In the weeks before her suicide, Bryk, a respected game developer, had complained of “constant transphobia” on the Internet. In online chat rooms, anonymous trolls goaded Bryk to kill herself. “DO IT, if you’re such a weak willed thin skinned dips— then f— do it,” wrote one heckler.
Bryk’s death was a cruel blow for America’s transgender community, coming just as public awareness of the issue is peaking. Similar suicides — such as that of Ohio teen Leelah Alcorn — have drawn huge outpourings of support for victims. Bruce Jenner’s revelation on Friday that he is transitioning to become a woman, meanwhile, has been hailed as a watershed moment in awareness about the transgender community.
But Bryk’s suicide suggests that celebrity interviews are no panacea for the pain felt by transgender individuals across the country, and that progress continues to be slow. It also once again raises questions about the misogynist online gaming culture that reared its ugly head during last year’s Gamergate controversy.
“Next time you think it’s funny to make fun of someone transgender think about who you’re hurting,” wrote Lisa Bryk, Rachel’s mother, on Facebook next to an article about her daughter’s death.
Rachel Bryk lived a short and painful life. According to archived tweets, she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia that made everyday tasks excruciating. “For 7 years now,” she wrote shortly before committing suicide. “Only gets worse over time.”
“She spent every day in pain,” her mother said.
Whether it was her illnesses or her insular nature, Bryk spent hours online playing and developing games. She was particularly devoted to Dolphin, software (called an emulator) that allows people to play Nintendo Wii or GameCube games in high-definition on personal computers. “She often would do a lot of the drudge work that no one else would do and attempt features that no one else had time to work on,” according to a Dolphin community post commemorating Bryk.
The shy kid from Wall, N.J., found a community online. Most of the time, Bryk bantered with fellow gamers about Dolphin fixes and glitches. But sometimes, she talked about being transgender. “On the plus side I managed to get through 3 airports without being misgendered, even by people who saw my [male] ID and even got a shocked reaction from someone who saw my name and had not previously suspected,” Bryk wrote in early April. Her Twitter account shows male and female symbols alongside a pronoun guide: “she/her.”
But in addition to community, Bryk also found torment on the Internet. At one point, the abuse on 4chan, an anonymous Internet message board, became so bad that she left and started using Reddit instead.
“There’s not constant transphobia on reddit any time I post, or someone mentions me, like there is here,” she explained on April 7 after returning to 4chan.
In that same post, Bryk sounded suicidal.
“The rest of you don’t have to worry though, I’m gonna kill myself soon enough and you won’t have to be bothered by me anymore,” she wrote.
Some users begged her not to. “You can’t let some of these mean people affect you,” one person wrote. “If it wasn’t that it’d be something else. That’s just how 4chan is.”
Others encouraged her to kill herself, however. “How do you feel about closed casket funerals?” asked one anonymous commenter on April 15. “Jumping off a bridge is not rocket science,” wrote another.
“Convincing yourself to do it is hard,” Bryk answered. “Not realizing there would be cops on suicide patrol made it harder too since they scared the heck out of me and I hadn’t previously thought to make sure I didn’t look suspicious.”
When someone suggested Bryk would be back online within a few days “thriving on the drama” she had created with her talk of suicide, she replied, “Nah.”
True to her word, Bryk killed herself a week later. She was the fourth person to commit suicide off the George Washington Bridge in nine days. Last year, officials announced a plan to put up nine-foot fences along the bridge, but the fences have yet to go up.
As during her life, Bryk’s death drew the best and worst out of the Internet. On her mother’s Facebook page, supporters posted messages criticizing those who drove Bryk to suicide. “No one is placed on this earth to judge,” wrote one family friend. “People hide behind their computers and type vicious comments. People are ‘brave’ behind their screens but really, they are ignorant and sad.”
Lisa Bryk said her daughter’s illnesses — and not just the abuse she suffered online — drove her to suicide. “While Rachel was certainly bullied and harassed online, that was NOT the reason she committed suicide,” she wrote. “Please pass along info on the abuse that trans individuals endure, but let’s also educate people on how difficult it is to live every moment in pain. A combination of everything was likely the cause, so let’s not make her a anonymous statistic.”
But commenters on 4chan wasted no time in doing precisely that.
“So on the post mortem will they refer to [Bryk] as ‘it’ ‘she’ or ‘he’?” one asked.
In a misspelled message of hate, another 4chan user wrote: “good riddens.”
Correction: The original version of this story misdescribed Dolphin software. It enables users to play Nintendo Wii or GameCube games on personal computers, not the Internet. Also, the Ohio teenage who committed suicide was Leelah Alcorn, not Abby Jones.