The recent loss of San Diego transgender teen Taylor Alesana to suicide, marks the seventh such death in 2015. While trans visibility is increasing, and we're seeing more positive representations in the media, our youth remain vulnerable and mostly unheard.
We all know that the teenage years are a very trying, very tumultuous time for any young person, but when you add being transgender to the mix, things get especially critical. The most recent National School Climate Survey, by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network), found that compared to other LGBT students, transgender students faced the most hostile school climates, with 80 percent of these young people reporting that they feel unsafe at school. Other national studies have shown equally alarming statistics: 73.7 percent of transgender students reporting being sexually harassed; 45 percent admitting to seriously considering killing themselves; and 43 percent having attempted suicide. These numbers are far higher than the 8 percent national average, as reported by the CDC.
Besides bullying, transgender youth face challenges in their daily lives related to lack of family support, lack of access to transgender related healthcare and services, lack of access to bathroom and locker rooms that match their gender identity, inability to express their gender due to dress codes and/or parental barriers, and deliberate misgendering and refusal to acknowledge preferred name, just to name a few.
So if you're reading this, how can you make a difference?
Supporting transgender and gender non-conforming youth in our communities can help prevent suicides. These young people aren't taking their lives because they're weak, or selfish, or because they are attention seeking. Many youth could have simply run out of resources. Perhaps they aren't killing themselves because they're transgender -- they're doing it because they are being treated as sub human, and because other people's ignorance has made day to day life can be too painful to bear.
A recent Pew study found that only 8 percent of people have ever (knowingly) met a transgender person. And sadly, society has a very thinly veiled repugnance for many aspects of being transgender, and what they assume we must be like. There is an obsession with our genitalia, and what we have or haven't done surgically. We are accused of mutilating our bodies, we're interrogated about how we experience sex and sexuality, and it seems no question is off limits when people talk to and about us. We are vilified by society for simply wanting to relieve ourselves in the bathroom we feel safe in, and are painted as rapists, child predators, exhibitionists, etc. Transgender people are still working hard just to be seen as human beings to much of society, and until this is achieved, the most vulnerable among us are at constant risk.
If you're the parent of a child that has expressed to you that they are experiencing gender identity concerns, listen to them with an open mind and loving heart. Seek support from a professional, who is experienced in caring for trans youth. Give your child a safe, encouraging place to be able to self express. Support and advocate for them when/if they are ready to begin transitioning. Respect their preferred name and gender pronouns, and demand that same respect from others. Sometimes home can be a hostile environment for trans youth -- always make yours a safe place to land, because the world outside your front door is hard enough.
Whether you're a friend, co-worker, employer, or educator of someone who has come out to you as transgender (never assume), let them know that you support them fully. Listen to them! Never out them to others. Never suggest that they should refrain from identifying themselves as transgender, or judge their decisions in any way. Always respect their preferred name and gender pronouns. Advocate for all transgender people when you are confronted with transphobic attitudes and behaviors, suggest gender neutral bathrooms at your place of work, or your school. Lobby for the rights of trans people to decide for themselves which bathroom they belong in, if there is no gender neutral option. Do whatever you can to educate those around you, and raise your own children to be accepting of all people. Be a true, dedicated ally. If you want to learn more about how to get involved in transgender advocacy, visit the HRC, and also the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Transgender Law Center.
I don't want you to come away from reading this thinking that being transgender is bad. There are many wonderful aspects of being a transgender person, and it is entirely possible to lead full, successful, happy lives. We are strong, resilient people. Many trans people have an increased empathy for others, as well as a willingness to be there to support others who may be struggling. We have an especially unique insight when it comes to understanding both genders. We have a profound perspective when it comes to personal growth and authenticity. Being transgender is not synonymous with self loathing and dysfunction. We have the capacity and the right to self love, and to lead rich, productive lives.
Above all else -- listen. Listen to trans stories, and learn about trans lives. You can start right here, by listening to the amazing, smart, beautiful young trans people I've had the opportunity to talk to. Read their stories in the following slideshow, and take them to heart. They matter -- and their voices matter.
If you are a transgender or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide, Trans Lifeline can be reached at 877-565-8860. LGBT youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 can also be reached 24 hours a day by people of all ages and identities.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.