April has been one of the better months for trans visibility. On April 24, former Olympic champion and reality TV star Bruce Jenner publicly came out as a transgender woman, in what is sure to be remembered as a watershed moment for mainstream trans awareness. Earlier this month, on April 8, president Barack Obama announced his support for a ban on conversion therapies for LGBTQ youth, a move prompted in part by the suicide of trans teen Leelah Alcorn in Dec. 2014.
And yet, on the day before Jenner’s interview, a 23-year-old trans game developer, Rachel Bryk committed suicide after being dogged by anonymous cyberbullies. The day after Obama’s announcement, 15-year-old Sam Taub, a trans teen active in the local roller-derby community, took his own life in West Bloomfield, Michigan. While Jenner’s visibility and Obama’s support may very well improve conditions in the coming years, Americans needs to move much more quickly to save lives so clearly in jeopardy.
There have been at least seven other documented suicides committed by trans youth across the United States this year alone: Taylor Alesana, Blake Brockington, Taylor Wells, Aubrey Mariko Shine, Melonie Rose, Zander Mahaffey, and Ash Haffner. While a ban on conversion therapy is a tiny step in the right direction, it isn’t nearly enough to quell the ongoing trans suicide crisis in the United States, and it places an unequal amount of blame on victims’ families and health professionals, rather than on the debilitating effects of communities, institutions, and a society at large still rife with transphobia.
Indeed, of the trans youth who’ve died by suicide this year since Alcorn, none are confirmed to have undergone conversion therapy. Many of these victims suffered severe transphobic abuse from peers both in person and online, and were ignored by the institutions tasked with protecting them. Brockington spoke of being called a “he-she” and a “homecoming thing” after he was crowned the first transgender homecoming king at his high school in North Carolina. Meanwhile, Alesana claimed in a YouTube video that she was suspended from school after calling an online tormentor “homophobic.”
Nor does this societal and institutional discrimination stop once trans youth leave high school. A Pennsylvania judge recently upheld the decision of the University of Pittsburgh to expel a trans male student for using men’s locker room facilities. Despite widespread unemployment among trans Americans, fewer than half of all US states have non-discrimination laws that explicitly cover gender expression. This means that many trans people who manage to find jobs can still be fired because of their identity. Similarly, transgender people are not consistently protected from housing discrimination. Not surprisingly, trans individuals are at high risk of homelessness.
Collectively, these pressures can be a dangerous mix. In 2012, a National Transgender Discrimination Survey of 6,456 trans and gender non-binary people recorded a 45% suicide attempt rate among people aged 18 to 24—a rate that is at least ten times greater than estimates for the general population. But this rate is essentially the same for people aged 25 to 44. Clearly, while the trans suicide crisis is often treated as a problem affecting youth, it’s a crisis that cuts across demographic categories.
Perhaps it’s simply easier to blame youth-specific problems, such as school or inexperience, rather than face the possibility that practically all sectors of society are affected.
This is why Obama’s statement against conversion therapy, like Jenner’s groundbreaking interview, must be starting points, not ending ones. In a note she posted on Tumblr (since taken down) that sparked a viral online conversation, Alcorn asked that money from the sale of her belongings be donated to “trans civil-rights movements and support groups,” underlining the urgent need for organizations that recognize the unique vulnerabilities of the trans community, within the LGBTQ umbrella.
She also called on schools to start teaching students about gender—“the earlier the better”—emphasizing the importance of a bias-free curricula that exposes students to the full range of gender expressions from an early age. This is one concrete strategy to cut down on the bullying so many trans and gender non-conforming students still endure.
Bruce Jenner’s interview has afforded LGBT advocates—and transgender advocates in particular—a unique opportunity. Never before have trans issues been so widely discussed in such a mainstream forum. But a Good Morning America special didn’t save Leelah Alcorn, or Rachel Bryk, or the many other trans Americans who have suffered for so long, often in silence. Members of today’s society and their institutions must immediately take concrete steps to combat the crushing transphobia that pervades and threatens the lives of trans people of every age. It’s not enough to watch and applaud trans people; we have to fight for their lives.
For trans people in crisis, Trans Lifeline is a non-profit dedicated to the well-being of transgender people, with volunteers are ready to respond to whatever support needs members of the trans community might have: (877) 565-8860.