah politics, but there is a long way to go.”

Sue Robbins, a transgender member of the board of directors of the Utah Pride Center, noted that a March Gallup poll had placed Salt Lake City as having the 7th-highest LGBTQ population in the nation.

However, as Robbins also noted, in a recent survey, it was found that 4.6 percent of the general population had attempted suicide, compared to a staggering 41 percent of the transgender population.

“A lot of transgender people bottle up their struggles and reach a point where they can no longer deal with it,” Robbins said. “They aren’t able to accept the lack of acceptance of who they are. It’s terrible: We need to look at support services, and advocacy.”

There is a disconnect, it seems, between the positive strides of popular culture, and the reality of sometimes harshly lived transgender lives.

I Am Cait shows a very particular kind of narrative,” said Robbins. “Caitlyn Jenner has the privilege to pay for surgery and assistance with her transition. Most transgender people don’t have access to health care and are working for minimum wage or are unemployed. These shows are important to get us talking, but education and equality takes time.”

If a transgender person “really feels the struggle is too much,” they should call the Trans Lifeline, Robbins said. “It was crushing reading Ashley’s Facebook post. I could sense what she was feeling just by reading it. I was feeling her pain. These are the people I want to help.” (The 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Line is on 1-800-273-8255.)

The fight for transgender equality is 20 years behind the struggle for LGB equality when it comes to visibility, Troy Williams thought.

“Characters and people have broken through in pop culture, but the majority of people do not know a transgender person as they know an LGB person. I say to follow the maxim of Harvey Milk, which was to come out, and from coming out comes strength in our communities.”

Williams worried that stories like Hallstrom’s suicide were “setting the wrong example. When Lady Gaga flashed an image of one of her ‘little monsters’ who had committed suicide, it’s a great thing to do to remember them, but I also worry it advertises their behavior as a good way to get attention.”

But Hallstrom’s suicide, and interrogating anything that might belie it that would help another transgender person stay alive, is surely vital.

Williams agreed. “There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings. People are just not widely exposed to the idea of gender identity. Transgender youth are not feeling loved, accepted, and part of something larger than themselves, and that isolation leads to despair.”

What can be done then? “We need more gay-straight alliances at schools, pride centers, and outreach programs, and networks of support,” Williams said, “so people come to know transgender people as their friends, co-workers, and neighbors.”

***

Further elements of Hallstrom’s life story emerged in others’ memories of her. Last October, said Blakely, Hallstrom moved to Minnesota. “She said she wanted to try something different, she had friends there,” said Blakely.

The night before Hallstrom’s departure, she was raped, she later told Blakely. “I think that’s why she tried to commit suicide in Minnesota,” says Blakely. “She went to the hospital there, she got super-depressed. She was very private. It took almost pulling molars to get that out of her. She didn’t report the rape to the police. I always told her, if she ever needed anything, to call me. I’m sure the rape stayed with her. Those kinds of things of course stay with you.”

When Hallstrom returned to Smithfield in May, “she seemed like a completely different person,” Blakely said. “Her mom, she told me, had finally accepted her, and she was living with her mom and brother, who I have met. They are beautiful people, so nice to talk to. We spoke about Ashley and her transition. Her mom and family were there for her, and supporting her. When she told me that, I was ecstatic for her.”

As for Hallstrom’s love life, Blakely said she went out on a date with a man a couple of months ago, “but it didn’t work out: He said she was too masculine for him. She never told me about being in love with or having a relationship with anybody: It didn’t seem important to her. She seemed content with what she was doing.”

We can never know the level of trauma and upset in anyone’s mind, but outwardly Hallstrom seemed integrated, and her Facebook post is intelligent and socially aware.

She herself had recently supported a fellow trans Reddit user, invoking her own experience of choosing to live as an example: “Please talk to us. Look at all these people who love you and will miss you. We all want to help you. Don’t give up on us and I promise we won’t give up on you.

“We will help you get to were you want to be in life. There are many of us that have been were you are now. I am one of them. My dysphoria nearly killed me to but I’m still here and I’m glad I am. We will help you get to where you want to be in life and all you have to do is let us help you.”

Hallstrom also posted on asktransgender, and reportedly complained, according to gaysaltlake.com, that her therapist’s methods were “outdated, but mentioned that, after six years of living full-time as a woman, she had ‘passed all the requirements needed for her to write me letters’ to go through sex reassignment surgery.”

According to Robbins, Hallstrom attended an Equality Utah ‘Allies’ dinner the weekend before she died, and didn’t express anything of what she might be feeling there. “Ashley had support,” said Blakely. “That’s what makes it so mind-blowing that she did this.”

***

Hallstrom’s funeral notice, posted by Horsley Funeral Home, is its own moving story of a life. In it, she is first referred to by her male-born name, with her chosen name directly afterward.

“Tyrel Dean Hallstrom, 26, loved as Ashley, was born November 21st to LaDean Harrison and Calvin Hallstrom in Pocatello, Id. Ashley loved spending time with her family and friends, she enjoyed good food especially Blimpie’s. She loved music, singing, and spending time with her niece.

“Ashley’s goal in life was to help, to teach people to be kind to one another, ‘because you never know you're hurting someone until its too late.’ Ashley passed away on October 14th, 2015, she is survived by her mother LaDean of Smithfield, brothers Brian (Kylie) of Logan, Shane of Smithfield, and her beloved niece Hailyn.

“A private family graveside service has been held.”

The vigil for Hallstrom, says Reidhead, “was beautiful, people stood up and said things. The truck driver [who Hallstrom walked out in front of] showed up, no one knows his name.” Glover says a friend reported he was “visibly upset,” and wanted to remain anonymous.

“The vigil was unreal,” says Glover. “In a community as small-minded as ours it was humbling and eye-opening.”

The Mormon Church may be evolving, but vestiges of prejudice remain.

“Transgender people and gay people do not get enough support here,” says Glover. “There’s a high Mormon concentration, and while Logan is a college town, their cultural and diversity clubs do not bleed into the wider community.”

For Glover, it is surprising how quickly and far Hallstrom’s story has spread, across the country and the world. “She would have known her words would be read I think, but she would have possibly been surprised it’s been picked up as much as it has.”

“In Ashley’s words, society needs to change,” said Reidhead. “If society would have treated her better, she would still be here. If the vigil and anything from it can do anything, it would be for people to open their hearts and change opinions.”

“Ashley was here for a reason,” Blakely said, “and I think the reason was to get the word out about what people are doing to other people.

“I had an argument with a friend, who said to me that Ashley had been selfish to commit suicide, but I said to her that she didn’t know who Ashley was. She was very, very intelligent, she was a mind-blowing person in the way she spoke and the words she used. She was very bright.

“I think she would want her legacy to be that people come together, and accept people for who they are. Everybody is a person, everybody is a human being. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, or Asian. Everybody has got feelings.”

Blakely’s voice broke. “I wish everybody knew her, or had a chance to know her.”

The efforts to build something positive from Hallstrom’s suicide are continuing.

Glover and a few others have created a Facebook page, “Ashley’s Inspiration,” “to try and spread the word that transgender people are people with feelings. Ashley felt ostracized, and transgender people should not feel that,” said Glover.

“We want Ashley’s legacy to be kindness. She was one of the kindest people I have ever met. She didn’t judge you for anything. Just as at work she looked up, acknowledged you, smiled at you, and welcomed you, that is the spirit of what we should all be doing.”