Hundreds protest at the historic Stonewall Inn on Feb. 23, 2017 in New York City to denounce a Trump administration move to roll back transgender student rights. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images/Source New Mexico)
By Lazarus Nance Letcher
I’m trans. This year I turn 30, and my teenage self would be beyond surprised — not just at the joys that fill my life, but the fact that I’m alive at all.
I’m part of the last generation that didn’t quite have the language for the feelings that flooded us as kids. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t take off my shirt as I stomped through puddles with my pals, why I was never invited to the sleepovers I actually wanted to go to, or why I seemed to be the only one that couldn’t quite envision my future self as a devoted wife and mother.
The church, the ridicule of my peers (and their parents), and decades of seeing nothing but straight relationships or straight actors perform caricatures of queer romance in the media didn’t change who I was. My family has always had my back. But at that time, there was so little knowledge and access to the care I sorely needed, they couldn’t help me the way they would if I were a child today.
As puberty descended at age 11, I slipped into a deep depression. I was too young to know the word “suicide” when I decided it was my only option.
Let me be clear: Being transgender and queer did not make me suicidal and depressed — existing in a transphobic and homophobic world did.
Kids that deviate from the strict gender and sex binary have existed across the globe for centuries. We weren’t suddenly born from the seafoam in the wake of seeing our first trans TV character. We’re just finally at a point where we have the language for who we are and the ability to create community.
Anti-transgender legislation, demanding that the word “gay” isn’t whispered in classrooms, and punishing parents that dare to love their children wholly — none of these things are going to change who these kids are on the inside. The only thing these bigoted “solutions” do is make more kids depressed, tear families apart and kill children.
It shouldn’t be radical to say I don’t want kids to kill themselves, but apparently, that’s where we’re at.
Transgender youth are already hurting without being a right-wing punching bag and boogeyman. 2021 was the worst year on record in regards to anti-transgender legislation, with many of the laws aimed at our youth.
Using a young person’s correct name and pronouns means:
71% fewer symptoms of severe depression
34% decrease in suicidal ideation
65% decrease in suicide attempts
Families in Texas are making contingency plans — gathering documents and cash, finding friends and families across borders, and bracing themselves to either flee, fight, or be arrested. Anti-transgender legislation is creating a new wave of refugees.
Once the “transgender threat” was introduced into the Texas House last year, the LGBTQ crisis line The Trevor Project received a 150% increase in calls from Texas youth compared with the year before, with many citing the anti-trans legislation as the cause of their distress.
The law failed, but it could come around again as the same handful of hateful organizations keep pushing their agendas into statehouses and tying thier vicious discrimination to “conservative” identity during campaign seasons. In the meantime, Texas Gov. Greg Abbot ordered the state to investigate families that provide their children gender-affirming care in late February— right before his primary, of course.
In 2018, the University of Texas at Austin led one of the most ambitious studies on transgender youth aged 15 to 21 to gauge the state of their mental health. Earlier studies have already demonstrated that 82% of transgender folks experience suicidal ideation, and 40% attempt it in their lifetime — the rates are higher for trans teens.
Those of us living at the intersection of multiple oppressed identities, especially Black transgender youth, experience higher rates of suicidal ideation and attempts than our cisgender Black peers and with much fewer culturally competent resources available than our white trans siblings.
The UT Austin study found a very clear way to bring these alarming statistics down. Trans youth that were able to simply go by their chosen or affirmed name and pronouns experienced: 71% fewer symptoms of severe depression, a 34% decrease in suicidal ideation, and a 65% decrease in suicide attempts.
Even these seemingly simple and benign solutions were enough to get a parent jailed in Texas. The thought of gender-affirming health care seems out of the question, too, and Texas Children’s Hospital quickly ceased providing this often life-saving care. From the hospital’s statement: “After assessing the Attorney General’s and Governor’s actions Texas Children’s Hospital paused hormone-related prescription therapies for gender-affirming services. This step was taken to safeguard our healthcare professionals and impacted families from potential criminal legal ramifications.”
With that, kids who finally found a way to feel a little more comfortable in their skin with medicine that’s been used for decades on cis and trans kids alike were now being forced to de-transition or to move somewhere they can receive care.
A study released earlier this year found that gender-affirming care for youth was linked to 60% lower odds of moderate or severe depression and 73% lower odds of suicidality.
We don’t have the data for what happens when this care is suddenly ripped away from you, but we will soon.
A judge blocked Abbot’s order on Friday, March 11, but that’s not the end of it. The Texas AG filed notice he would appeal the case an hour later, saying he’s willing to take it to the Supreme Court. That these life-saving family choices are even up for some kind of public “debate” is so damaging to transgender people of any age.
Idaho went ahead and took things a step further with HB 675. The bill makes any medical treatment to help a child affirm their gender illegal, but it creates a stipulation that physicians can take surgical and medical measures to make the bodies of intersex children forcibly fit into the false notion of binary sex — an action that intersex activists have called unnecessary and traumatizing for decades and that the United Nations has declared a human rights violation.
The legislation would also threaten parents that cross state lines for gender-affirming care with felony charges. Idaho HB 675 thankfully hasn’t passed out of the Idaho Legislature yet.
These laws impact LGBTQ+ youth not just in these states, but across the country.
I remember following the slow march of marriage equality in high school. I had to ask the IT guy to unblock The Advocate, personally furthering the queer agenda in my own school. I watched debates over marriage equality and the right to build families recognized by the law quickly devolve into claims that we were just a hair away from bestiality.
The states that were among the first to pass these laws saw a 7% decrease in teen suicides across the board, but the impact specifically on LGBTQ+ teens was undeniable. States saw a 14% reduction in suicide attempts – states that did not legalize same-sex marriage experienced no change.
The Trevor Project launched a poll last year to investigate the impact the deluge of anti-trans legislation was having on the youth: 85% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported that the debates around these laws have negatively impacted their mental health. The supposed impetus for all of these laws is to protect the children.
What we can very clearly see is that these laws don’t protect kids. They protect ideologies.
The people behind this brutal, discriminatory rhetoric clearly haven’t ever had to try and convince a trans teen to stick around, promising them that somewhere, someday, they can just exist in peace.
I’ve often found that when I’m feeling hopeless, which I certainly am at the moment, finding a way to be helpful gives me a tiny sense of control. You don’t have to live in a state to call their lawmakers. You can donate any amount of money to local grassroots organizations that are on the ground fighting for the kids in their backyard. You can shift from ally to accomplice and help these families that are fighting for their children’s lives.
As the great American philosopher, Mr. Rogers reminds us, when life is a Dumpster fire and heartless zealots are attacking children (not a verbatim quote), “look for the helpers.” I cannot begin to describe how much working with queer and trans youth has restored my faith in humanity, and how wildly different their childhoods are to mine.
While I’m sometimes salty about their access to care and community that I couldn’t even imagine in the early 2000s, these laws make it more than clear that transgender visibility hasn’t and won’t save us. But these kids are tough, because being your authentic self isn’t for the weak. I encourage everyone else feeling despair to look to the youth and the righteous hell they’re raising.
For example: HB 1557, or Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation is an unintelligible word soup that would give parents sweeping rights to protest or sue the school over any inkling of LGBTQ+ content or discussions. While the law is aimed at students in kindergarten through third grade, it also has the wiggle room for the Florida Department of Education to decide what an appropriate “exposure” to LGBTQ+ content is for all students.
Last week on social media, I began to see videos coming out of Florida high schools — throngs of bodies moving out of the halls of Florida high schools and into parking lots and football fields. Thousands of students across the state walked out to protest the bill, leading chants of “say gay” and passing bullhorns to LGBTQ+ students to share their voices.
If the thought of being out at that age is incredible to me, the thought of having hundreds of my peers having my back and cheering me on gets me teary.
More students descended on the capital. LGBTQ+ students led a sit-in on March 7, and in the halls of the capital they read out the names of LGBTQ+ people lost to suicide. These kids know how high the stakes are.
One lawmaker said, “They shouldn’t have to take time away from being kids to come up here and make sure we do our job right.”
Lazarus Nance Letcher (they/them) is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico and a musician. They wrote this piece for Source New Mexico, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared.
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