MVP Regional Senior Investigative Reporter
“My child died at 19 because he didn’t feel the world was supporting him,” Kat McKeel, mother of Elliot McKeel cried.
Elliot was born in July of 2002. Kat said, “All I wanted was a baby.” That child was a ‘daddy’s baby’ and they knew right away that they were not gonna dress their baby in pink even though they were having a little girl. Jeremy McKeel, Elliot’s father, wanted his daughter to ride dirt bikes, compete and work on cars, so that’s exactly what Kat says their child did.
When Elliot was in eighth grade he wanted a haircut, so Kat cut his hair at home and he ended up with a buzzcut. When he went to school he told Kat that all of his teachers were calling him sir and boy. Kat told him to wear lip gloss or earrings, but he said no. Kat said she ended up forcing him to wear earrings which she says she regrets now. “I wish that I had the foresight at that time to say, well, how do you feel about that?”
When Elliot “came out” Kat said it was really hard. People came up to Kat and Jeremy and told them that they thought their daughter was gay. Kat asked Elliot because she said she didn’t care one way or another but was told no. When Elliot came out as trans it was Christmas Eve of 2019. Kat hugged him and told him that it didn’t change anything. “The standards are still the same for who I want you to date. I want you to have good relationships. I want you to know who you are and not rush into anything.” He was still a senior in high school.
Kat said, “I think about all the times he tried to possibly tell me, but as a parent you just don’t care what makes your kid different. That’s your kid. It’s irrelevant! I also love the name Elliot that he ultimately picked. He had all kinds of reasons for picking it that were meaningful to him.”
Kat said she wanted to take pictures to replace the ones of him in his youth and Elliot told her no. “Leave those pictures up, he said. It was a beautiful conversation about not turning his back on who he was. That was still his childhood and those were still his memories.”
“I do wonder, if I had heard him sooner, if it would’ve made a difference. I thought that coming out as trans meant that my child wouldn’t like his past. I wanted new family pictures with him as Elliot and we never got to take those pictures because he was in and out of the mental hospital.”
Kat said that Elliot didn’t figure out that he was trans until he hit puberty. “He had body dysmorphia when puberty hit, but he didn’t figure out what the problem was until he was in therapy and exploring it.”
“When he came out, I kept telling myself that my child was not dead. It was so hard for my husband to give up the dreams of his daughter and to transition into seeing him as a son. I’m sure that when people come out as trans it is a shock to their families. It’s a total mind realignment, and, whether we intend to or not, we paint a picture for ourselves of what our child will do based upon their genitals,” Kat explained.
Kat said that Elliot was the kindest soul. “He just wanted everyone to be okay being them.” Kat said that “to be trans you are not okay with the body you’re born with and it’s incredibly uncomfortable to be comfortable in your skin. It’s like a sunburn that’s on the inside. You just want to shuck off this layer.”
Kat said that “Elliot called being trans his superpower because most of us would only see the world as a female or a male.” Kat said, “Oh, if I could understand what men or women were thinking and I look at my kid and I’m like, well here’s someone who sees things from both perspectives and all we can do is go well, your opinion isn’t valid and you shouldn’t be allowed to use the restroom of your choice.”
Kat said that Elliot didn’t know he was transgender because he was asexual. “He just didn’t care what his genitals were doing. It took him a long time to put the label transgender with himself because he wasn’t happy with his body but he wasn’t looking for his body to do something in the bedroom that it wasn’t meant to do.” Kat said he had a longer journey figuring all that out.
Kat said that Elliot became politically charged when politicians started taking away the rights of LGBTQ+ people. “This hatred is lazy hatred — if you’re going to dislike someone then dislike them for a personal reason but don’t dislike them for something they can’t change.” Kat said, “Hate is not born – it is taught.”
Black Lives Matters was the first protest that Elliot attended. Kat said that his cousins are all mixed and BLM meant something to Elliot. “He saw ANY discrimination to anyone as an affront to everyone.”
Kat said that Elliot’s whole point was wanting people to accept someone’s truth and believe them. She said Elliot wanted to stop victimizing people just for being. “Stop thinking that because you’ve heard one person’s story, you’ve heard every person’s story. These stories belong to the people who lived them and they have the right to tell their stories and be believed in their own way. We don’t have the right to steal someone’s narrative from them,” Kat said.
Elliot started at UT Martin right amidst COVID. “As much as anything else, COVID killed my kid,” Kat said. Kat explained that the semester Elliot started it was only online. There were no meetings, or clubs — there was nothing,” Kat said. “He just sat at his dorm room all day while professor’s figured out how to teach over Zoom,” she said.
Elliot continued to struggle with mental health and was in and out of treatment for years. He made multiple attempts on his life before ultimately ending his life on July 22, 2021. Kat said, “I am still trying to figure out the best way to honor my child, but I will be the voice for my child so that my other children don’t have to speak as loudly.”
Kat said, “Elliot needed what Renee LaFleur, Professor and Director of the Women and Gender Center at UTM, had to offer and she wasn’t offering it then. It’s just that simple.” Kat said that she is so happy that Elliot made an impact and that he got to do something that meant something to him. “I don’t think Elliot knew how big the LGBTQ+ community was until he started advocating.” Kat said that on Elliot’s first day of campus he met six other people who were queer in some way and “they just formed this really great group.”
Kat said that Elliot wanted everyone to have the option of finding their space and “I think that Renee does that beautifully. She creates spaces for people.”
LaFleur said that she heard about Elliot’s death and “though I didn’t know him, his death deeply affected me. I made up my mind that we as a campus needed to do more for our LGBT+ students. And I made some plans. I decided to meet with the provost and plan pride year.”
“I met with the provost and said, we aren’t doing enough for LGBT+ on campus. He agreed. I proposed and created an LGBT+ Taskforce and Pride Year. Phil Cavalier agreed both were necessary and worthwhile. The task force was designed to troubleshoot issues LGBT+ students encountered — name changes, harassment, housing assignments, community, mental health, etc. At our first meeting we talked about Elliott and how his life motivated us to act,” LaFleur said.
“One of the fears that parents who have lost a child have is that their child will be forgotten. That as years pass and others grow older and life changes, their child will no longer be in people’s minds. I’m deeply familiar with this fear. I knew Kat a little before Elliott passed. And I knew she’d be having the same worries. I had the idea to create an award for an ally on campus to encourage the community and celebrate those to make inclusion a part of their lives. It made sense to me to name the award after Elliott. He had an impact on so many of us – -those who knew him and those who didn’t. We have given out two awards. We give them at an Everyone is Awesome Banquet at the end of the year. Students get dressed up, we eat good food, win prizes, and give out awards. Kat and Jeremy have attended each banquet to see the award named after their child given out and to have their child remembered,” LaFleur said.
Two awards have been given thus far at the banquet. Sarah Haig, associate professor of graphic design, was given the inaugural Elliot McKeel Ally Award for a faculty or staff member who exemplifies allyship and advocacy. Haig is known for supporting her students and advocating for them wherever they meet a roadblock. The award is named after Elliot McKeel, a UTM student who died in July 2021. McKeel was a fierce advocate for LGBT+ students on campus.
The second award went to Tammy Stanford, a student success counselor. Stanford is known for supporting her students, being a voice for them and generally creating a welcoming and accepting environment on campus. Kat said, “Elliot would’ve liked the award. He would’ve been embarrassed and thought it was too much. But he would’ve liked it.”
One of Elliot’s lifelong friends, Evan Shannon, said, “We’ve been friends since third grade at Martin Elementary. We did everything together, faced everything together. In elementary school, we fought fantasy playground battles together. As we grew up, we fought the very real battles of self-identity, religion, and mental health together. We came out to each other, finding a little pocket of peace and acceptance in the brutally homophobic environment that is Tennessee. He was always there for me, and he inspired me endlessly.”
When Elliot died, the UTM community came together for a candlelight memorial. A large crowd was on hand for the memorial that was led by the Student Government Association, Student Life and former Chancellor Keith Carver who said, “The entire Skyhawk community mourns the loss of our fellow student and friend.”