Self harm & the need for more possibilities for “gender variant” kids

Holidays can be rough for people who are experiencing family discord–or worse, total estrangement from loved ones. A time like Christmas is also particularly hard on those who are depressed or suicidal for any reason. You’re supposed to feel merry and festive, and the discrepancy between the holiday cheer surrounding you and your own feelings of despair can make that misery stand out in relief.

Joel Nowak, who describes himself as a retransitioned man and social work graduate student, authors the blog Retransition. Today, Joel posted a really important letter he received from a reader named Juniper, who talks about the great need that “gender variant” young people have for options and positive role models apart from medical transition.

Juniper shares thoughts similar to my own regarding suicide risk amongst gender nonconforming young people: Maybe some of the increased risk is not necessarily because these kids are prevented from “transitioning” medically for some reason, but more because they feel  it is imperative that they do transition, or risk being consigned to a miserable life. As Juniper explains, these teens perhaps feel trapped by the transition-or-die message that surrounds them:

A young person who is gender-variant may feel that they have few options but to pursue transition or to live inauthentically. People overwhelmingly hear in the media that surgeries and hormones are absolutely necessary for people who are transgender to live meaningful and happy lives.

There is no representation in the media for people who live quite well and enjoy balanced and well-adjusted lives yet radically defy gender stereotypes.

Our story is not told. People like you and I are virtually invisible.

So, what happens to the kid who is questioning their gender? They look into their options and literally see a DEAD END. No matter what they do, no matter how far they go with surgeries and hormones, they cannot change their DNA or their root socialization. How can they be sure that society will change their perception of them? Can they be sure that they will “pass?” Can they be sure that the secret of their sex at birth will ever be exposed?

They hear that it will be difficult to find a life-partner, that the surgeries are prohibitively expensive and that they will never be 100% like other men and/or women. They learn that surgeries and hormones can only do so much.For instance, if they are FtM, it is unlikely that they will ever have a successful “bottom surgery” even after paying $100,000. And if you are 5’1 as a woman … guess what … you will be 5’1 as a man.

They hear from the media that their future is bleak. This is a lot of stress for a young person to handle. They seek support in the transgender community and there is no Transgender “Pride” parade but rather a Trans Day of Remembrance to remind them that suicide and murder are very real outcomes in their community and that they are disproportionately at risk.

Earlier this year, there was a cluster of suicides of trans-identified San Diego teenagers. At least two of them were seen as leaders in the LGBTQ community, and family, teachers, and friends supported them in their transition.

What went wrong? I wrote about this on Tumblr in October:

The fact that their parents and other adults were supportive and helping them along the road to transition should have made them feel better, if transition were the answer to the horrible depression and self harm these kids were obviously experiencing. Being “gender nonconforming” in this day and age is also really stressful. Gay and lesbian kids who aren’t interested in transition are also bullied and some have parents who are not supportive of them stepping outside gender stereotypes.

Suicide contagion is a real, known phenomenon. The press should not be advertising these suicides the way it has been. The fact that several of these kids have stepped into heavy traffic as a way to die also indicates a “copycat” aspect. And FOUR of them in the same city? Someone should be looking into the reasons for this cluster.

I have also long felt that some of the trans-identified kids who are socially transitioning, with an eye towards medical transition, could be made even more depressed when they think their only option is painful, lifelong medical treatments. That they can’t be accepted as the unique and unusual people they are, without having to constantly worry about how they are perceived by others. We are not looking at the full picture with these kids. The assumption that assuming a trans identity is somehow the solution to this terrible problem of teen suicidality is so overly simplified. And the pressure so many kids feel now to claim a certain identity vs. just being themselves with no “identity” required has to add to the despair.

Also this year, the first trans-male high school homecoming king Blake Brockington jumped off a bridge in Charlotte, NC.  Like some of the San Diego teens, Blake was a well respected leader in the Charlotte, NC LGBTQ community.  And in September of this year, another 16-year-old LGBTQ community leader, Skylar Lee of Madison, WI, took their own life.  Skylar had earlier spoken about claiming, then rejecting, a series of gender identities, shifting every two weeks, before “discovering” s/he was trans.

Again, from Juniper in today’s post on Retransition:

No wonder young “transgender” people commit suicide. They are trying to find themselves and figure things out and when they seek help they are told that they have no option but to change themselves if they want to be loved. No one tells them that they are perfect just as they are. No one tells them that there are many ways to live. No one says “Hey, I made it … I am happily married, I have a good life … it will get better … I was a lot like you in High School and I am glad that I kept my body as it is and/or that I learned to love myself for who I am.”

Many people who are diagnosed as transgender may not be aware that there are lots of ways to live outside of the gender lines. More perspectives need to be shared so that young people can decide for themselves what what resonates, and feels right for them.

How else can we reduce the risk? One reader on Tumblr offered some simple but powerful advice  that seems to me compassionate and practical–no matter what your position may be on the wisdom of “transition” or a transgender identity:

The real way to reduce the rate of suicide among transgender teens:

1. Stop telling people that they have to hurry up and transition or they’ll regret it for the rest of their life. They can transition later and have a happy life.

2. Stop glamorizing transgender teens who commit suicide.

3. Encourage them to get good therapy for their problems and think carefully about whether or not they should transition.

4. Encourage them to stay connected to their family, even if their family is skeptical.

I hope everyone reading this can find a way to connect or reconnect with loved ones and family during the coming week–even if it’s just a text message, a Facebook “like,” a quick phone call, or an unexpected hug. I have to believe that most families that may be under stress right now because of something to do with a loved one’s identity or transition status still have some reservoir of good will to tap…even if only a few drops to quench the thirst we all have for mutual understanding and support.

Teen suicide and the chilling effect on dialogue

Another teenager who identified as transgender committed suicide yesterday. Blake Brockington, the first trans homecoming king in the nation, jumped off a bridge in Charlotte, NC and died immediately.

Teen suicide is the most horrible thing imaginable, and we all need to do whatever we can to prevent it.  Gender dysphoria—the pain resulting from a sense of dissociation from one’s own body and biological sex—is a very real phenomenon, as anyone who has experienced it will tell you. After one of these tragedies, the dominant message is that suicidal ideation in people who are “gender non-conforming” is solely the result of transphobia and the lack of (usually) parental support for “transition.”  Parents, family members, and anyone else who was not fully on-board with the young person’s desire or efforts to change his or her gender are vilified, often to the point of death threats and stalking.

But maybe, just maybe, some of these young people want to die because 21st century society has given them the message that they cannot live their lives legitimately and happily in the bodies they were born in if they do not conform to gender stereotypes. That if they don’t like “girly” things or are “sissy boys,” or if they identify with and enjoy pursuits and body ornamentation traditionally associated with the opposite sex, they and their families must push for a medical diagnosis that will commit them to a chronic, expensive health condition involving lifelong drug treatment and repeated plastic surgeries; that they will have to live like Type 1 diabetics, requiring treatment for the rest of their lives. How can all of this pressure to conform not contribute to a sense of hopelessness and despair?

When a young person takes his or her own life, we must absolutely ask “why.” But a teen suicide should not shut down an open-minded discussion about root causes and conditions. Blake was out as trans. While Blake faced a lack of family support for “transition,” things seemed to be improving. The high school was open-minded enough to allow Blake to be their homecoming king. Blake was an activist with a purpose, well respected by many, with a long life to look forward to. Is the reason for Blake’s suicide simply that society or family weren’t supportive enough of the dominant transgender paradigm, or could there be a more complex explanation? Is gender therapy the only answer for a gender non-conforming person in pain?

I write this not to trigger hate or anger against any person, no matter how he or she identifies. I write as the parent of a gender non-conforming child whom I love more than anything on earth. Reading about another teen taking their own life is awful. But Blake’s suicide does not make me question gender politics less: it makes me question more.