[As published in Baltimore OUTloud, 11/15/13]
November is a curious month for Trans persons. The days around the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR), November 20th, are often difficult ones for many in our community. Add Thanksgiving, with some trans folk being estranged from their families, and you can have a pretty potent emotional mix for trans folk. I personally do not like the TDoR. I am not sure I know a single person who really does. It is not a happy event. Invariably these observances have a reading of names, and more recently, a detailed and graphic description of the person’s demise. I usually find myself in tears.
Although these events typically spotlight those who are the victims of crimes, they occasionally will reference those who have taken their lives by their own hand. I say occasionally because unless the person was “out” to somebody within our community we probably had no idea that there was a linkage between the person’s gender identity and that suicide. I contend if you read or hear of a suicide of a 40-something male who by all other appearances did not have any other issues, you may be looking at a trans person. I know; I was one such person.
The numbers are appalling. According to a joint NCTE (www.transequality.org) and NGLTF(www.ngltf.com) study (http://bit.ly/fWYffL) 41% of trans persons have attempted suicide. Not merely thought about it, but actually have tried to kill themselves. Looking at the national figures for comparison tell the true tale for us. The rate of suicide is 1.6% for the general population. Recently, the U.S. Military has had an uptick of suicides in which their numbers about double that of the general public (3.2%). This increase is described as an epidemic (http://bloom.bg/Nvdujw). Last year there were a total of 350 military suicides. As a result of this crisis, great forces, funds and energy have been poured into seeking solutions (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/invisible-casualties) to military suicides. And for trans persons with a 41% attempt rate? Not so much.
You might ask why such a disparity between the trans community and the general public? The reasons that persons seek suicide as a “solution” are many, but there are key indicators that are common. Depression, of course, being the primary factor. Despite advances in civil rights for trans persons the stigma of being trans continues to be devastating to many trans persons of all ages. And although we are making forward progress, that progress is slow. In the recent ENDA vote in the U.S. Senate almost all of the opposition was centered on trans persons.
In California opponents of AB1266, which allows trans identified students the right to access facilities for the gender they identify with, has found nearly a half million signatures in an attempt to put the matter on a ballot referendum. The number of those signatures alone indicates clearly why such protections need to exist in the first place.
Congrats to the LGB folks who have made progress; it is now OK to be gay! But trans, that is still way too weird. The “ick factor” still seems to dominate thinking of opponents. Fabricated tales of indiscretions of trans persons, and trans kids are flowing freely in the conservative media. And we wonder why we find some of these kids killing themselves in response to this hate.
Many will argue that trans persons are mentally ill and that such a high rate of suicide attempts proves that. This is, of course, debunked by the evidence and the mental health community does not believe this to be the case either. I contend that many trans persons are saner than the rest of the population given the rigid scrutiny one must navigate to obtain any medical intervention. I suspect astronauts may be the only population vetted more thoroughly. The issue faced is not an internal one but rather external coming from outside forces, prejudices, and phobias. It is not uncommon for a trans person to reach a limit where suicide looks like an attractive option.
What resolves this problem? Time probably. That and if we could be much more visible in the world. I am not talking about sticking out like a sore thumb; I am talking about not hiding. Our LGB peers figured this out. Now they are the couple next door.
We need to have an assertive campaign to educate, just like our LGB peers have done with marriage. They made it the new normal. When you have those kinds of numbers of trans folks opting to take an early exit, I would contend that clearly defines an epidemic in our LGBT community. This TDoR take stock that for every name read there are likely many others not read and let us make sure we honor them as well.