“The Right to Life & The Right from Life: A Conundrum”

Tshepo Ricki Kgositau-Kanza 

  • In memory of Kutlwano Bubbly Selaledi: 10-April-2020

The most of Batswana use this phrase “go tla siama” very often and loosely with a good intention to make those going through the most feel better, to have hope and look for a beautiful tomorrow. The assumption is that we all carry a sense of hope somewhere innately inside of us; whether true or not, hope is not a static feeling that everyone carries inside of them.

To some, hope is a fleeting experience that might not carry the same power it does for many. It is why we continue to see many folks, more especially black folk, get shocked and feel defeated or even helpless when someone says they are depressed or living with depression. Many immediately jump to offer names and numbers of psychologists and the plethora of mental health specialists who apparently are experts at dishing out hope for the hopeless or sparking a match for those that feel the walls are caving-in on them where dark shadows steal the littlest ounce of happiness they have.

The truth is that many of us do not fully fathom what depression is; the thinking is that one only gets depressed when they have nothing or lose it all, as true as that might be, even those who seemingly have it all can be depressed. That is because the depth of the internal conversations we have with ourselves are often than not only known to us. Many of us have come into a world where we must perform strength and courage, where we must fabricate confidence and mask our vulnerabilities because the world in its raw form is a not a safe place for any one of us in our most raw form.

I have recently lost a friend and gender diverse younger sibling called Bubbly Kutlwano Selaledi who died by suicide. Yes, death by suicide and NOT committed suicide. Many people have been indoctrinated into the criminalised version of someone dying by suicide where you hear phrases such as “so-and-so committed suicide”, denoting that ending your own life should be or is a crime.

I dare ask, what is the point of the right to life if you do not have a right to end that very life if you so choose? There are various rights that are doble edged just as I posit above; the right to choose a religion is equally a right from religion; the freedom of expression guarantees one to not express if they do not wish to – likewise, the right to life should surely guarantee one the autonomy to be free of that very life.

It is a right that only the person carrying it can and should have the right to forego it if they so choose. The truth is that we actually make concessions on this issue; when it comes to persons suffering from or living with excruciatingly painful conditions or circumstances such as where a patient suffering from stage 4 cancer asks for a merciful killing often termed as Euthanasia. Euthanasia is generally described as: “…an act or practice of painlessly putting to death persons suffering from painful and incurable disease or incapacitating physical disorder or allowing them to die by withholding treatment or withdrawing artificial life-support measures.”

In essence a person can ask to be let to die out of their own volition, and given the pervasive medical-legal complex that tells us that we can only grant such a wish when a doctor or medical specialist confirms for us that such a person is indeed suffering to a point where we cannot be able to help ease that pain in any form we permit it. I then place the question before you all, how do we measure emotional, mental and spiritual terminal suffering in a person when we often do not allow them space to show physically their internal excruciating pain? Do we even want or provide platform to acknowledge that some of our internal suffering cannot be healed by no amount of free counselling sessions? When do we stop pushing persons living with depression to fashion a reason to wish to continue living when the world continues to take away or prohibit every small thing that would make them happy and hopeful? This is why it makes sense for the Swiss government to recognise, legalise and even protect what it calls “assisted suicide”, recognising that we can satisfy all requisites to save life and reach a non-selfish point of enabling one’s wish to die by suicide without criminalising the act, so long as it meets the criteria and parameters set out in the penal code.

Article 115 of the Swiss penal code considers assisting suicide a crime if and only if the motive is selfish. It condones assisting suicide for altruistic reasons and does not require the involvement of a physician nor that the patient be terminally ill. Swiss law does not consider suicide a crime or assisting suicide as complicity in a crime; it views suicide as possibly rational. I therefore implore that we all ought to consider anyone’s decision to want to die by suicide or assisted suicide as a rational process one undertakes to arriving to that position and not as an irrational one.  It takes meditation and thought to getting to the point of wanting to end one’s own life as a choice, in most cases though not all of cause.

I personally know this monster called depression whom I continue to have to chain down in the dungeons of my mind like Khaleesi did her dragons at some point on Game of Thrones, because to be honest depression is not something all of us heal from; some of us simply learn to live with it. I know that this is hard for many to grasp, because many still believe that once you achieve or attain certain things in life such as graduating with a degree, or landing a 5 digit salary or marrying the world’s No.1 eligible bachelor, then you certainly cannot be depressed. If Angelina Jolie’s years of depression whilst married to the heartthrob Brad Pitt are anything to go by, then “having it all” does not make you immune to depression.

When I was a little trans girl growing up in a world that kept negating my gender identity and degendering my girlhood, I at some point was caught by my mother in the process of mutilating myself trying to cut off that thing between my legs which apparently was the end all of it all of my gender and being. I must have been 10 or 11 in age at the time, but I lived with such chronic depression because no one seemed to listen to my cries about the fact that though I seemed “regular” on the exterior, inside I was dying every day wondering why I had to exist in a world that showed me on a daily that it will never acknowledge nor celebrate my existence as a transgender child. Unless you have experienced it personally, you can never easily understand the death of not being loved for who you are by your own parent.

No matter the amount of love from friends, colleagues and even lovers, when you are queer like some of us, the yearning of full acceptance and love from your own family, siblings, father or mother is a yearning we all live with. You can easily see how LGBTIQA+GNC people who have the full support of their families often succeed in all their life’s endeavours as opposed to those of us who have been rejected by our own families (of cause not all LGBTIQA+GNC persons rejected by their families are depressed or fail to succeed in life; for some that rejection becomes the propeller for them to succeed and prove their families wrong).

The WHO and other organisations such as the National LGBT Health Education Center at the Fenway Institute (lgbthealth.org) estimate average global suicide amongst LGBTI persons to be 4.5 times higher than those of non-LGBTI persons; more so during our teens and early 20s. This is why I continue to advocate that gender affirming health care services for transgender and gender diverse persons in example, is actually lifesaving treatment and not cosmetic as most health insurance and medical aid schemes plus governments incorrectly perceive the surgeries and hormonal treatment we need to live dignified, hopeful and happy lives.

It pains my heart to see how the cis-tem (the system that advances cis-gender and heterosexual people’s needs as the only important needs to legislate or develop policies for) continues to deny us the necessary dignity and affirming health care, forcing some of us to access such care in the black market out-of-pocket, where it also places our very quality of health at risk. When we are unable to access gender affirming health care out of pocket, we end up falling into the clutches of depression and then they even criminalise our choice to end our existence in this world. Our existence is criminalised and our exit is also criminalised, when then will queer folk get the dignity they deserve? We need to stop saying someone has committed suicide when they have in fact died by or due to suicide.

Many of us do not wish to even entertain the idea when someone living with depression tells us they wish to die by suicide. Immediately after Bubbly’s passing, I had a conversation with a close friend who is also close to Bubbly and the overwhelming feeling of helplessness; that they or we could have done something more to better support Bubbly and give them reason to live made me think deeper about this. I even had a chat with a close colleague of mine who knew how hard Bubbly’s passing had hit me more so that Bubbly died on the same day we buried another trans sister of mine Lesiba Mothibe.

My colleague said to me “maybe some people’s emotional, mental and/or spiritual suffering is so debilitating that no amount of effort from our end can save them from wanting to die just to have all that pain come to a total end”. This statement then dawned on me and sunk in when I read Bubbly’s blog where they put their thoughts down (https://thegayeffect.home.blog/author/bubblyk/). In 2019 Bubbly shared a heart wrenching piece titled ‘Not a suicide note’ which some of its raw parts read:

“If you are reading this, It’s either I want to die but I cannot coz I am afraid of those I’ll leave behind…I can’t, I don’t want this life, these clothes, this place, this body, I don’t want it all, but who then do I tell when each time I try to scream I’m forced to pop pills to numb it all. But numbing doesn’t erase, its temporary pain relief solution…This vow of immortality I swore just so I won’t break hearts is breaking my own. I’m in shreds and nobody seems to notice. This is not a suicide note, I’m merely putting my thoughts on paper to remind myself that I long died, this vessel is getting exhausted of carrying my corpse. But I just have to hold on, not for me, it’s never for me.”

When you see the depth of the above vulnerability, you can then understand why I was appalled to have read a disgusting piece written about Bubbly’s passing on Good Friday in Botswana by a wreckless reporter that made a tabloid front cover of The Voice, simply sensationalising Bubbly’s death with no regard for the nuances of depression and suicide.

Its such media practitioners that continue to hinder an in-depth discussion on such matters affecting the lives and wellbeing of so many of us. I have found myself appreciating the bravery it takes to not only have suicidal ideation but to succeed at going through with suicide. It cannot be easy to face the end of your time on earth not necessarily necessitated by a terminal illness but walk into your own death head-on. Remembering how I once in my trans girlhood plotted to drink a can of Jeyes fluid (which a Motswana calls tipi) at the height of my gender dysphoria and the abuse my mom and I endured at the hands of my former step-dad she was married to, but chickened out of it.

To be honest I chickened out because I couldn’t imagine the self-blaming and guilt my mother was going to have to live with for a very long time and the fact that I grew up hearing that persons who died by suicide were buried with their hands cuffed like criminals because suicide was criminalised. So, for anyone who says people who choose to die are sissies, or chickens, selfish, weak and cowards is all those things themselves, because it only takes a brave person to end their own life. Imagine the pain of electrocuting yourself to death, which is something a Namibian trans sister of mine Queen Garaj chose for herself some years ago. Only the brave can be able to die this way, I salute all these soldiers who confronted their deaths head-on; all their deaths had a strong meaning and lesson for us all.

There is nothing cowardice about choosing to die by suicide and we need to transform our language around people’s suffering (depression) and the manner they see fit to stop this suffering (suicide) if we wish to better support those going through this. Sometimes the way to best support them is to help them die peacefully with dignity if they choose this is what will help them. Our inability to really listen to those that cry out for our help at times makes it difficult for those wanting an ear to come to us for help because the kind of help they want from us is help we will deny them.

I certainly am not saying that all people suffering from or living with depression want to die or should be let to just die given that there are varying degrees and basis to depression, of which some of those can certainly respond positively to counselling and even anti-depression medication where possible. However, we need to come to the realisation that some depression is so far seated and incapacitating that no amount of our “help” can actually help. I think we should start getting used to the very controversial and unconventional response of “If you want to die my friend, I will hold your hand when you do it”.

Then maybe we would not need suicide notes and answers to our questions of why, when our dearly beloved have passed on by suicide. Maybe we could have been there to say our goodbyes when they chose to die by suicide instead of how suicide often happens in the solitude of the one choosing it unlike a terminally ill person who dies through euthanasia who gets to say their proper goodbyes, surrounded by friends and family. The more we criminalise and stigmatise death by suicide, the more we rob those dying in this manner and ourselves who survive them the opportunity to say our final goodbyes. Many will not let us know when exactly they will die by suicide, because they know we will do everything in our power to stop them from having a dignified death if they so choose to die by suicide. An openness to this might just be the key to us better dealing with depression on the onset.

If you wish to have an intelligent dialogue on this with me, then put on a queer eye for one second and seek answers to the following; how do we measure if someone’s internal suffering is something they can be healed from? Is it not selfish of us “non-depressed” folk to stigmatise dying by suicide when others cannot live with their pain anymore? Who is to say which level of pain warrants a merciful death or suicide, is it for you and I to say, or for the person suffering to determine when they want to forego their right to live? Is it not because of this selfishness of ours to demand of those suffering internally to just endure that pain to satisfy our non-empathetic need to just have them walk around as empty shells without a living soul on the inside, that we are often left with guilt for not having granted them space to involve us in their process to die by suicide?

Is it right to deny anyone the right to forego their right to life with dignity and criminalising this brave act? What should be done with journalists and reporters who continue to sensationalise our lives when we die by suicide? These are very controversial questions that all my friends that have died by suicide continue to stir inside of me and I need some Queerians who follow my thought leadership to help me deal with. Remember to put on a queer eye as you attempt answering them.

 About the Author: Tshepo Ricki Kgositau-Kanza is a seasoned human rights advocate, researcher, trans personality, feminist, sexual & reproductive health rights specialist, Pan-Africanist, fashion designer, social entrepreneur, gender diversity & equity specialist, LGBTIQAP++ activist, queer theology scholar, motivational speaker and columnist. Ricki is a Motswana living and based in Cape Town working as the Executive Director of an iNGO called Accountability International, which has other offices in Brussels-Belgium and Stockholm-Sweden working to hold various leaders accountable. Ricki is a mix of multiple intersecting identities that all influences her politic, perspectives and style of writing. Mrs.Kgositau-Kanza was a key litigant in a landmark case before the High Court seeking legal gender recognition that was concluded in 2017. Ricki is a Mandela-Washington Fellow of 2016 who did her residency at University of California – Berkley with the Goldman School of Public Policy. She has won a list of accolades in recognition of her body of work, some of the recent being the Feather Awards for Role Model of the Year and African Feather of the Year (both in 2017) and included on the #Awesome50 List of African LGBTIQA+ Activists & Allies in 2018.