LOUISVILLE — She wanted to hear Henry’s voice again. So she went to her son’s room on an overcast February day and started digging through the boxes he left behind, looking for something he’d written to give her guidance.
She lost her trans son to suicide. Can a Kentucky lawmaker make her colleagues care?
Eight weeks after the death of Karen Berg’s son, Henry, she’s fighting a flood of anti-transgender bills in the Kentucky Senate
It was Henry who’d inspired his mother, Karen Berg, to run for Kentucky’s state Senate, helping her win a seat in an overwhelmingly Republican legislature now contemplating a pile of anti-trans bills.
All morning long, the doctor turned Democratic lawmaker had been pacing around her Louisville house, trying to figure out what she could say to stop them.
“Don’t shake. Don’t cry. Don’t let your voice waver,” Karen, 61, muttered to herself as she did the laundry. “Short and sweet is better.”
Henry, who’d worked as a press secretary for a major LGBTQ advocacy group, often reminded her to speak in sound bites, to repeat phrases so listeners could absorb the message.
But would the people with power in Frankfort pay attention?
It was an election year in Kentucky, and amid America’s widening cultural rifts, Republicans were pouncing on gender identity issues. Already, almost a dozen new anti-trans laws had been proposed in Kentucky: censoring books on gender, barring doctors from providing hormone therapy to trans teens, banning them from certain restrooms and locker rooms.
Five days earlier, a senator running for lieutenant governor had stood a few feet from Karen and introduced legislation to allow teachers to use students’ birth names and pronouns against their wishes. He was greeted with thunderous applause from colleagues.
Karen, one of just six Democrats in the Senate, couldn’t believe it.
Now she headed down to the basement and sat among the 30 boxes that had arrived from Henry’s apartment in Arlington.
“I keep searching for his smell, but I can’t find it,” she said, rooting through his old shirts.
She found herself returning to his childhood bedroom.
“God, I could use his advice right now,” she said quietly, as she leafed through his high school yearbooks.
It was in ninth grade — when Henry came out as transgender to his classmates — that the cruelty and isolation peaked. Parents Karen had known for more than a decade called to say they didn’t want Henry talking to their kids anymore. Bullies hacked his Tumblr blog and repeatedly sent him messages telling him to kill himself. The first of several suicide attempts followed soon after.
From one crate, she pulled a thick stack of binders from Henry’s time at George Washington University in D.C.
“These must’ve been from his classes when he came home during covid,” she said. As she flipped through them, the neatly penciled handwriting on one college-ruled page jumped out at her.
“Oh my God,” she whispered as she made out the first words on the page.
“What am I living for?” it read. “Why? What is keeping me?”
Underneath, her son had written out in tidy columns across two pages the apparent pros and cons of killing himself.
“I can’t,” Karen said, struggling to breathe. “I didn’t expect this. I’m not ready.”
She laid the pages down.
She thought about the hour-long drive to Frankfort the next morning and the eight-week legislative session still ahead. She thought about the fellow state senators she planned to plead with in private. And about the floor speech she was still composing to persuade them to back away from more anti-transgender laws — for her sake, for the sake of her son, for the sake of others like him.
“If they’re going to pass these bills,” she said, “I want them to see me and my dead child and know that they are killing other Henrys out there.”
‘Bullied every day’
Before he came to see himself as a boy, before he settled on the name Henry, he was just a kid who wanted friends.
But he never fit in. While girls around him played dress-up, Henry wanted trains and Hot Wheels cars. “He was so different than his sister, who wore tutus and pretended to be Cinderella,” Karen recalled.
When Karen took Henry to their synagogue for preschool, the director had girls stand to the left and boys to the right. Henry, then 2, kept trying to join the boys, even after the exasperated director took him by the hand and walked him back to the girls.
The private school Henry attended from kindergarten to 12th grade was even more regimented, with strict dress codes: Plaid jumper dresses for girls. Navy slacks and white polo shirts for boys.
“We started using Sharpies in middle school to dye our hair,” remembered Lane Levitch, one of Henry’s only friends there. “I helped him fill in the gaps with red Sharpies. He’d help me with blue.”
They’d met in first grade when a teacher noticed the other girls ignoring them and pushed the two together. When Henry was excluded from birthday parties or left out of Valentine’s Day card exchanges, he still had Lane.
The summer after eighth grade in 2012, Lane confided something to Henry he’d never told anyone before: He felt like he’d been born in the wrong body. “A boy,” he texted Henry, “but in a girl’s body.”
Henry texted back immediately, “I feel the same way.”
Lane told Henry he’d discovered a word online for what they were feeling: “trans.”
At 14, Henry would later say, he felt like he’d discovered his true self.
He and Lane made a pact to come out together as boys that fall. They would wait until a few weeks into ninth grade, and abandon their plaid skirts for boys’ slacks.
But Henry came out a week earlier than they’d planned — and did it on his own.
“He told everyone, ‘I’d prefer if you call me Henry. My pronouns are he/him,’” Lane said. Some teachers refused, continuing to call him by his birth name. One pulled him out of class to lecture him in the hallway.
“It led students to believe they could do the same,” Lane said. There were constant sneers and mockery. Boys treated him like a freak. Girls wanted nothing to do with him.
When Lane saw the vitriol, he abandoned all plans of coming out. It would be another five years before Lane told anyone else he was trans.
“Even as he was getting bullied every day, Henry never threw me under the bus. He never made me feel ashamed for not following through on our plan and doing what he did,” said Lane, 25, who still lives in Louisville. “I’ll forever be grateful to him for keeping my secret.”
A few nights after Henry came out at school, he did the same with his parents at their kitchen table.
At first, his father, Bob Brousseau, had trouble accepting it. “I thought it was a phase,” he said. “It took me a few months to come around.”
Karen mourned the daughter she’d raised for 14 years and worried about Henry’s mental health.
A year earlier, a teacher had discovered that Henry was cutting his arms and legs. Karen, an emergency room radiologist, knew what it meant — her child was hurting so much inside that it made him feel better to hurt himself on the outside. She found Henry a therapist.
At the time, bathrooms for transgender kids were just starting to emerge as a political issue around the country. Henry’s school administrators initially ordered him to keep using the girls bathrooms, then designated a single-stall toilet in the school basement for his use.
“It was in this abandoned area where the older kids would often go to make out. They would tease him whenever he used it,” Karen said. So Henry tried not to go at all.
The first suicide attempt occurred just three months after he came out.
In the months that followed, his parents got him more help. Inpatient and outpatient psychiatric programs. Family therapy. They couldn’t find a psychologist in Louisville who’d worked with a transgender teen before, so they chose someone who said he was willing to try.
His parents, who later divorced, also helped Henry get an internship with the Fairness Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group in Kentucky.
Even the name of the organization spoke to Henry. “Fairness, the concept of people being equal, is all-important and essentially a driving force for me,” he later told a Louisville magazine. “It’s like love.”
Just days into his internship in 2015, Kentucky Republicans filed a bill to ban trans kids from choosing which bathrooms to use at school. The Fairness Campaign needed parents and students to explain the harm it would do at a Senate hearing.
Chris Hartman, the group’s director, turned to Henry and asked the 16-year-old: “Are you up for it? Are you ready to testify?”
‘You know me, Henry’
Henry had never worn a suit before. So he and his mom went to J.C. Penney to buy one — a dark-gray jacket and pants with a blue striped tie. Then he sat in his room, surrounded by Marvel movie posters, and rehearsed what he’d say.
“It’s not the easiest thing in the world for me to be here talking to you about where I go to the bathroom,” he told the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 19, 2015.
He explained how difficult it had been to live in a body that didn’t match what he felt inside. He recounted how school officials forced him to keep using the girls bathroom. “The kids thought that because the administration didn’t support my gender identity, they didn’t have to either,” he said.
He described how the school later relegated him to a toilet in the basement. “When somebody tells us that we’re so different that only way to accommodate is to create a special restroom, the message is clear that we don’t belong.”
He finished by flashing a soft smile at the senators. “If you don’t know a transgender kid already, you do now. You know me, Henry. And I’d be honored to continue to work with you,” he said. “I’d even be more honored to call you all friends.”
The Republican senators gushed over him afterward.
“Henry, thank you,” said Sen. Max Wise. “I educated myself a lot today.”
“Henry, I love you man,” said then-Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr. “I can’t really imagine that anyone else in this room has the kind of courage that it took for you to come and testify.”
“You should be proud of yourself,” said Sen. Jared Carpenter.
Then, one by one they voted for the bill anyway.
Sitting beside her son, Karen felt a fury welling up inside her.
As a doctor, Karen had pored over research about transgender teens. She’d read about the terrifying rates of anxiety, depression and PTSD because of the hostility they encountered. She knew that almost half of trans teens experienced suicidal thoughts, that more than a third try to kill themselves.
“It’s not that there is something inherently suicidal about anyone’s identity, including being transgender,” said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “If you look at everything we know about what increases suicide risk — trauma, discrimination, violence, harassment — that’s what so many transgender youth are facing.”
A newly released Washington Post-KFF poll of trans adults found suicidal thoughts are more common among younger adults, and that the age at which they came out correlated with higher levels of suicidal thoughts, incidents of self-harm and mental health problems later on. Among trans people who did not come out until adults, 37 percent had suicidal thoughts in the past year. Among those who came out earlier, before the age of 18, 58 percent struggled with suicidal thoughts.
During Henry’s testimony in Frankfort, which went viral after being featured on “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” the teen didn’t mention his suicide attempt or the ugliness that fueled it. But his mother couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d been through at school as she gazed at the senators on the dais above them.
“Why do these a-holes,” she wondered, “get to decide where my child pees?”
The bill didn’t wind up passing the full legislature, but Henry’s three-minute speech threw both of them headlong into politics.
Henry was a kid who never did anything halfheartedly. He swam competitively until he tore a rotator cuff. He kept playing on the girls’ softball team throughout high school, even after he came out, even when the coach made his life miserable.
After the Senate hearing, Henry started binge-watching “The West Wing” and followed Hartman, the Fairness Campaign director, everywhere he could.
“I’d have a monthly organizing meeting on the other side of the state. Utterly boring. Six people sitting around the table talking about municipal ordinances. Henry would insist on tagging along,” Hartman said. “The whole drive there, he’d pepper me with questions.”
Hartman tried to temper Henry’s expectations. “A lot of folks think if I can just talk to the right lawmaker, use the right logic or personal experience, I can change everything,” Hartman said. “But there’s a lot of disappointment, struggle and sadness in the work we do.”
At Henry’s urging, Karen signed up for a six-month course to teach women how to run for office. She learned to fundraise, door-knock and connect with voters.
In 2018, she ran against a Republican state senator who’d held his seat for 24 years — and lost.
Two years later, after the incumbent retired, she tried again. This time Henry, home from college because of the pandemic, served as her campaign treasurer and adviser. By then, he had interned in the state legislature and volunteered on other campaigns.
“He wrote such beautiful speeches for me,” said Karen, though Henry could also be brutally blunt. “He told me when I disappointed him. He called me out for going off-message.”
With Henry’s help, Karen won. In 2020, she entered the Kentucky legislature as its first Jewish female physician — and the only state senator with a transgender son.
‘Why can’t I quit crying?’
A year after his mother became a lawmaker, Henry landed a job in Washington at the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ civil rights advocacy group. The work was thrilling and urgent.
State legislatures were being inundated with anti-LGBTQ bills — 315 in 2022 alone, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Transgender teens, in particular, had become a favorite conservative target. In Texas, state leaders ordered child protective services to investigate parents of transgender kids. Florida passed legislation restricting what elementary school teachers could say about gender identity and sexual orientation. Arkansas made it illegal for doctors to provide gender-affirming care to kids.
Henry’s job was to respond to such attacks with press releases and news conferences.
“He was immersed in the most horrible stuff,” said Delphine Luneau, who was Henry’s boss and worked in a desk next to his.
Gay teachers were being portrayed as pedophiles trying to groom kids. Schools acknowledging the existence of trans people were accused of encouraging kids to have sex-reassignment surgery.
Henry spent weeks knocking down a bizarre false claim that schools were installing litter boxes for students to pee in because they wanted to be identified as cats.
“We’d sit there in the office and struggle. How do you disprove something insane like that without giving it more fuel,” said Luneau, a transgender woman who became Henry’s mentor and close friend.
Henry believed in the fight.
“He talked about how when done right, politics can make the world a better place,” she said. “He talked about running for office. We joked about him becoming the country’s first transgender president.”
But Luneau could tell the work — and the rise in LGBTQ hatred around the country — were taking a toll.
“It feels like there hasn’t been a break in the emotional intensity or pace of the work,” Henry noted in his last self-evaluation.
Henry had spent a decade trying to arrive at a place of acceptance with others and his own body. He never had surgery, and only underwent a short round of testosterone hormone therapy — just enough to grow facial hair. All he wanted was to have a waiter or doorman address him as “sir,” he told his mom.
By leaving Kentucky, he’d finally found the sense of belonging he yearned for his whole life. He joined an LGBTQ kickball league in Washington that became a second family. His team, named “Cirque du SoGay,” spent every Tuesday competing in trivia night, with Henry as their ringer for politics and current events.
Henry was the only trans man on his team, but he was the one everyone went to when they needed someone to confide in.
“He was good at listening with no judgment, just love,” said Michael Creason, co-captain of the team.
But even 600 miles and years removed from Kentucky, Henry struggled to love himself.
In his six years in Washington, he had at least four close calls with suicide, landing repeatedly in the emergency room, his mother said.
One of the most serious occurred on his 20th birthday. After being left out of many parties as a child, Henry was surprised by his friends with a big one.
“Afterward when everyone broke off to go to bars and stuff, apparently he didn’t hear anyone say come with us,” Karen said. “He couldn’t shake that feeling of being rejected.”
He saw a trauma-informed therapist, a psychiatrist and attended an intensive treatment program in California. But the suicidal thoughts always came back.
He called Karen one day sobbing. “He said, ‘Mom, Why can’t I quit crying? Why am I so sad?’”
In spring of 2022, he went to the hospital after his body began convulsing. The doctors ran neurological tests and told him he was experiencing psychogenic seizures — convulsions that looked like epilepsy but were caused by distress and trauma.
In December, he told his mom about the mounting number of anti-trans bills he was fighting at work. He was dreading the approaching legislative season.
“He could see how many more bills would be coming this year,” she said. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m tired and scared.’”
On Dec. 15, Henry went out with his kickball friends for a night of karaoke. Like everyone else, Henry had a lot to drink, so he went to Creason’s apartment to sober up.
There, Henry told his friend that he’d recently been struggling with suicide again.
Creason persuaded Henry to check himself into the hospital and called an Uber to take him. A few hours later, at 5:30 a.m., Henry sent a text: “You’re going to hate me, but I’m going home. Sorry.”
Concerned, Creason wrote back, “Hit me up tomorrow.”
“I won’t be able to…I’m about to do something really stupid,” Henry replied. Then came a photo of empty pill bottles.
Creason called 911 and rushed over to Henry’s apartment. But by the time he and the police got inside, Henry was dead.
‘Marginalizing my child’
Karen couldn’t eat and struggled most days to crawl out of bed. Henry’s white SUV sat in her driveway. His dog Bibi, a Pekingese Shih Tzu mutt, now slept in bed with her.
The grief was so overwhelming that Karen stopped working in the ER, not trusting herself to make split-second diagnostic decisions.
She thought about sitting out the legislative session too. “Everything in my body is telling me not to go back there,” she said.
Everyone in Frankfort knew what had happened to her son. She’d announced his death in a statement shared widely on Twitter.
“I gave my whole heart trying to protect my child from a world w[h]ere some people and especially some politicians intentionally continued to believe that marginalizing my child was OK,” she wrote.
Statement from Sen. @karenforky on the passing of her son, Henry: pic.twitter.com/0zuhYEseXz— KY Senate Democrats (@KYSenateDems) December 20, 2022
“If I have one ask,” she said, “it would be this: practice tolerance and grace. Work on loving your neighbor.”
Kentucky’s LGBTQ activists believed Henry’s story might be their best chance at turning back the tide of anti-trans bills.
So Karen dumped her coffee into a thermos, climbed into her gray Honda SUV and drove to the state capital.
For days, she’d been making calls to her Republican colleagues, gently lobbying them.
When one lawmaker asked why trans children were suddenly popping up everywhere, Karen compared it to left-handed kids.
“You look at the data in the 1950s and ’60s when we stopped forcing kids to be right-handed. The number of left-handed children exploded exponentially, then plateaued,” she said. “They were always there but never were allowed to exist.”
She tried not to scold or seem angry to conservative colleagues.
She kept condolence cards from Republicans on her dining table to remind herself they cared.
“I cannot imagine the sense of loss and suffering you must feel,” read one.
“Our hearts are broken for you,” read another from the powerful Senate president pro tempore, David Givens.
But the sympathy seemed to disappear on Feb. 8, when Wise rose on the Senate floor to introduce the latest bill targeting trans teens.
In 2015, Wise had been one of the Republicans praising Henry’s testimony. Now, as a GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, he wanted to allow teachers to call trans teens by their birth names and pronouns even if they were asked not to. His measure would become known as the pronoun bill.
Wise, who declined requests for an interview, attacked state education materials suggesting teachers use trans students’ declared pronouns.
“This is absolute nonsense that has no place within our educational system,” he said, deriding “the new pronouns that seem to land in Webster’s Dictionary daily” and “woke ideologies” emanating from Washington.
Wise invoked the “litter box” myth that Henry had spent weeks debunking. He warned of teachers being fired for not calling supposed “furry” students by their “pet names.”
From three seats away, Karen sat in shock as the chamber erupted in applause.
She rose to give a short response: “I’m going to make an open plea to the members of this body that we avoid politicizing issues that are literally killing our children, that are literally putting them into the grave.”
No one clapped.
‘Don’t give up’
A week later, she was headed back to Frankfort, dreading an LGBTQ rights rally planned by the Fairness Campaign.
The most persuasive voices at such rallies were often LGBTQ youths. But Karen knew how hard it would be this year to see vulnerable kids arguing, as Henry had, for the right to exist.
“It’s heartbreaking to watch them shaking hands, telling their life story, pleading for help. Only to be voted against again and again,” she said.
She wondered if she’d made a mistake letting Henry testify at 16.
Now, an even younger trans child, 13-year-old Fischer Wells, was the one championing the cause.
In 2022, as a middle schooler, she and her parents had waged a high-profile battle against a bill to ban transgender women and girls from playing on female sports teams.
Like Henry, Fischer had testified before the Senate Education Committee, explaining how the bill would prevent her from playing on a field hockey team she’d helped create.
But Sen. Robby Mills, the Republican sponsor of the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, argued it was needed to protect female athletes and suggested that some people might transition just to gain a competitive advantage.
The bill passed, and Fischer was off the team.
Now she and her parents had come back to the capital to fight this year’s pronoun bill and a slew of other anti-trans legislation.
“Thank you so much for supporting our family,” Fischer’s mother, Jenifer Alonzo, told Karen when they met in her office on the day of the rally.
Fischer’s father, Brian Wells, said they’d been turned away all morning by Republican lawmakers.
One bill that would forbid doctors from providing hormone therapy and other medical care to transgender teens was especially scary.
“That’s like a bright red line for us,” he said. They’d started talking about moving out of Kentucky.
“How are you doing though?” Alonzo asked Karen. “You tell us if we can help you, too.”
Before they left, they gave Karen a hug, and Karen had trouble letting go. She wanted to tell them, she said later, to take their daughter and run as far away as they could. Don’t fail her like I did Henry.
Instead, she reminded them and herself: “Don’t give up. Don’t stop fighting.”
‘Not throwing away my shot’
When Karen got home from the rally on Feb. 15, a GOP friend called to warn her that the pronoun bill would be put to a vote the next day.
Karen had been pushing to add an amendment requiring teachers to call trans teens by their pronouns if their parents requested it — using Republicans’ own arguments that this was a parental rights bill.
After one of Henry’s suicide attempts, he’d gotten a tattoo on his arm – “I’m not throwing away my shot,” a line from the Broadway show “Hamilton” — as a reminder that his life could make a difference.
Karen thought of that as she wrote her speech to persuade Republicans to support her amendment.
The bill would have one final hearing before the education committee before a vote by the entire Senate. It was the same committee Henry had spoken to at 16 — the one that had sent them down this political path she was now walking alone.
Karen watched the next morning as one LGBTQ advocate after another begged the committee to reject the bill.
The last to speak was Hartman, the Fairness Campaign director who mentored Henry through high school.
“The suicide rates are outrageous. You know it,” Hartman shouted. “To do this now in front of Karen Berg is a sin and a shame!”
The testimony had little effect. Within hours, Republican leaders rushed the bill to the floor for vote by the full Senate.
From her seat at the front of the chamber, Karen could tell her colleagues were lining up against her. That morning, Republican leaders had used a procedural maneuver to prevent a vote on her amendment.
“I’m no longer speaking for my child," she said when it was her turn to talk. "You know my child is dead. I am speaking for every mother and father who has held my hand with tears running down their face, saying, ‘What do we do?’”
She pointed out the ramps schools build for children in wheelchairs and the peanut bans for children allergic to nuts. So why not call trans kids by their rightful pronouns, she demanded, “an accommodation that costs you nothing? Zero!”
“Your vote ‘yes’ on this bill means one of two things. Either you believe that trans children do not exist or you believe that trans children do not deserve to exist.”
The chamber was quiet as the clerk called out the senators’ names to vote. Some almost whispered their response, but Karen could see their names turning green as yes votes were recorded on a screen above.
Then it was over, 29 to 6. Not a single Republican vote against the pronoun bill.
In the coming days, senators would add more provisions banning gender-affirming care and prohibiting schools from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity — measures that would prompt a veto by the governor and the prospect of a vote to override him.
But this first betrayal by her colleagues was the hardest. Karen collapsed in her seat. The grief she’d been trying to hold back for weeks came pouring out. She wailed as she walked out of the chamber.
In the hallway, there was nothing now except the sound of her voice, crying, “I just want my baby back.”
If you are transgender and need help, or know someone who does, call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860. You can also reach crisis counselors at The Trevor Project for LGBTQ youth by calling 866-488-7386 or texting “START” to 678678, and by calling the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.
The Washington Post-KFF Trans Survey was conducted in English and Spanish from Nov. 10-Dec. 1, 2022, among 515 U.S. adults who identify as trans and 823 cisgender U.S. adults. Sampling, data collection, weighting and tabulation were managed by SSRS. Trans adults were reached via three survey panels recruited using random sampling methods: The Gallup Panel, NORC’s AmeriSpeak Panel and the SSRS Opinion Panel. Additional trans respondents were recontacted from previous randomized telephone interviews. Cisgender adults were recruited through the SSRS Opinion Panel. Results among the sample of trans adults have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus seven percentage points and the margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points among the sample of cisgender adults.
Story editing by Lynda Robinson; photo editing by Dudley Brooks and Mark Miller; video editing by Amber Ferguson; copy editing by Thomas Heleba and Shay Quillen; project editing by Wendy Gallietta; design by Natalie Vineberg. Scott Clement and Emily Guskin also contributed to this story.