Last year, Time magazine published a cover story featuring the black transgender actor Laverne Cox. America, the magazine declared, had reached a “transgender tipping point.” But for most of our country’s transgender teens, life remains dangerous, anonymous, and too often, short. The truth is, there’s a suicide problem among transgender youths, and it’s happening mostly in silence.
You’ve probably heard about Leelah Alcorn, the 17-year-old transgender girl from Ohio who committed suicide after being rejected by her religious family. But you may not know about Blake Brockington, the 18-year-old black transgender activist and prom king from North Carolina who killed himself earlier this year. In the last six months, at least seven transgender teens have killed themselves. Most have been youths of color. Those are just the young people we know about: The kids who were out, the ones who left notes. It’s impossible to know how many transgender people take their lives each year. One study found that nearly 25 percent of transgender youths surveyed reported attempting suicide. In 2011, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 41 percent of respondents had attempted suicide.
Given the crisis, I wanted to find out what services exist for transgender youths dealing with mental health issues and considering suicide. Here’s what I found.
When “Johnny,” a young transgender man considering suicide, contacted the Web-based Lifeline Crisis Chat, one of his first questions for the volunteer counselor was “What is your understanding of transgender?”
The volunteer responded, “A male believing they are female, and wanting to get corrective surgery.”
Johnny quickly disconnected. He wasn’t really a teen. He was Morty Diamond, a graduate student in San Francisco State University’s social work program. For his thesis, Diamond is writing about digital technologies for transgender mental health. The chat quoted above was part of his research.
Diamond is concerned that even in times of personal crisis, transgender people are forced to lead “teachable moments”—educating people who are charged with helping them. For those in crisis, this can be yet another signal that they are abnormal or beyond help.
The chat line quoted above is a project of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a network of 160 call centers under the management of Link2Health Solutions. Its website states: “National public health leaders look to L2HS to apply state-of-the-art best practices in crisis intervention to promote broad-scale community mental health and safety.” One wonders what kind of training these NSPL call center volunteers undergo to handle diverse populations, particularly transgender people. By email, an NSPL spokesperson referred me to the Trevor Project, which describes itself as the nation’s leading crisis and suicide prevention group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths.
Perhaps this explains why Diamond didn’t have a single positive interaction with a counselor who seemed educated on transgender issues. On one recorded call that he played for me, he told the NSPL counselor that he was contemplating suicide. The counselor threated to end the call and repeatedly urged Diamond to call the Trevor Project.
The Trevor Project’s website provides links to nuanced educational resources for teens dealing with various sexuality and gender issues. But it’s hard to discern the depth of the Trevor Project’s initiatives that deal specifically with transgender issues. The group never made executives available for an interview.
The only suicide crisis line that would talk to me in-depth was The Samaritans of New York, which describes itself as “the only community-based organization devoted to suicide prevention” in metropolitan New York City. Last year the group answered 80,000 calls. Its website lists various identity-based crisis initiatives—for Latinas, tourists, and the elderly, for example. Nothing, however, is listed for LGBT people. If all you knew about suicide came from this website, you would have no idea that there was a suicide crisis among LGBT youths generally and transgender youths specifically.
The Samaritans’ executive director, Alan Ross, talked about the difficulties of funding suicide prevention programs. He talked about the need to educate volunteers on how to handle crisis among people generally—not among specific populations. He consistently talked about lesbians and gays when I asked about transgender callers. When I repeated that my interest was specifically in transgender people, he told me: “The community has done a wonderful job of staying focused, so I don’t know if you need more services. I don’t know if there needs to be a better job.”
Helping to fill the void is Trans Life Line. It was launched by Greta Martela late last year after her own negative interactions with a crisis counselor on an NSPL hotline and hospital emergency room staff. “Trying to give someone a Transgender 101 while you’re suicidal is not something most people can handle,” she told me.
The hotline averages about 60 calls a day—more than its volunteer staff can handle. Some of those calls are referrals from the Trevor Project, the NSPL, and other hotlines. It’s raised about $43,000 to cover expenses. Martela has left her job as a software engineer to work on TLL full-time. Recently, she attended an American Association of Suicidology conference and was sad to find transgender issues were rarely discussed.
We know transgender people are significantly more likely to attempt suicide, so why don’t the people tasked with preventing suicide seem more concerned? If you know someone in need, the Trans Life Line is 877-565-8860.