Lucia & the Pong Pong Seeds

Heartbreaking news coming from close to home for me here in Chicago. Lucia Anderson, a 22-year-old trans women from Calumet City, IL (a southeastern suburb of Chicago close to the Indiana border), died after ingesting pong pong seeds, a product of southeast Asia that grows on what’s known as the suicide tree.


Diagram of pong pong from Wikipedia

Anderson ordered the seed online for $5, four of which went to shipping costs.

In news coverage, there’s already a lot of cringe-worthy pronoun usage and some outlets are referring to Anderson as Bernard McCalip, Lucia’s given name at birth. Even Anderson’s mother is talking about her son in the midst of what must be unthinkable grief. I don’t think it’s appropriate to police her in her grief.

But it is notable that misgendering is finding increasing ties with strains on the mental health of trans individuals. While much of research is still anecdotal at this point, the connections between using the wrong pronouns and poor self-esteem & suicidal ideation seem to be forming within academic and scientific thinking.

That’s not to say that Anderson’s mother is to blame. The nuances of her home life may have played a role. Lucia (or Bernard) may have detransitioned, something not uncommon among trans people, especially those pressured to negate their gender identity.

Ultimately, Anderson chose to take her own life, a choice not uncommon within the trans community. The most common statistic in play is that 41% of trans people attempt suicide at some point in their lifetime. This figure comes from results of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) conducted by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality.

At 41%, reported trans suicide attempts are two to four times as common as reported lesbian and gay suicide attempts and nearly ten times as common as reported attempts by the general population. And these figures might not tell the whole story. But they prompt the question: Why would four in ten trans people reach a point where death seemed so favorable to life that they would take the matter into their own hands?

That answer is complicated, and probably unique to every individual. But we can look to the intersections between trans experiences and mental illness for maybe some insight.

It was only in May of 2013 that the fifth edition of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was released. This edition engendered a huge step forward for the trans movement as the diagnosis of gender identity disorder was substituted for the new terminology of gender dysphoria, which many see as a move away from the emphasis on the worse identity and disorder.

That last word, for me especially, is a powerful one to remove from the standard diagnostic tool used by American mental health professionals. In dropping the word disorder, there’s no longer an emphasis on the disruption of a system. The word disorder, by its connotation and perhaps even by its denotation, implies a level of wrongness that it’s difficult not to internalize when it’s handed to you as a diagnosis.

Substituting dysphoria for identity disorder was a huge step toward changing the conversation on trans experiences because dysphoria (an antonym for euphoria) speaks to the actual experience of a trans individual, not to a classification handed down by a professional who may not understand their client’s real struggle. It’s an empowering term for a community that needed a way to phrase their experience that didn’t at once betray them in healthcare spaces.

Despite the protestations of certain hardliners, not all trans people experience gender dysphoria. (I, personally, dream of a world where gender dysphoria doesn’t exist because people are allowed to feel and express their identity without the social impositions of assigned genders based on their anatomy.) But the term remains a much friendlier diagnostic term as it expresses the feelings of the client rather than of the clinician.

But this change only came three years ago. That’s hardly enough time for the intellectual labor this change necessitates to be done, especially when that work is necessary for people who don’t have any experience with trans people in their professional (and often in their personal) lives. Certain cyberspaces are overflowing with the harrowing stories of trans people seeking out medical help with mental health issues only to be emotionally brutalized by practitioners who behave more like zoo patrons that professionals. Academics and public thinkers are catching on this.

It’s hard to say what Anderson’s personal experiences with all of these issues were. Without access to her friends and family or to any personal records she might have kept (a blog, a journal, etc.), we don’t know enough. It is tragic that someone who lived so close to Chicago, where there is a prominent and growing network of trans identity affirming services, still couldn’t find what she needed.

But stories like hers are a reminder of the struggle trans people are still engaged in on a large scale, yes, but also in the mundane drudgery of daily life. Her death is a tragedy that stands out from the statistics. Hopefully, we’ll learn more about her in the coming days that helps the world to understand why a poisonous seed from around the world was her choice.


For any trans person struggling with suicidal thoughts, the Trans Lifeline provides toll-free counseling from trans operators who have personal experience with suicidality. 


One thought on “Lucia & the Pong Pong Seeds

  1. UPDATE: Important to note as well that Lucia was a person of color, bringing the issues of race (prejudice, systemic economic disenfranchisement, and–especially in the Chicago area–segregated housing) to bear on this as well. Trans women of color (if that is how Lucia identified at the end of her life) have a special place in the history of the trans movement as leaders and visionaries but continue to be left behind by social justice warriors of all stripes.


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