Sunday, April 14, 2013

On Trans* People and Suicide

A person who is dear to me has been having a very hard time.  She's a trans* woman, and she's socially isolated.  Her family of origin hasn't been supportive of her gender transition. Her trans* status is visible, and she faces regular gender-policing street harassment and the everyday indignity of being misgendered.  She has trouble finding work due to transphobic discrimination, and recently lost her part-time job.

She began feeling suicidal.

I'll tell you more about her story, but first, there are some facts that you should know.

If any statistic shows how difficult life is for trans* people it is this:

The general percentage of Americans who ever attempt suicide is 1.6%.  The percentage of trans* Americans who attempt suicide, however, is 41%.

Remember, that's not the percentage of trans* identified people who "merely" consider suicide--41% of trans* Americans try to kill themselves.  These statistics are from the National Center for Transgender Equality's large survey of 7000 trans* people, which you can read here.

It's not hard to understand why a trans* person is over 25 times more likely to attempt suicide than a cis gender person.  Just consider more statistics from the full report on the survey, available here:

  • 78% of minors who are trans* or gender-nonconforming report being harassed, and 35% physically assaulted, in school.
  • 90% of trans* adults report harassment or discrimination at work. 
  • 29% of trans* adults report being harassed by the police.

Living with the degree of social stigma and violence that are aimed at trans* people is hard.  And the very people whom we are told to turn to when we are despairing--doctors and therapists, family members and religious figures--often compound our distress instead of reducing it, due to their own transphobia.

Which brings me back to the story of my trans* woman friend.  She turned first to her small circle of friends for help, but while they were sympathetic and supportive, many of them, like her, were trans*, and dealing with their own difficulties.  She didn't want to overburden them.  So she tried posting about her unhappiness with her life circumstances on Facebook, but got a bunch of responses that were either unhelpful ("just keep on smiling and don't let things get you down!") or victim-blaming ("you're the one who decided to gender transition, so you have to deal with the consequences").

So recently, late at night, crying alone in her room, she called the National Suicide Prevention Helpline.  A man with a Southern accent answered, and asked her the standard questions, like "have you formed a plan to kill yourself?"  After several minutes, when he was talking with her about whether there were friends she could turn to, she told him she was a trans* woman, and that that had limited her social circle.

There was a pause, and then the man at the National Suicide Prevention Helpline hung up on her.

It is transphobia like this that explains that 41% attempted suicide rate.

People, it is important that we do all the positive things like celebrate trans* agency and creativity and resilience.  No, trans* people aren't mere pitiable victims.  But we can't just sit around telling success stories about how D.C. Comics now has a trans* character in the Batgirl series, and Chaz Bono is a household name, and public attitudes toward same-sex marriage have crossed over into positive territory.  Homophobia may be on its way out, but transphobia remains horrifically virulent.  We have to keep reiterating the appalling statistics about discrimination that people who are trans* and/or gender-nonconforming face every day.  And we have to keep taking action toward reducing the shockingly high rate at which trans* people attempt suicide.

About my friend--she made it through the night.  In fact, she found ironic amusement in being hung up on by a suicide prevention worker which gave her some strength, if bitterly earned, to persevere.

But we as a society have to do a lot better by our trans* gender siblings than this.


  1. That's disgusting! I'm curious to know if that hotline worker were fired. What if that woman ended up killing herself? Outrageous!

  2. that's horrible that someone would behave such a way, especially in a professional capacity in this context... wow. I'm glad your friend made it through though. I've had some difficult moments like that before, and I wish her all the best.

  3. oh my god. i am so glad that your friend didn't choose to take her life. whew. i grew up with trans* family and friends. please, please let her know that there are a lot of us out here who wouldn't hang up. <3

  4. 888-407-4515 this is a peer support line that your friend and others can call Fridays through Mondays from 8pm-midnight, eastern time. No one will ever hang up on anyone and they are trans friendly and some are trans themselves.

  5. Share this around folks. Shine a spotlight on this!

  6. If the suicide hotline your friend called is in DC or another jurisdiction that prohibits gender identity discrimination in public accommodations, which the hotline.clearly is, I encourage her to file a complaint. This type of treatment is unconscionable and should not be allowed to go without an investigation and appropriate sanctions.

  7. Wow, and to think my doctor was questioning whether I am actually trans or not.

  8. I will be passing this along. Seriously, a filed complaint would not be a bad idea, or at the least a public shaming of the agency providing the hotline.

    Share this with your friend, if it's any help. It's the free version. I transitioned publicly at 56.

  9. Well told plight of Trans* obstacles, and the reality of transphobia where we need it least- our support networks. Liked and shared.

  10. This is appalling. I found a contact form on the National Suicide Prevention Helpine's website with a file complaint option. If she's up to it I strongly suggest your friend fill it out; a helpline hanging up on a suicidal caller is unacceptable, regardless of how they feel about the caller's personal life.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Thanks for your comments and for sharing this story, friends.

    For those of you suggesting that my friend complain to the hotline, feel free to write to them yourself and urge trans* sensitivity training. My friend is just trying to survive, and thinks that an attempt to lodge a complaint will likely end in the helpline staffperson stating that the call dropped spontaneously, or, if the in-house call system can prove that he hung up, that it was accidental ("I was just surprised when this person who sounded like a man to me said they were a transsexual woman")--which would make her feel further invalidated and depressed. She used to complain when she was poorly treated, and her experience has been that she is usually dismissed as less credible than the individual who treated her badly. (For example, she told me about how two staff members at a large retail establishment were staring at her and laughing, so she complained to the manager. His response was "If you don't want people to laugh at you, stop going out in women's clothes.")

    So: you may live in a body or place in which you aren't regularly treated in this manner, and have more faith in your ability to create institutional change. Please do make use of that.


  13. Your friend must have some real inner strength to keep going after such awful treatment by people who are supposed to help those in need.

    I wish nothing but good things for your friend, and I admire the her courage and strength for reaching out for help in the first place. That takes guts. If she reads this, I hope she knows that there are people who are in her corner and wish her well (even if we are total strangers!).

  14. I'm really sorry to hear this. How horrible. I have put in a complaint via the website. I hope things improve for the next person who needs to call. Thanks for sharing, and best wishes to your friend.

  15. That's disgusting what that person did to your friend. Best wishes.

  16. I wish people would stop looking at gender, and look more at the person itself. Then who's female, who's male and who's in between irrelevant.

  17. I hope she reported that worker. He is a danger to others. I'm glad your friend made it through the night.

    There is hope! My sister is trans* and so many people have been so great.

  18. I'm trans-gender as well - male to female - and experienced the kind of hate she and is suffering from, I live in Scotland though, here in Scotland the hate can be just as strong. It's almost like it's a sin in society to not want to be male, the haters don't realise that if those of us who are MTF keep trying to be a lie then we are dying inside day by day.

    It's never easy to try and keep going, especially when the suicidal feelings kick in heavily, and finding any support tends to be a case of mission impossible a lot of the time due to all of the trans-phobia and hatred towards anyone who doesn't conform to a set gender binary.
    We can't help how we are born, trans-phobics really need to understand that.

  19. I thought I was the only person to be hung up on when I called every national hotline I could, and was threatened with actual murder by the Trevor one when I asked for resources to help deal with being intersexed and raped because of that. You mean I'm NOT the only one!? FFS.

    Is she doing okay? I too found strength in my anger at what happened. It makes me so pissed off to know that I have nowhere to go if I ever reach the point where I am so suicidal that I cannot stop myself; and I am a lot. Too often. We're old friends, and I can only see it a sign that I need a break when I feel this way. And no, it doesn't make it go away, but I have no choice but to ride it out.

  20. MHA of NYC’s independent subsidiary, Link2Health Solutions, Inc. (L2HS), the administrator of the grant, works with its partners, the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) and MHA of NYC to manage the project, along with Living Works, Inc., an internationally respected organization specializing in suicide intervention skills training.

  21. Link2Health


    Jeremy Willinger
    Director of Communications and Marketing

    From 990 form
    (212) 254-0333

  22. Mental Health Association of New York City (MHA-NYC)

    50 Broadway, 19th Floor
    New York, NY 10004
    Telephone: (212) 254-0333
    Fax: (212) 785-1910

    Executive Offices:

    Roz Nester, Executive Assistant
    50 Broadway, 19th Floor
    New York, NY 10004
    Phone: 212-614-5772
    Fax: 212-964-7302

    Media Inquiries:
    Ashley Womble, Director of Communications and Marketing
    50 Broadway, 19th Floor
    New York, NY 10004
    Phone: 212-614-5739

  23. It sounds like a documented complaint is not possible in this case. But this is a critical resource. It's important that it become trans sensitive if it (apparently) not already. I've posted the contact information for the agency that runs the hotline, as well as the supervising organization, so concerned people can easily inquire and express concern.

  24. My trans friend had a similar experience with a hotline person, although the woman on the other end wanted to use her beliefs to preach God at my friend - who is an atheist. There is something definitely wrong with the National Suicide hotlines, and I suspect it is people just there to try and save a life because it means they'll get street cred with God in heaven or something. I am also starting to seriously doubt that any of them are trained - at all - in any sort of psychology.

  25. Something that everyone should remember when they find themselves in a dark place,

    Everyone is important.
    You are one of everyone.


  26. The hotline folks want to look into it. Here's what they had to say:

    Naomi Carey (NaomiC@)
    Good morning Abigail,

    Thank you for contacting us with your concerns. I am so sorry to hear that your friend was hung up on when she called the Lifeline; our policy is to do our best to help anyone who calls.

    I would like to be able to forward your concerns to the supervisor at the Lifeline crisis center where your friend’s call was answered. In order to do so, I will need the phone number your friend called from, as well as the date and approximate time of the call. That way, I can figure out which of the 160 crisis centers in our network the call was routed to and investigate further.

    Also, if you would like us to have a crisis counselor reach out to your friend by email, please let me know.

    Naomi Carey, LMSW|Training Coordinator

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