Op-ed: Trans Men's Voices Belong in the Trans Youth Suicide Conversation
Discussions of suicide within the trans youth population — prompted by recent media coverage of the suicides of Leelah Alcorn, Riley Moscatel, Andi Woodhouse, and Jay Ralko — have unexpectedly unearthed a conversation that trans communities have needed to have for a long time: One about lateral violence toward trans men.
I hope this would go without saying, but I fear it still needs to be said: Trans men can face violence, even while trans women, on the whole, do face more. The violence men face is commonly self-inflicted; or else, it's often verbal and can even, at times, be perpetrated by other trans people.
OK, I said it. Over the past couple years, I'll admit, I've started an essay like this too many times to count. But it wasn't until I've seen, this week, both trans men and trans women acknowledging this silent reality that I've finally felt able to let others hear my thoughts.
My newfound determination owes much to finding myself in this incomprehensible moment of communal grief. Its hurt and fallout have seemed to allow many of us to take a step back to wonder: Have patterns emerged in how we cope with the ongoing stresses of transphobia in which we sometimes lash out at each other? Have we been doing this all along, subtly, in ways that might be harming our trans youth as we teach our habits to them? Are these behaviors influenced by the larger system that’s been set up to destroy us?
The answers that are emerging, as I see them, all point to yes.
But let me take a step back and explain.
For years I and many others have noted a tendency within certain trans (feminist) spaces, online and not, toward unreservedly deriding or belittling trans men. These acts have sometimes been prompted by a truly clueless, sexist trans man; just as often, though, they've been prompted simply by the presence of a man.
De facto dismissal of men's viewpoints in trans discourse has been justified by pointing out that men uphold the patriarchy by virtue of our gender identity and should therefore always “sit down.” Trans men’s fetishization by queer cis women is drawn on as “proof” that trans men are all used to being fawned over and need our egos popped regularly. The most extreme examples of trans men's bad behavior is held up as representative of us all.
Though often spurred by trans feminine people, ritualistic “call-outs” against trans men in general are done by transmasculine and agender folks as well — all of whom I’ve noted, more often than not, are white (and I’ll return to this relevant point in a bit).
Though I've noticed this dynamic before now, I’ve kept quiet largely because, as a child, I learned to silence myself and nod for others’ comfort. This is what it meant, in my personal experience, to be treated as “female,” even though I wasn’t — and I inevitably internalized some of it, as have all but the luckiest of trans men. It was simply a trauma of patriarchy that gets visited upon transmasculine people, but which often gets minimized by detractors who have never been in such shoes.
Besides, once I entered trans space as an adult, I knew I was conditionally benefiting from being a man (as long as no one knew I was trans — since, of course, I would still subject to misgendering and transphobia should I not meet cisgender standards), so it was easy to believe that any space I took up in a trans environment was too much. Facing mockery and venom from other trans people (which, oftentimes, hurts the most when you don’t have many others on your side), many men I’ve known have been unable to filter it and have simply faded away from trans spaces; many younger ones have observed silently, weighing whether they wanted to jump in, and ultimately decided against ever actively joining our communities.
It’s a loss we’ve rarely found occasion to vocalize.
So this week, when trans men pointed out on Tumblr that even while we must continue discussing Leelah Alcorn’s passing and parting message to the world, that we should also reflect on losing a number of young trans men to suicide this year, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that they were dismissed as “derailing” or “making Leelah’s death about trans men.”
Yet the stakes here are too high to let this response lie. We cannot afford to not talk about our communities’ loss of men to suicide; indeed, trans men’s suicide attempt rate (46 percent) is roughly equal to that of trans women (42 perecent). Though Leelah’s passing was undoubtedly heavily influenced by transmisogyny and a social intolerance of femininity (which we should definitely continue to talk about), the extended cultural moment we’ve been given to consider trans suicides is not just about transfeminine people. It’s about trans people.
Sometimes it just happens that a trans girl or trans boy is the one to make us wake up and notice a more universal reality.
So, though perhaps fumbling on the exact moment in each conversation to say, “Let’s talk about trans men too,” these now much-discussed trans men were still right to remind us to widen the conversation to encompass all trans youth.
These men should not have faced a deluge of vitriol from the same small corner of the trans population who have been ridiculing and generalizing in their pronouncements on trans men for too long. But swiftly, the same old tropes emerged, with the usual assertions that we trans men have nothing to offer to trans (feminist) conversations by virtue of our being male; that all trans men uniformly benefit from male privilege regardless (or in erasure) of our identity’s intersections with race, class, ability, citizenship, others’ perception of our gender, etc.; that men do not suffer trauma from either past experiences or current experiences of misogyny (which often persist even after a man starts transitioning if he is still read as “female”); that any trans man’s disagreement with a trans woman emerges purely from misogyny; that any trans man’s voicing of his concerns is simply him engaging in entitled whining.
Of course, there are kernels of truth in there, depending on the individual man. But that picture is just far too narrow to encompass all of our nuances and complexities.
And the common thread is, scarily enough, a presumption often adopted by the most vocal of antitrans mouthpieces: presenting trans men as a monolith. No diversity of experience or identity. Only one narrative that assumes the worst: “You gain all the privilege by transitioning and are uncritical in its deployment. You cannot be hurt by sexism but only wield it as a weapon.”
Thankfully, though, more and more trans women and men have chimed into these usual exchanges to say “enough.” We are dealing with far too much pain and deadly force from the transphobic world around us. While we must always hold men accountable for sexist behavior, that is not the only thing about trans men that we should, as a community, be talking about.
Which makes now a good moment to point out what often isn’t being said about what many colloquially refer to as the “bashing of trans men”: It has everything to do with race. Our trans women of color thought leaders, it seems to me, rarely if ever engage in these conversations — they are, by far and large, generated by white trans people, both women and men. Why? Because it’s still easy, in our white-dominant world, to ignore the experiences of trans men of color and how they complicate one-note “Trans men are the worst” narratives.
Trans men of color often report that they experience higher rates of policing and profiling after they transition to male; black trans men face a higher risk of being incarcerated. Simply taking this into account turns the convseration in a new direction. And in a time when many, including those who scorn trans men, are calling for the elevation of trans women of color’s voices in the trans rights movement, an attendant amplification of trans men of color’s experiences, even solely in our conversations about trans men, would help do the same necessary work.
In other words, if we centered — truly centered — trans people of color in our movement, lateral violence would lessen. I believe it’s one of the keys.
That, and acknowledging that trans men have diverse, vibrant, vital contributions to make to trans spaces. Not to mention that too many of us are still quietly succumbing to self-harm, as well as an accompanying lack in self-love that trans spaces have the opportunity to help remedy.
In the end, it’s truly sad that the deaths of Leelah, Riley, Andi, and Jay are what it takes to air such tensions within our own communities. But it’s often from the worst times that we emerge stronger, holding onto what truly matters. Communal grieving often gives way to communal healing, a refocusing on injustices that require a concerted effort to fix lead us to reflect on how we’ve fallen into making assumptions that have left us divided.
Though not voiced in her final words, it’s possible that a reexamination of damaging patterns within trans conversations could be an unintended gift Leelah’s given us, if only we take it to heart.
MITCH KELLAWAY is the trans issues correspondent for The Advocate. His other writing has appeared in the Lambda Literary Review, Original Plumbing, Mic, The Huffington Post, and Everyday Feminism. He is the coeditor of Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family & Themselves (2014, Transgress Press), an anthology of personal narratives by trans men. Reach him at MitchKellaway.com and @MitchKellaway.