Rick DeChiara can’t undo his daughter’s suicide.
He can’t erase the memory of coming home to find 17-year-old Alex hanging from a tree in their backyard—and having to cut her down. He can’t wipe away the recollection of picking up Alex’s high school diploma a day after receiving her death certificate.
“I can’t undo what’s been done, but maybe I can prevent somebody else from taking the same path,” DeChiara told the Observer this week. “That’s what I want to do. If I can stop some other kid from doing what Alex did, then I’ll be a success.”
Six months after his daughter’s suicide, DeChiara took a major step in that direction Sunday.
Along with his wife and Alex’s younger sister, he traveled from their home in Euless, near Fort Worth, to a Transgender Day of Remembrance observance at the Cathedral of Hope, a predominantly LGBT church in Dallas.
Alex was transgender, and even though she took her own life, the annual ceremony commemorating victims of anti-trans violence was dedicated to her.
“I made a lot of new friends down there. They’re a wonderful group of people,” said DeChiara, a New Jersey native who works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and described himself as the “macho” type.
“I’m going to stay in touch with a lot of people,” he said. “It was good for all three of us.”
DeChiara, speaking publicly about his daughter’s death for the first time with the Observer, acknowledged he wasn’t always so comfortable with the idea that Alex was trans. When she began to come to terms with her gender identity in middle school, she discussed it with her mom but grew distant from him.
“What Alex didn’t realize was that, just because I don’t understand, doesn’t mean I can’t accept,” he said. “I didn’t understand. … It took me a while to come around.”
DeChiara said his relationship with his daughter had improved somewhat prior to her death, but other problems—depression, bullying and isolation—proved insurmountable.
Alex sported long blonde hair and sometimes wore a few items of women’s clothing to Euless’ Trinity High School. Although there was no physical violence, DeChiara said classmates talked behind Alex’s back, and sometimes to her face, calling her a “freak.”
“She was spending a lot of time down at the counselor’s office,” DeChiara said.
“Apparently the counselor was aware and tried to do something about it [the bullying], but I don’t know how much further it got from there. I’ve heard it was teachers that were saying stuff as well.”
Eventually, the DeChiaras agreed to transfer Alex her to an alternative school, KEYS High School. But that move cut her off from friends and something she loved—working with special needs children at Euless Trinity, where she was no longer allowed on campus.
“When she was banned from school, things spiraled out of control,” DeChiara said. “Part of the reason she loved those kids at the special ed building is because, like them, she was in a body she didn’t want to be in, and she could identify with them. That was her passion. She was going to go to school to teach autistic kids.”
Alex, who’d taken several AP courses at Euless Trinity, graduated a month early from KEYS, but being home alone only made things worse. DeChiara said he had no idea how deep his daughter’s depression had become.
On May 8, when DeChiara found Alex hanging from a tree, she’d left a note on her desk saying only that she didn’t want a funeral—a request her parents honored.
“There is no amount of sins I have ever done in this lifetime, that anybody should have to go through what I did that day,” DeChiara said. “Mom? I would have had to bury two people if she got home before me.”
After Alex’s death, one of her friends connected the DeChiaras with a Dallas LGBT group, which invited them to the Trans Day of Remembrance. DeChiara only wishes Alex had found those resources when she was alive.
Studies show roughly half of trans youth have contemplated suicide, and one in four have made an attempt.
The numbers may be even higher in Texas, which has no explicit anti-bullying protections based on gender identity and few resources for LGBT youth outside major cities.
“There definitely needs to be more,” DeChiara said. “They definitely need to have a place where they know they can go.”
DeChiara said there are suicide hotlines, bullying prevention programs and perhaps even a modicum of support for gay teens and their parents.
But he added: “As far as transgender awareness kind of stuff, that’s a different story. I don’t think that’s quite as popular, as out there in the open.”
The Transgender Day of Remembrance is today, Thursday, Nov. 20. For a list of events in Texas, go here.