As I enter my 30th year of life, something is happening to me that I never thought would take place: I'm getting older. The hair atop my head is thinning; the creases around my eyes are deepening, and the love handles simply won't go away, no matter how hard I hit the gym. It's a fact of life I never imagined I'd have to deal with because, simply put, I thought I'd be dead by now. Grim I know, but keep reading - it gets better.
November 20th is the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, which pays homage to transgender individuals around the globe who are murdered for being who they were born to be. Fourteen were murdered this year in the United States and Puerto Rico alone, including Sandy Woulard, who was murdered right here in Chicago. While I believe violence is an unbelievably important issue in the transgender community, I think it is important to broaden this commemoration to include victims of self-violence, as transgendered individuals are much more likely to die by their own hands than by another's. Suicide is a huge issue in the trans community, and a recent survey by the Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality elucidates this more clearly, finding that 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide (compared to the 1.6 percent national average).
I'm a transgendered man - born physically female though I never thought of myself as anything but male. I grew up a child of the 80's in a quintessential wholesome Midwest family. My well-meaning Catholic parents did the best they could to raise me to be a pretty in pink little girl, but when, from the age of three, I kept telling them I was a boy, they soon realized that this kid was totally off the rails. From then on my entire childhood was riddled with ignorant and incompetent medical and psychological professionals, trying in vain to change an immutable fact of my life. This was back in the 80's and 90's, but frankly many health professionals are as clueless today as they were back then.
By the age of 10 I was suicidal. I had identified as male for my entire life, but as I aged, I started to realize that my body was not going to change to fit my mind. It's a boggling place for a ten-year-old kid to be in, such a monumental quagmire with no way out. And so while I could not imagine growing up, I could definitely imagine ending it all.
I don't know how, but I stuck it out. At the age of 17, after 17 years of waiting, I finally got a diagnosis, something that despite my display classic symptoms of transgenderism from the age of three, no doctor or psychologist believed to be a real-enough medical condition to address. Even the therapist who eventually diagnosed me didn't take it seriously, so I had to drive two hours from my home to find a therapist who had experience treating people with gender identity disorders - and the drive was well worth it. My suicidality disappeared the moment I began to transition at the age of 18. My grade point average jumped from a 2.5 to a 3.7, I was happy for the first time in so many years and I finally started believing that I might have a future.
I've been quite lucky in my path because I had understanding family and friends, enough money to pay for my own medical costs, and found a provider familiar with transgender issues. Others are not as fortunate. Kids are disowned by their parents before they are a teenager. They might live in resource-poor families. They might go without competent providers. And nearly no insurers will cover transgendered-related care - not even for mental health care.
Still, I am quite optimistic and I'll tell you why: if there was one thing that saved me, it was the undying love and support from my family, friends and community. Sounds hokey but goddamn it it's true. There are tons of structural reforms that need to be made to our government, society, and medical community to address the health and safety of transgender individuals, but it's the people around us that will most impact our lives.
One way you can start to help support transgender people is by participating in the 2010 Transgender Day of Remembrance activities here in Chicago. There will be a vigil at the James R. Thompson Center Plaza on Saturday, November 20th at 5 p.m. Check out the Transgender Day of Remembrance website for events in other cities.
A little kindness goes a long way. Actively supporting, defending and caring for people that are transgender will have an enormous impact on their survival, so I encourage you to do what you can.
And as a little aside, thanks Mom and Dad, for saving my life.
Pete Subkoviak is a policy coordinator at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.