Why it’s time to change the conversation about transgender suicide
Trigger warnings: suicide, depression, self-harm, transphobia
If you’re transgender, or know someone who is, it’s more than likely that you’ve heard the suicide statistics. The horrifying figures are repeated constantly, especially by charities supporting LGBTQIA+ rights.
There are different variations: the percentage of trans people who commit suicide, attempt suicide, think about suicide, or engage in self-harm. Sometimes it’s ‘young trans people’, or trans people in a specific country, but the overall conclusion is always the same: trans people kill themselves, or try to do so, at a far higher rate than the general population.
The constant repetition of this dismal parade of percentages has three main effects:
- It shocks a small minority of cis people into doing something to support trans rights.
- It normalises the idea, among both cis and trans people, that ‘most trans people have a mental illness’.
- It feeds trans people a limiting belief that the reason they’re feeling anxious or unhappy is because that’s the norm, and it’s pretty much expected that they’ll want to kill themselves.
It can’t be denied that repeating suicide statistics is one way to attract the attention of cis people and win over new allies to the trans rights cause. I’ve used that tactic myself, at times. It can be very effective, but for the wrong reasons: it’s effectively guilt-tripping cis people into supporting trans rights. The long-term damage that it does to the mindsets of both cis and trans people may well outweigh any short-term gains from having a few more people sign a petition, denounce an anti-trans group on Twitter, donate money to a trans charity or to someone’s private surgery fund, or fill out the GRA consultation in trans people’s favour.
The underlying message is that trans people need basic rights because if we’re denied them, we will probably end up killing ourselves – and our blood will be on the hands of the cis people who refused to help us. But is this really the message that we want to be putting out there? That we’re fragile snowflakes who won’t survive unless nice kind cis people grant us our rights, and out of compassion for our dodgy mental state, they should give us what we want?
Let me spell this out for everyone who’s got the suicide statistics stuck in their head. Trans people ARE demanding rights – like the right to self-define our gender, to use appropriate toilets, to receive medical treatment, to avoid being labelled as perverts and paedophiles, to be addressed by the correct names and pronouns, and not to be unfairly denigrated by the press. But the reason we’re demanding them is NOT just because our heads are in such a mess that we won’t be able to stay alive for much longer, unless cis people start being nicer to us.
Nor is it just because we’re poor, unemployed and suffering (and don’t even get me started on the newly-released statistics about how many businesses would hesitate to hire a trans person).
We’re demanding our rights because… well, they’re our rights.
Trans rights are human rights, and we are human beings.
We are, in most cases, awesome human beings. (Before anyone starts getting upset about that assertion and accusing me of cisphobia, I suppose I should add that most cis people are awesome human beings too).
Whether or not we’re feeling suicidal is of no relevance to the question of our entitlement to rights, because – well, just picture anyone that you care about. Would you keep quiet if they were constantly:
(a) told by strangers that they’re not who they think they are;
(b) forced to wait between two and four years for urgently-needed medication and surgery, because doctors and policy-makers don’t take their wellbeing seriously;
(c) forced to undergo an expensive, bureaucratic, humiliating and time-consuming process just to obtain basic documentation; and
(d) called by the wrong name and referred to with the wrong pronouns?
I’m pretty sure you’d be out making a big, noisy fuss.
The question of mental illness is an interesting one. There’s currently a lot of discussion around mental illness on social media, most of it focusing on the often-quoted statistic that ‘one in four people has a mental illness’. Presented with rates of suicidal ideation among trans people that are much higher than 25%, it’s easy to assume that the majority of trans people – or, indeed, all trans people – ‘have a mental illness’. That’s only one step away from the outdated, transphobic idea that ‘being trans IS a mental illness’ – a statement that the World Health Organisation formally rejected earlier this year.
From a psychological perspective, there’s probably nothing worse you can do for a person than fill their head with limiting beliefs about who they are and what they can achieve. Among entrepreneurs, and especially female entrepreneurs, an entire movement of life coaches has arisen (complete with bestselling books, websites, YouTube videos and e-courses) to help people break free from their limiting beliefs and acquire a more empowering mindset. People pay huge sums of money to be trained to clear out all the subconscious blocks to happiness and success that keep them stuck in self-sabotaging behaviours, and find the courage to chase their dreams. Yet, in the case of trans people, nobody seems to question the wisdom of repeatedly reinforcing the message that we’re inherently messed-up and suicidal.
Where are all the coaches specialising in training trans people to chant ‘I am confident, I am strong, I am powerful, I am brave…’ and insisting that our thoughts create our reality, and that the more we say these magic words, the sooner we’ll manifest our dreams of wealth and success? Are trans people not allowed dreams of wealth and success? Or is it that everyone’s assuming there’s no money in the trans self-empowerment market because, well, everyone knows that trans people are poor and unemployed and doomed to stay that way forever?
Suicidal thinking in trans people is not inevitable. It’s not hard-wired into our brains. It’s a consequence of growing up in a society that dictates to us how males and females are supposed to look and behave – in very rigid, uncompromising ways – and erases non-binary people altogether. It’s a result of having our talents and our potential systematically ignored, because too many people believe that what’s between our legs matters more than what’s between our ears. It’s enhanced by churches that persist in labelling us as sinners in need of salvation, sexual deviants in need of conversion therapy, and/or demon-possessed entities in need of exorcism. It comes from being subconsciously programmed that we will never be good enough or ‘normal’ enough or mentally well enough, no matter how hard we try, to get senior management jobs or run successful businesses.
It’s about time we started self-medicating with positive affirmations, to be taken three times a day:
I am confident.
I am strong.
I am powerful.
I am brave.
I am an unstoppable spiritual leader in an affirming, creative and ecologically-conscious community.
(Or whatever it is that you aspire to be. You could substitute ‘a multi-millionaire businessperson’, ‘the CEO of a global trans rights charity’, ‘a bestselling novelist’, ‘the owner of a flourishing chain of brothels disguised as massage parlours’, or anything you like…)
One thing is certain: trans rights will not be improved by talking more about suicide statistics. But there’s a very good chance that suicide statistics can be improved by talking more about trans rights… including the right to create our own happiness and success, whatever that means to us.