I saw Kate Bornstein speak in Seattle last week at a book signing, and even though probably two-thirds of us had heard her story before, she told it to us. And once again I was subject to a familiar-sounding tale: that of confronting one’s demons, at the precipice of life itself.
I’m making it sound dramatic because in the final analysis, it is. I’ve spoken to dozens of people in the years before, during, and after my own transition, and in those stories, there are loads of differences. We come from divergent backgrounds, understand our identity in a multitude of ways, prioritize this aspect or that over others, and have created strategies for transition or for not transitioning (or for de-transitioning) that reflect ourselves. We resist the notion that there is a “Transgender Narrative,” namely, that we are all our chosen sex in the wrong body. Postulated decades ago in order to explain to non-trans people why we feel so strongly about our decisions to buck the gender binary, the “girl in a boy’s body” trope has pigeonholed the transsexual experience, and among the people I’ve spoken with, we hate its place in our community’s mythos.
But there is common thread I’ve noticed. In every single story I’ve heard, including Kate’s, we have contemplated suicide.
I’m not saying every single trans* person has been suicidal, just as I wouldn’t generalize about any community from the interactions I’ve had with it. But this part of people’s experience has come up so many times when I’ve spoken with others about their history, that I have to conclude that it is a very, very common occurrence for us. People have said things like:
“I thought, well, let me try this [transition] and if I’m still this unhappy, I can kill myself later.”
“Maybe I can just transition a little and nobody will notice.”
“I’ll just wait until tomorrow.” [The next day, she talked to her therapist.]
Trans people I know hit a similar point—I call it the Trans Equation. It’s the answer to a question, really. Do all of my excuses and reasons for deferring or not transitioning equal or exceed my need to change my gender? These rationales are huge:
- My family will no longer love me.
- My partner will leave me.
- I’ll lose my job.
- I’ll get evicted/be homeless/lose my house.
- No one will ever love me again.
- I’ll be attacked/murdered for being different.
- I’m not really trans, I just think I am right now.
There are plenty more, but this is the general idea, as I understand and have lived it. Transitioning, however one defines it, when it’s publicly leaving one gendered location and arriving at another, is nothing short of turning one’s world upside down. It’s not shocking to me that in this context, depression happens. As a trans person tells others of our thoughts or intentions, they say things to that deepen one’s mood drop—but you’ll never have the body you want, this is just a phase, I will never be able to call you by this new name, and so on. It is so easy for hopelessness to creep in.
When I was a young child, I was easily frustrated that I couldn’t draw the images I saw in my head. Why were things I could see so clearly so unattainable? Being trans was like that until I adjusted my paradigm for what being male meant to me. And it takes a ton of energy to get to that place. I have to wonder how many of us don’t make it.
The spotlight on gay suicide has faded, and as many of us suspected, not nearly enough attention on the subject came over to highlight trans suicide. We still need to understand the psychology of transition far better, because the suicidal aspects of it are so present. I don’t want to imagine a world without Auntie Kate, or Mara Kiesling, Leslie Feinberg, Jamison Green, and the hundreds of thousands of others whose names aren’t plastered on the covers of books or organizations. I want to do better, because I know that people are dying every day, too afraid to be themselves.