I recently had the opportunity to interview this young man, whom I will nickname Anon, transitioned from girl to boy, daughter to son, sister to brother. At five years old, he knew that it was not right for him to wear girl’s clothing, nor did he act “like a girl.” But his family simply accepted his behavior as tomboyish and dismissed his inclinations to be a boy. In his late teens, Anon made the decision to cross the border, rightfully own his “self”, and actualize his manhood.
Yes, he has been bullied, by both girls and boys. He has been threatened and asked inappropriate questions, about his sexuality and other personal issues. Former girl-friends want to “fix” him, make him feminine enough to “fit in”; but he does not want to fit in, he wants to be who he is.
Imagine yourself on the most difficult journey of being born and then discovering that you have been transported into this world in the wrong body. By age six, our gender identity--if we are female or male--is formed. Overwhelming testimonies of transgender youth knew they were “different”, trapped inside an alien body, even before they could articulate their need for the right name, clothes, toys and recognition for being the “other”.
Until a transgender person can transition into their true identity, this constant opposition of two identities, known as gender dysphoria, can be confusing, mentally painful and disruptive on many levels in their lives, as well as for their families. Then, when the individual makes the decision to transition to the right body, she to he, he to she, the real struggles begin. This is evidenced by the statistics reported by the CDC:
- "33% of transgender youth have attempted suicide,
- 55% of transgender youth report being physically attacked,
- 74% of transgender youth reported being sexually harassed at school,
- 90% of transgender youth reported feeling unsafe at school because of their gender expression,
- 78% reported having been verbally harassed,
- 48% reported having been victims of assault, including assault with a weapon, sexual assault or rape.
CDC reports regarding transgender youth state that such victimization, in turn, is associated with HIV risky behaviors. Youth who had been threatened or bullied at school were more likely to have been diagnosed with an STD, injected drugs, had more than four sex partners, and not used a condom the last time they had sexual intercourse than those who had not been threatened or bullied at school.
Nine out of ten transgender youth feel unsafe in school because of gender identity or expression. The rate of drop out, suicide and homelessness is disproportionately high for our transgender youth." (Source: http://dragitout.org/2011/12/transgender-youth-statistics.html)A national study reported an even higher incidence of suicide: 41 percent. This is more than 25 times the rate of the general population; among trans people ages 18-44, the suicide attempt rate was 45 percent.
One of the biggest issues many trans people face is the difficulty of changing gender. Transitioning from one gender to another can take many forms, but often requires hormone therapy and sometimes surgery on breasts and/or genitals. Yet transgender people overwhelmingly say it's worth it.
After transitioning, transgender people show a significant decrease in substance abuse problems and depression, for example, and their mental health significantly improves, says clinical psychologist Gail Knudson, a professor in the department of sexual medicine at the University of British Columbia and medical director of the Transgender Health Program at Vancouver Coastal Health.
Anon has a good chance of beating the odds; he is one of the few lucky teens who have the support of family, friends and a girlfriend. His school is also supportive with programs for transgender youth as well as gay, lesbian, and other youth who have chosen a non-conforming lifestyle. As well as seeing a therapist, Anon goes to POW!* (Proud Out Wonderful, an organization for LGBTQ youth 13-21 years old; the term "LGBTQ" stands for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, & queer") and finds community with others who have stories to tell. A staggering 1.6 million LGBTQ youth are homeless, rejected because of their non-conformity.
I also spoke with Anon’s parents, who had their own challenges with their child’s transitioning. But throughout their struggles, one thing remained constant: their love for their child and that held true throughout the tumultuous times. As Anon’s mother explained so well, “We mourn the loss of our daughter, but celebrate the birth of our son.”
Interested in learning more? Anon and his mother recommend two essential books to read: It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying and Creating a Life Worth Living by Dan Savage (Editor)--which is from a wonderful website featuring the project, IT GETS BETTER (this is so worth exploring for its compassionate and erudite resources for the LGBTQ youth)--and the excellent The Transgender Child by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper. These are invaluable guides for anyone--parents, siblings, family, friends, schoolmates, social workers, co-workers--who want to understand someone who may be in transition, who may be-coming of self. We may come into this life alone, but we should not be forced to live a life apart from others.
I firmly believe that we, all of the people that make up the community in Anon’s life and the lives of the LGBTQ, owe it to these individuals to use the tools, such as the programs, literature and anti-bullying laws, to actively seek justice, equality and acceptance into society for all of our children, so that they may become vital and productive adults. This is, after all, in all of our own best self-interest; these are the future caretakers of our planet, community and senior citizens, which ultimately, will be each and every one of us.
*Notes: Through West Seattle-based Navos Mental Health Solutions, a new organization in Burien called "POW!", or Proud Out And Wonderful, assists 13 to 21 year-olds who may identify with being gay or lesbian. The organization states it welcomes "all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and allies". According to Intersex Society of North America, "Intersex is a socially constructed category that reflects real biological variation.”
POW! meets at an anonymous location in Burien every Wednesday from 4:00 pm to 6:00 p.m. Those who attend are also promised anonymity. According to the POW! Facebook Page, "We are a Queer Youth Group providing support and activism in South King County." Its mission, "To provide a safe space for LGBTQ youth to support each other, access resources and wellness tools, and gain the leadership skills to create positive change in their communities."
The term "LGBTQ" stands for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, & queer". The POW! site explains that, "We join with others in reclaiming the use of the word 'queer'. This word, which was used as a weapon against LGBTQ folks for years, is now being used by us and others as an inclusive term. Many people who do not feel that they fit in traditional categories (of gender and sexual orientation) or do not feel that these categories are useful, can come together under a shared identity."