Suicide In The Trans Community: An Unspoken Epidemic
In late June this past year, Tara Hill, a local Verizon installer and trans woman took her life. Hill, and women like her are part of a group of people who face insurmountable challenges daily, and while she suffered from a host of additional issues, her status as a trans woman did not make her emotional problems any easier.
A study released in 2011 conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality along with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 41% of transsexual people surveyed had attempted suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general population.
The study is the result of 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming participants from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Island who completed online or paper surveys.
Lisa Griffin, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in transsexual issues, says that while 41% sounds bad, it is likely much worse. “Those rates, even though they’re shockingly high, they’re probably not high enough,” says Griffin. “We know that there are a lot of people who complete suicide, who actually are successful at killing themselves, who are not categorized – officially – as transgender because they have not come out as transgender. A lot of people who are transgender feel as though they don’t have the resources emotionally or financially to transition, and a lot of those people kill themselves without anyone even knowing that they are transgender.”
Griffin says suicide within the trans community is higher because the daily stressors they face on a day-to-day basis are much higher than the majority of society, “the reasons that transgender people attempt suicide at high rates are not really different from the reason other people attempt suicide, but they experience so much more of the challenges than other people do.”
Kerri Abrams from the James River Transgender Society, a trans individual herself, said that she can empathize with these challenges and has seen many trans people struggle with them. “I have personally known somebody to actually commit suicide and I have known a number of people to attempt it.” And Abrams is not stranger to those powerful emotions that could have such dramatic results. “I have thought about suicide a few times, I have never attempted, but you get to a point where you see absolutely no out, there’s no light at the end of a tunnel.”
This daily torment is – as the study found – commonplace in the daily life for the majority of trans people. 90% of those that were surveyed said they had experienced some kind of harassment or mistreatment on the job. Of those who expressed transgender identity or gender non-conformity in elementary school, 78% reported experiencing some sort of harassment. 53% had been verbally harassed in public. 22% were denied equal treatment from a government agency. And of the respondents who had interacted with the police, 22% had experienced harassment from the law.
“There was no direct bullying or harassing of myself, but I did find out that behind the scenes the company was letting people speak freely [about] what they thought of me,” said Abrams speaking on past employment experiences. She said that there were a number of crude comments made on her behalf: “Oh it’s one of those ‘he-shes,’ it’s an ‘it,’ she’s a chick with a blank blank blank – if you’ve heard that term before, why are they letting ‘it’ stay here being employed, a number of things like that.”
These high rates of harassment can be explained, Griffin says, because it can be hard for trans people to hide their sexual identity, and many people may not be okay with these expressions. “One of the primary ways that their lives are different is they cannot privately be transgender, especially those who do transition gender from male to female or female to male… Their hormones change, their appearance changes, they often change their name, and as a result of that they are more visible as a demographic that can attract negative attention.”
But harassment is far from the only stresser that the trans community faces on a daily basis. 47% reported being fired or not hired because of their sexual identity, they are four times more likely than the rest of society to make less than $10,000 a year, and there is double the rate of unemployment for transsexual people. Of respondents who experienced workplace bias resulting in loss of employment they were four times more likely to be homeless.
These statistics were once again confirmed by participants who were currently unemployed who experienced nearly “double the rate of working in the underground economy (such as doing sex work or selling drugs), twice the homelessness, 85% more incarceration, and more negative health outcomes, such as more than double the HIV infection rate and nearly double the rate of current drinking or drug misuse to cope with mistreatment, compared to those who were employed.”
“Those kinds of experiences – harassment, not being able to get a job, unemployment, housing can be an issue (a lot of trans people struggle with finding housing because of discrimination or because of a lack of funds) – all of these things lead to greater homelessness, more sex work, more substance use, more suicide,” Griffin says.
Perhaps one of the more alarming statistics found in the study is that 71% of trans individuals had hidden their gender or gender transition to evade harassment, 57% delayed their transition for the same reason.
This is disconcerting because 78% felt more comfortable at work post-transition, even though they experienced the same level off harassment as pre-transition. A number, which both Griffin and Abrams were surprised was not higher.
Griffin says that transition is only way to truly feel at peace with your sexuality. “We have lots of documentation that the only way to rectify, what’s called gender dysphoria (the uncomfortable feeling you have when your outside doesn’t match the inside), the only way to rectify that is to have your outside match your inside more accurately.”
This dysphoria feeling weighs the most on trans people, according Abrams, but starting treatment really helps to clear the blurred lines.
“Once you start your transition… you now know who you are and you are doing things to correct the way you were, and the relief of being able to live as who you are definitely outweighs all of the other negative aspects.”
Griffin stressed quality medical care and support structures as the key to ending the trans-suicide crisis. “Short of that there’s just not a whole lot you can do,” said Griffin. “You can go to support groups, you can try to find ways to honor your internal gender privately.”
While transition can be a positive, life-changing experience, it doesn’t change the horrible fact that 41% of trans people have attempted suicide. A friend who is contemplating taking their life and can be hard to spot, but Griffin says that while some might not show warning signs, most do.
“I would encourage people to get more comfortable straight up asking the person the question: are you thinking about killing yourself?” Griffin said. “So many people are afraid to bring up suicide, they somehow think that magically if they bring it up it’ll make it more likely to happen, but the opposite is true.”
Sometime, though, the path towards suicide can seem inevitable, as was the case with, Tara Hill. Abrams and the JRTS worked to honor her memory. Considered a friend by many, it was known that Tara’s emotional struggle was beyond her gender identity.
Hill remembered at a JRTS event
“She just got tired of waking up and feeling totally worthless, useless, not knowing who she was sometimes,” said Abrams. “She took the path that she felt was the only path left for her, and that was suicide.”
A story like Tara’s shows us that 41% is not simply a statistic. 41% represents a great number of loved ones across the country who can’t find acceptance in their life. It represents a dark spot in our society that we have swept under the rug, or worse, was never noticed in the first place. The people who know about it bring it up casually at a cocktail dinner to impress friends; the ones who don’t know about it probably don’t want to hear about it. It might not affect everyone everyday, but it affects every community all the time.
The conclusion of the survey offers a somber look at the state of things, and does not seem to offer much hope for the future:
“It is part of social and legal convention in the United States to discriminate against, ridicule, and abuse transgender and gender non-conforming people within foundational institutions such as the family, schools, the workplace and health care settings, every day. Instead of recognizing that the moral failure lies in society’s unwillingness to embrace different gender identities and expressions, society blames transgender and gender nonconforming people for bringing the discrimination and violence on themselves.
Nearly every system and institution in the United States, both large and small, from local to national, is implicated by this data. Medical providers and health systems, government agencies, families, businesses and employers, schools and colleges, police departments, jail and prison systems—each of these systems and institutions is failing daily in its obligation to serve transgender and gender non-conforming people, instead subjecting them to mistreatment ranging from commonplace disrespect to outright violence, abuse and the denial of human dignity. The consequences of these widespread injustices are human and real, ranging from unemployment and homelessness to illness and death.”
While this is all backup by the data presented in the study, Griffin says that she is hopeful for the future and she can see society changing for the better when it comes to the life and wellbeing of transsexual people. Griffin said trans people in the media, like Chaz Bono or Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black, help open doors for members of the trans community around the country to know they are not alone.
“Oprah Winfery and Tyra Banks had transgender people on their shows in a way that wasn’t sensationalized, changing laws, companies changing their transgender inclusion policy, companies changing their employers insurance policy to include transgender healthcare, these things have changed exponentially in the past few years,” said Griffin.
Both Griffin and Abrams see education as a vital step towards acceptance for transsexual people. “There’s bits and pieces of education that’s offered, but it just needs to be offered a little bit more and in a very positive light.”
And Griffin stays optimistic despite regular hardships. “In my mind being transgender is part of the natural and positive diversity of humankind, it’s not some sort of disorder or intrinsic problem that needs to be fixed, it is part of our species natural diversity. So what we need to change is the attitude towards that coming from the outside.”
If a change in attitude is what is needed to lower the 41% statistic of then, as a society, we should strive to create that change. Griffin says that it needs to start with elementary school education, and teach everyone that these conditions are natural.
I am originally from a small town in North Carolina and have recently moved to Richmond. Meaning I am a novice to the ways of Richmond life, but from what I have seen it is a culturally rich environment that I look forward to diving into. My daily hustle consists of playing bass, reading, and hunting for new music. This summer I will be interning with RVA Magazine and GayRVA.com. In the fall I will be transferring to Virginia Commonwealth University where I will major in journalism.
“We need to make sure that trans lives matter.”August 19, 2015
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