I discovered recently that my friend Elli had passed away. She was just a few years older than me. I believe she lived a difficult life, but was always true to herself, and was good and kind to others. And meeting her as a teenager changed my world.
I first encountered Elli during the long, messy process of coming out to myself. We were both members of a small online community, created by a young trans person for other young trans people. There were a few of us there in our mid-late teens and early 20s, most of us struggling to imagine what it would be like to live authentically. There were a small handful of “allies” (at least two of whom would later coming out as trans and/or genderqueer themselves). And there were a couple of people who had already transitioned, including Elli.
I don’t think there is a word for people like Elli in the straight world, which can make it hard to express how important she was, even to myself. She was my not-very-much-older Elder. She was my possibility model. She helped to crack my egg. She was a nexus of social contagion, a superspreader in the psychic epidemic, a key trigger for my rapid onset.
Elli was a friendly, patient, community-minded person who showed up for others. She showed us that it was possible to be true to ourselves, to build a life on another side of the sex divide. She was honest and realistic about how difficult things could be, and full of constant reminders that there was, is, and will always be more to life than being queer. She loved ferrets and cats and anime, especially Naruto, because she was a massive nerd.
Elli wasn’t famous or well known. She wasn’t involved in any significant moment of history. She had small friendship circles online and offline. This, though, is how we build queer and trans community: through countless acts of care and mutual aid, rather than grand gestures.
I found out Elli had died through a mutual friend from the same old community. She had found out through Facebook – she went to look at Elli’s profile, and realised Elli had died months before.
I was horrified. I had spoken with Elli regularly while she was severely ill with covid, reaching out to tell her how much I cared about her, and share numerous pictures of my cat. We hadn’t spoken that regularly for the last decade, but it felt like every now and then we would touch base and check in on one another. I don’t use Facebook very often these days, but it can be a good way to find where long-term, long-distance friends like Elli are doing. After a lot of hardship, I’d been really excited to find out she had a new job where she felt happy and fulfilled, and a new apartment which she made into a real home. And when got sick, I decided to message her until she recovered.
Except. After she started getting better, after she got home from the hospital, I stopped messaging. I was busy and distracted, getting ready to start my new job at Glasgow. I’m aware that I’m a possibility model myself, now, and there’s a lot that comes with that. I regularly receive messages from people who say I helped then to come out, to be themselves, through being a visibly trans woman, and visibly “successful” in my chosen fields of work and activism. I am perpetually busy, and tired, and distracted.
I saw the occasional Facebook update from Elli suggesting a gradual recovery. And so, like before, I dropped contact, assuming that we’d chat again in a few weeks or months.
And of course, the algorithm never told me that she was no longer with us.
I’m not sure if there is a clear moral to all of this. I am trying not to blame myself – how could I know? And Facebook was the very medium by which we remained in touch long after our original community was no longer active.
These days I feel pulled in all directions by friends from different times and places, people I once knew well, people I wish I was better at staying in touch with, people who assume some kind of parasocial relationship with me on the basis of my public profile. Social media feels like the only reasonable way to stay on top of it all. Yet I regret relying on social media – and especially the exceptionally unreliable medium of the feed – to keep up with Elli. I could have just…messaged her, or checked how she was doing.
It feels like there are two stories here. But perhaps they are the same story.
My experiences of trans community life are pierced through with chance and tragedy: life-changing encounters, terrible losses, and the all-encompassing importance of the Internet. Elli is far, far from the first trans friend of mine to die young. I also know she won’t be the last. When you live in a community where healthcare and socio-economic inequalities are endemic, you are always surrounded by people who are very ill. That’s an inevitable consequence of the forces stacked against us. The least we can do for one another is to collectively find joy and meaning in the life we have, using whatever tools we have at our disposal.
I want to live up to Elli’s memory, and to everything that she gave me. I hope I can be a better friend to others, but also forgive myself for being just one person, in one place, with a limited amount of time available to me. And while I’m at it, you’d better believe I’m going to keep cracking eggs.