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