Transgender Discrimination, Depression, Identity and Resilience
According to The National Transgender Discrimination Survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, within the 119 respondents from Arizona, 47 percent reported attempting suicide at some point in their life.
The rates of depression and suicide in transgender youth are staggering compared to the rest of the population.
A number of factors intertwine to make mental illness, specifically depression, almost a norm within the transgender community.
Vern Harner, Arizona State University graduate student and research assistant focusing on LGBT issues, initially became aware of the transgender community through social networking site Tumblr.
“I really started intellectualizing what it means to be a gender and sexual minority because a lot of LGBT people never really look into the nerdy theory,” Harner said.
Coming across the different non-binary identities helped explain gender to young Harner.
“I just didn’t have the language to explain my identity and you see that happening a lot. People will identify as gay or lesbian because they haven’t heard of the language about what it means to be queer or genderqueer,” Harner said. “They learn about it and something clicks.”
Harner once overheard someone complaining in class to a friend about being called at 2 a.m. by a friend, resulting in the disturbance of sleep.
“Of course they didn’t answer because they were just so annoyed,” Harner said. “At that moment it dawned on me that as a queer person if my phone rings at two o’clock in the morning my assumption is that someone is about to kill themselves.”
Harner considered the realization to “speak about the prevalence of severe mental illness” and indicate how common depression is within the community.
“You hear straight people complain about their sleep being disrupted and I checked in with a couple friends of mine, and asked ‘if it’s two o’clock in the morning and a friend calls you do you answer?’”
Harner said while straight people may complain about their sleep being disrupted, their friends decided they would answer the phone because the person may be in trouble.
“Because they’re probably about to self harm or they’re suicidal or they’re incredibly drunk and lost on the side of the road, and in our community that’s just the norm,” Harner said.
The rate of suicide among the transgender community is 30 times the rate of the general population, according to the Arizona results of The National Transgender Discrimination Survey.
“To some people the numbers are just numbers but to me this means that the majority of my friends have a mental illness,” Harner said. “If you don’t self-harm then you definitely have friends who do.”
Julian Melson has engaged in an extensive amount of activism in the transgender community in Phoenix, as a speaker and diversity trainer amongst his other projects.
Melson said a reason transgender youth could be more susceptible to depression is due to all of the obstacles the community encounters involving discrimination and overall social injustice.
When speaking about transgender youth and normalcy of depression, Melson pointed out all of the societal challenges that arise.
“A school that refuses to let them use the bathroom as the gender that they are, they have teachers that refuse to use the name and pronoun affirming who they are, and they deal with kids at school who don’t understand,” Melson said. “So they deal with a lot from all angles.”
Camellia Bellis teaches the course “Gender and Society” at Arizona State University. She believes the prevalence of depression within the transgender community is a product of the oppression experienced.
“We know that the issues are not because of someone’s gender identity,” Bellis said. “The high rate of suicide attempts and suicide ideation is because of the victimization, discrimination, intolerance, being kicked out of houses and not having the support they need.”
Educating society and compelling it to be more accepting is a matter of “visibility and talking about it,” according to Harner.
“When people who are homophobic become less homophobic, it’s because they actually meet and get to know a gay person,” Harner said. “So I would hypothesize that would work the same with trans people.”
The transgender community will continue to make their voices heard until they are treated justly.
“My hope is that they can see us as human beings, we’re just as varied as any other group in society, there’s not one way to describe a trans person,” Melson said. “I want them to see a human being. We are not a diagnosis, not a word, not a mental illness.”