Blake Brockington was raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was the bandleader and a drum major, and known as a talented musician and writer as well as a caring mentor. He was also crowned homecoming king of East Mecklenburg High School in February 2014, the first openly transgender homecoming king in North Carolina’s history, after raising $2,335.55 for Mothering Across Continents, an international nonprofit that works to build schools in the Sudan.
He was not born Blake Brockington, but that is who he truly was, until his death in March 2015.
“He was such a talent,” says East Meck teacher Martha Deiss. “He was so bright, an amazing writer, a great photographer…but he always felt like he was on the outside.”
Deiss met Brockington during his sophomore year of high school before he began his transition. She became his “school mom,” an ever-present source of stability and support during a period of time in Blake’s life when he felt his whole world was unraveling. He did not have a positive relationship with his parents. He was homeless and living with foster parents through his junior and senior years. He was prone to emotional outbursts and erratic behavior.
Deiss says the excitement from his historic homecoming win didn’t last long. “Blake told me just how ugly it was after he won,” she says, referencing the profound harassment that Brockington endured on social media and in person.
“From the age of six when he realized he was a boy he felt everything in his life was working against him,” Deiss explains.
Small victories came at astronomical costs. Deiss’s husband William Deiss, Assistant Principal at East Meck, was able to get Brockington’s name read as “Blake” during the ceremony and have it written correctly in the yearbook, but was unable to have the name written on his degree changed. Brockington was accepted into UNC Charlotte, but was forced to register under his pre-transition name and then placed in Greek housing, quite possibly the least tolerant housing on campus.
In high school, Deiss saw how the other boys treated Brockington. “They hated the fact that he thought he was a boy,” she remembers. “He never expected anyone to understand this; all he wanted was just to be accepted.”
As a drum major Brockington was forced to wear the uniform of the female drum students for two years, until finally in his senior year he was able to wear the tuxedos that the male students wore. He was allowed to play rugby with the other boys and was a strong player on the team, but when it became clear that the team would be going on to the state championships, Brockington knew he would to be forced out of play, so he chose to quit the team.
Deiss says repeatedly how intelligent and talented Brockington was, but how so many factors outside of his control created insurmountable hurdles in his life. He was a student in the school’s International Baccalaureate Program, but dropped out as the academic pressure became too much once he began living in foster homes his junior year. “Even something that was a positive in his life was too much of a strain,” she says.
At UNC Charlotte, Brockington attempted suicide. Deiss fought to have him stay at the school, begging the school’s counselor not to withdraw him from classes, telling them that he just needed to be around people and that he couldn’t go back to his toxic home life, but the school thought differently and withdrew him from classes.
On March 23, 2015 he made another suicide attempt. This time he was successful. He was one of three trans teens to commit suicide in North Carolina in as many weeks that spring.
One year to the day after his death, the North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 2, forbidding transgender people from using public restrooms that comport with their gender identity, while also overturning all local ordinances and protections for LGBTQ citizens and banning communities from ever enacting such protective policies again.
Even before HB2 was passed, transgender persons struggled to find acceptance in ideologically intolerant North Carolina. After it passed, such intolerance was not only normalized, but was actually written into law.
Time Out Youth Center in Charlotte provides a safe place for LGBTQ youth and allies with a number of different programs and resources available to support youth. (Brockington had received assistance from the organization himself at one point.) Time Out Youth Outreach Worker Parker Smith is now the lead for the Center’s trans and nonbinary discussion group and is the only trans person on staff. Time Out estimates that almost 40 percent of the 200 youth they work with identify as trans, nonbinary, or gender diverse.
According to the Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth, nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives, and one-quarter report having made a suicide attempt.
Smith says, “Calls to the Trans LifeLine have doubled since HB2 passed. There’s a literal body count to HB2 already. But we haven’t lost any of our kids since I’ve been here.”
Smith started working at the Center about a year ago, and says that for the kids there, just seeing Smith there and having that person they can relate to who has gone through the same things they have is huge.
“I’m proof that you can get through adolescence; that you can survive,” Smith says. “I’m a real adult that is alive, that’s here, that sees you and wants to help. A lot of us are poor. A lot of us are homeless. We have extra high HIV rates, extra high poverty rates, extra high homelessness rates, but we can survive. We can do this. [The Center is] here; we’re in the middle of North Carolina, we’re here, we exist.”
The Center offers assistance with finding safe housing, assisting with clothing and food, paying for hormones, providing emergency financial assistance, and any number of other services a trans teen might need. “We’re sort of an oasis in a very dangerous climate,” Smith says.
Smith also says that the Trans LifeLine, a hotline staffed by transgender people for transgender people, is “absolutely vital.” They say, “To any trans folks that are out there, the Trans LifeLine is a really great lifeline. A lot of trans folks go through a lot of horrible things, but we know what you’re going through.”
Brockington may not have ever known this while he was alive, but as a drum major, bandleader, student mentor, and LGBTQ activist he was an inspiration to many, and the impact he had on the lives of the people around him continues to reverberate, like ripples in a pond that get larger and larger.
Emilio Regino, one of Deiss’s students and a second drum major and junior at East Meck, remembers, “On one of my first days at band camp, I called Blake ‘Lashonda’ and after I realized my mistake, I was scared because I thought that Blake, a senior, was going to go off on me, a freshman. I was surprised that Blake didn’t yell at me. Blake simply corrected me and helped me on what I needed.
‘It was then that I realized what kind of a person Blake was…[He] taught me a life lesson that day which was that since we are all people and human, we shouldn’t allow barriers to separate us. From that moment, I knew I wanted to be a drum major so I could also have the same impact on people, especially those making the tough transition from middle school to high school, and hopefully inspire others to do the same when I graduate, just as Blake had for me.”
Julia Whalen, another of Deiss’s students and now a senior band drum major, remembers Brockington as “one of strongest, most respected, and most loved members of the band.”
Whalen was one of the band students instrumental in putting together a GoFundMe fundraising campaign to commission a new piece of music in memory of Brockington to be played by the band in 2017 – the last year any students who would have played with Brockington will still be at the high school.
“For a year now, we have been looking for a way to honor Blake,” Whalen says. “We now hope to perform a commissioned piece in his name; I can’t imagine a better way to honor a musician.”
Deiss also can’t imagine a more fitting tribute, and it was important to her that it came from the band. When asked who they would like to have write this commissioned piece, Deiss says she would love to have Ed Sheeran, remembering a time Sheeran played in a little club in Charlotte before he was famous and Brockington went to see him on a school night. “We gave him shit for it!” she laughs.
But, assuming Sheeran isn’t available, Deiss says they are open to working with anyone who supports Brockington and the things he believed in – quite simply, widespread acceptance and equal rights for all.
For more information about the planned commissioned music piece, contact Kathie Bokhoven at email@example.com.