Melody Owens was a 29-year-old transgender woman from Bremerton, Washington who took her life in December of 2017. At her memorial service her identity as a woman was treated as it was in life – largely ignored, dismissed, and left hidden by those who should have nourished and protected it.
The word “largely” however, is there for a reason – and it’s not to provide defense against those who may be offended by this depiction of Melody’s treatment in both life and death. It’s there because her cousin, Jennifer Henderson, a pre-law student at the University of Washington, respected and loved the woman Melody had become. And when she watched the very hate that robbed Melody of her life also rob her of identity and dignity in death, she was angry and promised herself never to forget.
She held it inside her for 122 days.
When she released her thoughts – and guilt that she had not done more – after one-third of a year of anger, it came not in an outburst of rage, or an accusation towards those who she blamed most for Melody’s death. It came quietly, when she approached a middle-aged woman wearing a transgender empowerment pin reading “This is what persistence looks like.”
The woman, Bethany Grace Howe, was a customer in Jennifer’s section at The Boat Shed, the Bremerton restaurant where Jennifer worked. Jennifer thanked Bethany just for being there, saying only that she wished Melody could have met her, just to see Bethany sitting there, doing something as simple as having dinner. Maybe that would have been enough to show Melody that the life she dreamed of was possible.
With tears in both of their eyes, they talked about Melody, and the tragedy of so many transgender lives lost. A transgender person takes their life every eight hours somewhere in the United States. Melody was not the first, she was not the last – but in that moment she was the only one that mattered.
Perhaps that should have ended it, two strangers who met in a restaurant, shared tears and a story and then moved on. But that was not the end; it was the beginning.
Bethany and Jennifer have talked about their meeting in the days and weeks since, and they both believe something greater, something more meaningful was afoot. Neither considers themselves a particularly religious person, neither believes in a given destiny.
Bethany should never have been in Bremerton. She was there only because her best friend’s father had suddenly passed away that morning, and Bethany had raced up from her home in Eugene, Oregon to be with her friend. Jennifer should never have been working that Friday night; she normally works only Saturdays and Sundays after coming back from her studies in Seattle. And yet there they were, each of them uniquely positioned to do something that had yet to be done.
Because life works in funny ways.
For Bethany was something more than a normal transgender woman. She was a PhD student studying transgender identity at the University of Oregon. There by tragedy in Jennifer’s serving section, she was alone that night with her thoughts, wondering and dreaming about how she could help transgender people. Just two days earlier, Bethany had asked Caitlyn Jenner for funding to help her with her research into transgender suicide, and suddenly anything seemed possible.
And Jennifer, driven to speak to a complete stranger in her section, knew simply that she had to speak out for Melody; she had to tell Melody’s story. It was in its own way an act of bravery; Jennifer had nothing to gain and perhaps much to lose. Jobs pay money, and tuition isn’t free – and it’s not exactly etiquette to cry on the shoulder of one of your customers.
It is from that night – a night both still find remarkable even happened – that Melody’s Stories was born. Jennifer wanted to make sure Melody was never forgotten. Bethany knew she needed to help everyone like Jennifer: anyone who had ever mourned for a person erased, a life untold. “Melody’s Stories: The Enduring Identity Project” is the result. And that funding Bethany asked Caitlyn Jenner for? Miss Jenner said yes, and the first expenditure she approved was this website.
Not literally, of course; no story can do that, no website can promise it for Melody or any other person who’s ever had their identity denied. Nothing will bring Melody back, and it is a loss that Jennifer and those who knew her will never completely recover from. Bethany, for her part, will never know Melody at all, and no amount of money, research, or anything else will change that.
But more than a memorial, “Melody’s Story’s: The Enduring Identity Project” is about life. Melody Owens took her life because she could not imagine a world that would accept her. She dreamed of a world a in which she could be the person she wanted to be: a museum curator, a leader in Alcoholics Anonymous – and a woman. She did not see people like herself in those roles, and because she could not see it, she thought could not be it.
On these pages, then, are not just transgender people, LGBTQ people who lived their lives in the closet, or those who could not tell the world what they and their friends knew. There is more than that: there are museum curators, leaders in Alcoholics Anonymous, teachers, students, and every other piece of society. They lived.
And while we may mourn what far too often was a life cut short, Melody’s Stories is undeniable proof that they lived. They walked the same streets, they talked of the same hopes. They laughed the same and they cried the same. They did all of those things that define us as human and we will never forget them, not as long as someone remembers them, here or elsewhere.
Their identity endures.
And in that Jennifer and Bethany hope – we hope – that everyone who has ever doubted whether there is a place for them in this world will know that there is. In these stories of life we hope people of all kinds find a reason to keep living theirs. We hope they see themselves. Not as different or people apart, but as people that can do everything in this world the rest of society takes for granted – even if it’s something as simple as eating a quiet dinner in a restaurant for all the world to see.
These are small things, and yet enormous ones all at the same time. Our goals are lofty; there is no other way to dream. One thing, though, no matter what happens, has already happened. What began that quiet April night on the edge of the Puget Sound, four months to the day after Melody took her life, is finally complete.
Melody’s story endures – and we hope she is only the first.
Bethany Grace Howe & Jennifer Henderson,
December 8, 2018