Suicide ends transgender lives too

The focus of Transgender Day of Remembrance is on those killed by others because of anti-trans fear and hatred. However, it is worth noting that too many trans folks lose their lives to suicide as well. The number of trans folks who have attempted suicide ranges from about 30 percent to over 50 percent in studies. One study found that 83 percent of trans folks have considered suicide. According to another study:

the risk factors associated with attempted suicide among transgender people were younger age (under 25), depression or a history of substance abuse, forced sex, and gender-based victimization and discrimination (Clements-Nolle, Marx, & Katz, 2006).

LGBT youth are up to four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers, and that number balloons to nine times more likely if they are rejected by their family.
I turned 25 this week, a day I thought I would never see for much of my life. For me birthdays have become a time to reflect on how grateful I am to myself and everyone who has supported me in staying alive. I understand this may sound like a pretty depressing way to spend a birthday for someone who has not struggled with suicidal ideation, but for me it is honestly the most positive and affirming way I know how to celebrate.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with other trans and gender non-conforming folks about our histories with suicide. It’s proved a surprisingly easy conversation to enter into with trans folks I hardly know. We have our own unique experiences, but what we share makes having a history with suicide easily understandable.
Trans youth face high rates of exceptionally cruel harassment in school, even higher than lesbian, gay, and bi youth. That’s in addition to all too common rejection by families and broader communities. And that’s for the youth who are able to come out in some way. I could not have been counted in a study about trans youth in high school because I lacked any words or concepts to understand my gender identity. Now I look back on my childhood and teen years through a gender lens and gain a much greater understanding of my life experience. Back then I didn’t know how to process my reality. I knew I didn’t fit into the world around me as everyone around me seemed to understand it. I felt the psychic pain of knowing people didn’t see me as myself at the same time I didn’t know how to express who or even what I was. I didn’t know I shared these feelings and experiences with anyone else, so I felt isolated, alone, and wrong. Verbal bullying was the more common experience, but getting beaten up were the only moments I felt recognized and seen. I hated my body (and again, didn’t understand why) and bruises felt like the only accurate physical representation of who I actually was. I remember the hurt when friends said, for example, that they saw me as “asexual.” Their intent was not malicious – they were trying to process their experience of my gender without needed concepts just like I was. And like me they processed the fact I didn’t fit into an unquestionable gender system by effectively erasing my identity.
It’s very hard to live when you and those around you are convinced you don’t exist.
Lowering the suicide rate among trans folks requires the same sort of work that will best combat violent crimes committed by other people against trans folks. We need to do a lot of consciousness raising work to spread awareness of the very existence of trans folks. Sadly knowing we exist is not enough – we must also convince people that trans folks are human, that our lives have value. And this requires convincing people that their limited conceptions of gender are not all there is, a massive undertaking given the widespread unquestioning acceptance of the compulsory gender binary. In other words, we need to change our cultural understanding of and approach to gender in order to bring about social change. Because no trans person should die at their own hands or anyone else’s because of their gender.
For more information, resources, and help staying alive:
Kate Bornstein’s Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks & Other Outlaws
The Trevor Project

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9 Comments

  1. Samhita
    Posted November 20, 2009 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this post Jos and Happy belated birthday!

  2. afb1221
    Posted November 20, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    This is a really powerful post Jos. Thanks.

  3. Comrade Kevin
    Posted November 20, 2009 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Growing up, there was much I didn’t know about transgender identity. I assumed, in my ignorance, that it was limited to transvestites. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I was exposed to what to me were abstract concepts of gender and sexuality that included depictions of transgender individuals.
    As I have mentioned before, my eyes were not truly opened until a former partner began the process of transitioning and in so doing allowed me to see what had been repressed for so many years. It was frequently a painful process to observe, since he was not always sure of the next step of the process, had to face a parent who was not accepting and still refers to him by his former name, and couldn’t seem to grow enough facial hair while on testosterone for his satisfaction.
    If he ever contemplated suicide, he never made it plain, though I think with the stress involved, I probably would have at least considered it had I been in his situation.

  4. tpaperny
    Posted November 20, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    You are just such a beautiful person — and as you prove over and over again — a beautiful writer, as well.
    Thanks for this, Jos.

  5. kungfulola
    Posted November 20, 2009 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    This post should be required reading for anyone who is married to the idea of hard-and-fast binary gender roles.
    My wife gets agitated whenever I bridle at my sister-in-law’s sexist preconceptions about her child, but this is what is at stake. Sexism and gender essentialism strangle trans people’s chances for fulfillment in all areas of their lives.

  6. inallsincerity
    Posted November 21, 2009 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Jos,
    I attempted suicide 3 years ago. I came out as transgender this past January and called the Trevor Helpline one night in February via Skype from Denmark. In Europe there are no 24 hour lgbt helplines. I finally got access to testosterone in April and have been transitioning smoothly– the depression has vanished.
    I also recommend Kate Bornstein’s Hello Cruel World. I wish I’d known about it 3 years ago.

  7. 94.Rowland
    Posted November 21, 2009 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Jos, I have so enjoyed reading your posts– both while you were posting on the community page and now that you get more exposure as a main-page contributor. I am continually impressed by the beauty, eloquence, and significance of your writing. I feel sure that you make equally meaningful contributions in other areas of your life, but these are the parts that I see and that I can comment on. I’m glad to have gotten a chance to read your writing and I look forward to more. Happy belated birthday! Best wishes for a wonderful year.

  8. Zoe Brain
    Posted November 21, 2009 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Pardon me if I’m being a bit clinical here.
    It’s not just the persecution.
    Transsexual people have cross-sexed brains. (OK, an over-simplification, but unless you want me to talk in detail about the frontal gyrus, BSTc layer of hypothalamus and other structures, bear with me).
    The difference is at the cellular level – men and women have different sets of neurotransmitter receptors in each cell (which is part of the reason why women suffer depression at a rate eight times that of men – the rest is due to oppression).
    Having a neuro-anatomy that is cross-sexed compared to the endocrinology – male brains with female hormones, basically – causes neurological dysfunction. This is usually manifested as depression, but also leads to cognitive difficulties.
    When a trans person gets on HRT, it’s very common for them to say “Hey, I can think more clearly, the screaming in my head has gone away!”. They really can, too, this is objectively true.
    If they’ve lived for decades with such misery though, there may be induced co-morbidities. Many of those released from death camps after WWII had psych problems even after release. Removing the initial cause may not remove all the resultant problems. Pretty much all are damaged. Some heal very quickly without intervention, others may have little immediate improvement.
    For example, in Australia, 60% of trans women get raped, usually before age 20. I don’t mean to minimise the problems of rape survivors (how could I, when I’m one?) but imagine if the trauma from that is just part of a larger problem. Not always the biggest part either.
    Pardon me, I have to stop now. Lost my clinical detachment. Tears on the keyboard.

  9. Posted November 21, 2009 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    OK, back again.
    The point is that Trans women have a unique vulnerability, a biologically caused one. Pre-HRT trans women are particularly vulnerable, those who have transitioned successfully far less so.
    This partly accounts for their strong emotional response to transphobia, especially when expressed on otherwise women-friendly sites. Hatred from hate sites is one thing. Hatred from feminist sites hurts far more. Even when the offense is relatively minor, it can provoke an over-reaction simply because it hurts so much more.
    Those who have made it through and out the other side are also sometimes stronger as the result. Victimised, they refuse to allow themselves to be assigned the role of victim by others.
    It’s a difficult task : stating the objective facts, the murder and rape rates etc makes it look like we’re engaging in competitive victimology. Nothing could be further from the truth – these statistics are just the tip of iceberg, so to speak, and understate the scope of the problem.
    A larger truth is that we survive anyway. 50% of us attempt suicide before age 20, but that means 50% do not, despite everything. 30% give up (and I can’t blame them, some have it worse than I can imagine), but 70% keep going.
    So rather than staging a pity-party, we are working on doing something about it. Trying to have early intervention allowed for young trans girls so they don’t get damaged by years of being forced to try to be boys. Working on education, letting people know we exist, that we’re human. Calmly arguing against the Raymond/Bindel ideology that casts us as oppressors.
    Even after all this, even assuming the world changes so we’re no longer objectively oppressed even worse than most women are outside the middle east and africa, we’ll still have a greater than normal suicide rate before treatment, simply because of the biological issues – just as teens going through puberty do, from hormonal chaos. Intervention to help cope with crises will still be required.
    Getting rid of the worst of the persecution sure would help though. Especially on feminist sites. Feministing in particular has done really well in this area, and I thank everyone here for that.

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