I met Landon when I was putting together last year’s December 17th series and was honored that he was willing to share his loved one with us. We spent a LONG time talking about Diana. The way Landon talks about Diana, who he refers to as the love of his life, is unique in that he’s so present, so very much still enamored of who she was and still is to him, that he doesn’t just present a memorial, but a robust and nuanced picture of the life they built together. I lost my own partner 6 years ago and in writing about and describing him, that’s always been one of my biggest hurdles - how do I distill these formative yet finite memories into something bite size and relatable without forsaking the depth and breadth of a human’s life? This comes naturally to Landon - maybe due to his own love for Diana and own storytelling ability, but also, likely, because of what a colorful and engaging woman she was.
According to the obituary written by her colleagues at SWOPUSA, Diana, who was 46 at the time of her death in December 2016, was “known for tireless activism around trans/queer issues, sex worker rights, disability rights, economic justice, racism and issues impacting the kink community. Diana started the first local chapter of SWOP in South Florida. She was also a photographer, jewelry-maker, and sculptor. For anyone that knew her online or in real life, she exuded selflessness and compassion.”
Aside from her contributions to these movements at-large, Diana focused heavily on improving activism spaces for marginalized individuals. Inclusivity was a top priority for her and she wasn’t afraid to prompt the circles in which she worked toward self-examination. It was this dogged, fearless pursuit that first caught Landon’s attention.
[LANDON] “She sat on the planning committee here in South Florida, and there was a white gay man who plagiarized a speech by a trans woman of color at that particular TDOR event, which was really just abhorrent. We actually started meeting in a group of people trying to figure out how to address his actions and I noticed right away that Diana was just unbelievably brilliant. She came to our first meeting prepared with a list of offenses that had taken place and who was culpable and responsible for each one of them. I was just fascinated instantly by her intellect and her nuance and the way that she took a super complex situation and really distilled it into something that all of us in that space could wrap our minds around and begin to understand in terms of how to move forward. So that’s one of my earliest memories.
But she also started doing my HIV/STI testing at some point - actually at the time just HIV - and at one point she had come to my house to do testing and she said ‘I really enjoy our company and if you want to hang out sometime I’d love to do that’. I didn’t really make a whole lot of it, but after she left I was processing it and was like - did she just hit on me? [laughs].
So, we went out for a drink after my next test with her a few months later. It was whiskey Wednesday at one of the bars in the area - actually, a bar I used to work at - and we just sat there and one whiskey turned into maybe four or five whiskeys... and that led to an incredible evening, and the start of a three and a half year relationship that was honestly just filled with authenticity, magic, so much learning and growth for me.
Sometimes we’d get together and realize we were talking for four hours before we knew it, so months and months and months went by with us like - what do we even call this? [laughs]. And being anti-label for a long time we actually just made a big joke and called it ‘lay days’. We kept it really light for about six months or so and I think the first term we might have used was boyfriend-girlfriend - pretty conventional. But after a few years, we began to call each other ‘partner’, not without a whole lot of discussion and intention.
Once we got closer and closer - Diana most likely had spent her life with undiagnosed Asperger's and did not prefer to be on the phone at all and just really didn’t appreciate oral communication and struggled with it so we talked mostly through text. I had a work phone, she had a work phone, we had a personal phone but then there was also Facebook so just on Facebook alone we have about 75,000 messages over the course of four years time. We talked almost daily. Our check-ins would sometimes turn into hours of texting back and forth. She was just my everything. She was someone who really honored my love languages, I saw her generally on the weekends - on weekends I would show up and there would always be a surprise for me every Saturday night. She was also just my fixer-upper of all things. We also just had a ton of fun together. She really loved to do new things and see new things and we both had a lot of new experiences together. We went on a cruise together - it felt like we were just starting to see the world when things came to a screeching halt. I could talk for hours about the magic and the beauty of what she brought into our relationship and into my life.”
[BLAIR]: Diana was a tremendously hardworking, dedicated person both in her work and her relationships. She was also ardently independent. The force of her personality, and her hard-won independence could have a dark side, though. The thoughtfulness she brought to activism and nonprofit work could be draining, leaving her feeling constantly exposed to and impacted by the endless injustices of the world. The same determination that enabled her to claw her way toward living her truth and holding her own space in the world, could leave her feeling isolated and unable to ask for help even from those to whom she was closest.
[LANDON]: “Um, so, Diana, ya know, between being someone who was neurodivergent and someone who likely had also had Bipolar Disorder for most of her life - largely untreated - there were a lot of things that she was battling. But on top of that, she was really well read around social justice so I think the more you do social justice work the more you know and the less you can unlearn it, so navigating spaces can be really difficult once you’re aware of all the injustice in the world. And I think that was the case with her, especially with as much as she read and as much as she studied for so many years and as many types of activism she engaged in. She was just really brilliant and I think because of all of the mental health stuff and being neurodivergent, all of that - she once described it to me as a volume dial turned way way up on everything. From sensory things to injustice as well. And I think things just became harder and harder for her.
She went from being a master in auto tech to working in code enforcement - she really did so many things. After she went through a gender transition, it really aligned for her to best serve the community through activism and boots on the ground. She went from working in nonprofit - she was doing some really great work in HIV - particularly with trans and NB people - and unfortunately after a couple of years of doing that work at a really large organization her program was eliminated without much explanation or cause and certainly nothing she had done - I mean, this was just often the case with many organizations that serve trans and NB people.
When the program was eliminated and her position was demoted it took a huge toll on her. She was doing important work, meaningful work and impactful work and she really was making a difference in the lives of trans sex workers, specifically. That was what I call the beginning of her end and in anticipation of what was to come she started doing dominatrix work. So she decided to pursue that full time for a couple months and she was actually incredibly successful, she was very excited. She started a website, she really got her business up and running very fast. After a few months of doing that she said I think the business might be even more lucrative if I’m willing to push my own boundaries and to actually do some escorting work. So that’s the direction that she moved in. And within a couple of years she had been raped twice, and of course, we know all the complexities that come along with that and not being able to really pursue it or address it in any way that promoted her own healing, I think was really difficult - really corrosive for her.
During that time, just like the rest of the things she cared about, she took on sex worker rights as part of her activism. So she became very visible and open about her experiences doing both dom work and escorting and began to build community with other sex workers, specifically on Twitter. I think she was really contributing to some meaningful change, both locally and abroad. She had been so incredibly visible throughout those couple of years being a sex worker and you combine that visibility with her long standing history of challenging nonprofits and no one wanted her. No organization locally in south Florida wanted to give her a job. She applied for many - many of which are still in existence - and nobody would bring her onboard. Folks didn’t really give her a whole lot of insight as to why, but of course in light of her passing I’ve done some digging and had some vulnerable conversations with folks and have gotten a much better understanding and all of my hunches have been spot on. People were afraid that she would call them out for unfair labor practices or - all the different things that nonprofits engage in. At one point she told me she felt like a track star who was sitting on the sidelines watching the runner from a wheelchair.``
[BLAIR]: Diana liked and was successful at sex work, but it’s dangers and disappointments led her to feel she needed another hiatus. Unfortunately, returning to civilian work proved harder than anticipated. On top of having burned some bridges with her penchant for keeping organizations accountable, she also faced stigma for having been open about sex work and found herself largely shut out of the field to which she hoped to return. As her options and savings dwindled, she expressed to Landon her terror at the possibility of losing the independence she’d worked so hard to achieve and maintain. She felt desperate, and like she might become a burden for him. This is a tragically common thought spiral for people with caretaker personalities and it’s incredibly difficult to break from no matter how much support a person has.
[LANDON]: “She kept telling me: ‘I’m going to be homeless again’, and I kept reassuring her ‘you’re not going to be homeless, I’m not going to let that happen, I’m right here and we can live together if need be’. But she had always been the breadwinner in her relationships and the idea of having a partner take care of her was also debilitating. Her biggest fear was reexperiencing homelessnes and losing her stability, her apartment. When she developed what she believed to be a bowel obstruction at the end of 2016 she went for seven days unable to eat and unable to drink much in the way of water.
Despite how she was feeling we went out for what I can now see is one last hurrah - probably, she had some sense of that as well. We had a great weekend together. Sunday night when I would usually go home she asked me not to leave and I said I gotta go home - I had a new cat and needed to get home to feed him but I’ll come back up if I can. I asked her if she was able to eat and she said no, really I’m not and I’m going to go to the hospital here shortly and I asked her to please do that and let me know if she was going to go, cause of course I would show up to support her. Being trans and going to the hospital is difficult enough, let alone being a trans sex worker going to the hospital. And the next call I got from an unknown number was actually the county sheriff telling me she had taken her life in a state park about an hour north of where she lived.
One of my own personal trauma reactions is I get really sick in my belly and I was absolutely sick. I was walking out of a local Indian restaurant with my work colleagues at the time and a couple of them had stuck around and we were just chatting as we were walking to the parking lot and I was just instantly sick. And then I jumped into action. I didn’t give myself a ton of time to think, in part because I knew she was a visible sex worker I was very concerned about her apartment being raided, about her property being taken, I really didn’t know from a legal perspective what would happen. I had keys to her apartment and at one point she told me if anything ever happened that I could always let myself in…and she had written me a three page letter and left a CARE package for me - even in death, she made sure I was going to be taken care of . She left me what little bit of cash she had. She purchased some gift cards so that at least in her mind I could have the basics. She also left all of my Christmas gifts wrapped next to her desk and she wrote a note on the wrapping paper directly - very typical Diana, wrote right on the wrapping paper, a note on each of the gifts.”
[BLAIR]: Closure is always a misnomer and at best and at worst, a cruel myth. But the idea of closure when someone’s actions directly lead to their death is nothing short of laughable. Landon has spent the last five years contending with the decision Diana made to end her life, and while he shares her beliefs around end-of-life autonomy, there will always be a massive chasm between those beliefs, his understanding of her state-of-mind when she died, and the crushing, complicated grief he’s been saddled with as a result. And maybe those things can’t be reconciled, only experienced, acknowledged, and lived with.
[LANDON]: “I genuinely thought that even if we weren’t together forever as partners, that she would be in my life for the duration of our time on this earth. But I’m very open and transparent about that with people in my life now, folks struggling with suicidality a lot of people assume just because someone is talking about it that they're not going to do it and that’s actually not true at all. It’s a conversation we had pretty often and she believed heavily in autonomy and end of life decisions and she did what she needed to do to exit from the suffering. A Lot of people say she didn't really love you. I've heard some really awful things and I think quite the opposite. Because she loved me so much, that’s actually part of why she made her decision. She didn't want to be, what she perceived at the time, was a burden to me, which of course is not at all how I perceived it.
When you put those experiences through the lens of all the rejection she faced and years and years of trauma I can see how all of those things really intersected to give her the basis for what was ultimately a very final decision. Her note to me communicates very well that she loved me, she said that I was the greatest love of her life … I’ve had to navigate the things that have come up that people have said, sometimes when I have a lot of energy or fervor around it I will challenge those things.
Of course, early on I didn’t have that capacity and anyone who’s every gone through a suicide of someone close to them knows almost bigger than the grief process is the question process. It’s just a seemingly unending stream of questions and I was just laying here thinking before we connected that there are times that questions pop into my mind I don't have the answers for. I really do think the biggest fear for her was becoming a burden to me. Most people know the narrative of the broke social worker and despite how much time and energy I've put into my schooling and my career, the reality is I wasn't making very much money. And as someone who had spent a lot of time in nonprofits herself I think she was just like ‘I can't imagine putting all of my needs on my partner’. It didn't matter that I said to her ‘we’ve got it, we can handle it’.
[BLAIR]: Diana made a choice to end her life. Whether or not that was premature, no matter how anyone, even her closest loved ones, feels about it, is not for us to decide or judge. What is for us to judge, though, is the world we create, the systems we uphold and the position those elements leave vulnerable people in. In his 2013 essay Now We Are Five about his sister’s suicide, David Sedaris wrote “‘I don’t know that it had anything to do with us,’ my father said. But how could it have not? Doesn’t the blood of every suicide splash back in our faces?”
The Trevor Project released it’s second National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health in 2020, which revealed that 48% of survey respondents have engaged in self-harm in the preceding 12 months. Sex workers, trans folks, neurodivergent people, people facing ongoing housing insecurity - all are at massively heightened risk for suicide. Some people can bear these truths by placing responsibility solely at the feet of the individual. Others turn their fear, anger, sadness and helplessness inward and blame themselves. The truth exists, as always, in more subtle gradations. In the years since Diana’s death, Landon has faced down every conceivable reaction to her decision and his experience. The takeaway: It’s comforting to assign blame, but it doesn’t alleviate the suffering of those left behind by suicide. Understanding helps. Unconditional community support helps. Honoring the memories of our lost loved ones and taking full-throated, fearless action to prevent the circumstances like those that led to Diana’s suicide helps.
[LANDON]: “Because of the work I continue to do in South Florida I have to engage with a lot of organizations, institutions and people that did direct harm to Diana, and that has added an extra layer of difficulty on top of the grief and the frustration and all of the questioning we’ve talked about. Having to navigate the very entities that I believe are in a lot of ways most responsible for her decision - that’s not to say that I remove any responsibility that she had, but when you look at the precipitating factors of employment and housing being the two greatest motivators for her decision …if she had had great health insurance, a stable position and an adequate income I don’t think there’s any way at all that she wouldn't have gone and gotten the medical care she needed and she would have felt at choice to go and get that care. But as someone who was uninsured, who was trans, a sex worker and didn’t have stable income - where do you go to get good care when a medical crisis pops up?
I think most grief that folks experience with the suicide of a partner or loved, it’s probably diagnostically complex grief but when you add in the complexity of the harm that took place and all of the folks who were involved in that harm and implicit in that harm and me still having to be in those spaces, work with a lot of these folks it has been really, really, really difficult for me. And at the same time, as I said earlier, it's also what fuels me and my work, it's why I do a lot of what I do.
I believe that South Florida is capable of making some incredible strides, of making positive impact on peoples lives who are trans, who are sex workers, who are neurodivergent…but some real honest conversations have to happen for that to really be the case. Some of the feedback I've received directly is that I'm too negative, but like, what do you expect? The series of factors that lead to taking the person I loved most off the planet are pretty negative. Like, I feel in a lot of ways Diana passed me her sack of trauma and I don't really have a choice but to carry it. I'm not going to hide any aspect of her story to make others comfortable and the ways her story has become part of my story. While that's been a really difficult part of my healing journey, it's also a really important piece - for some- for those who are willing to listen, it's a part of what moves them when I open my mouth.
I think a lot of people think of violence against sex workers or violence against trans people as what they typically understand or know to be definitions of violence. You know, we think of anti-trans homicide, we think of hate crimes, we think of verbal assault, we think of physical assault and I think violence against sex workers and trans sex workers is actually far more broad, far more nuanced and a lot of it is very insidious. So many people are forced out of jobs where they were doing well when they begin their transition - so many trans people who have served in the sex industry and the sex workers rights movement really don't have a lot of opportunities if they decide to leave that work in some capacity and i think just from a resource perspective and access perspective that is what we’re not talking about enough; violence is so much more broad and all encompassing and systemic violence against trans folks and trans sex workers is really way more nuanced than what people think of. That obviously doesn't discount the other types of violence talked about, but employment and income and housing are at the root of peoples very basic survival - you know, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs - and if you don't have shelter and if you don't have income in the country that we’re in - because capitalism reigns - every other piece of your survival - your health, mental health and wellness are really challenged.
I would want people to remember her as a truth teller, as someone who was willing to challenge systems, institutions, the status quo, even at a real cost to herself because she saw that it could make an impact on the greater good particularly for people in communities that she was a part of. I’d like her to be remembered as someone who brought out authenticity in others - I think her authenticity and vulnerability really made others feel safe to be themselves. And that’s not only a huge contribution to the planet, right - like what would happen if we could all move through the planet as our most authentic self? But I think it was a huge contribution to many movements locally.
Yeah, there's just so much I could say but certainly someone who was really willing to put her neck on the line to be in solidarity - both with communities she was a part of and she was not a part of - and I think modeled genuine allyship in the purest forms. I realize that’s a loaded and complex term but that's really what I think it looked like and I think her memory continues to fuel my activism, my truth telling, my authenticity and vulnerability but I'm also really clear that there are others that she impacted in that same way. And certainly by me living that way I know others are also afforded that opportunity. Those are some of the highlights, but there's just so much I could say. She was just an unbelievable, dynamic human being and for sure have never met anyone like her.”
[BLAIR]: Thank you, Landon, for your candor, and for such generosity with your memories. Today, we remember Diana Hemingway.