Although I am in the 59 percent of transgender people who have never attempted suicide, I’ve been hospitalized for suicidal ideation six times.
The details of the last time are the most instructive for the purposes of this op-ed. A little over two years ago I finally became aware enough of what it means to be transgender and to accept it in myself. It was at a very difficult time in my life and I was very much on the edge. Eventually the old pattern reemerged and I found myself filled with the desire to end my life. I did what many people do: I called a suicide hotline.
This was far from my first experience calling a suicide hotline, but it was the first time that I had the language to articulate my identity. A man answered the phone. I told him what was going on with me — I was a closeted trans woman trying to find the courage to come out. He stopped me. He wanted to know what a trans woman was. When I explained it to him he ended the call abruptly. His discomfort was palpable. He told me I needed to go to a mental hospital and got off the phone as quickly as he could.
Despite his obvious discomfort I took his advice and went to an emergency room in Berkeley, Calif., and told the staff what was going on with me. Again, I had to explain to the ER nurse what a trans woman is. Later, in the lockdown ward, I also had to explain it and take charge of my own care because the mental health professionals there were completely oblivious to the idea of transgender people. I’ve never in my life felt more alone
I waited until later in life to transition. This doesn’t mean that I was ever male. My earliest memory of being dissatisfied with my gender was when I was in the third grade. I was watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with my sister. Afterward I practiced walking like Jane Russell in our living room. I don’t remember who walked in on me doing that, but I do remember that they were very angry with me. I didn’t understand why they were angry, but I didn’t do it again.
My next memory of my gender differences was from what I imagine was a few months later. My Mormon family would watch 60 Minutes on Sunday evenings, the whole family squeezed onto two cheap couches. A segment came on about a person who had a “sex change operation.” I stared at the screen and thought, Could this be me? I looked over at my father through the corner of my eye. Even at my young age I knew what that scowl on his face meant. I reassured myself that anyone would question his or her gender while watching a segment like that, that this was perfectly natural. Now I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case.
I can remember moments of clarity within a life full of dissatisfaction — moments when I was able to face my nature. These were moments of despair. Who would love me as a trans woman? I didn’t have the language. I knew what I wanted but I thought I had a choice. I believed that the fact that I’m not attracted to men rendered the entire idea ridiculous. My only model of trans women were sex workers on TV cop shows.
I repeatedly wrestled with these questions throughout my life. If I had been able to frame the problem properly, I would have been able to come to a more reasonable answer. My trans nature is not something I chose, and accepting it is also not a choice. If anything, deciding whether to transition is a choice between life or death, and happiness or misery. If I had met even a single out trans person, it might have transformed my life, but the fact is that I didn’t.
During the 10 years prior to my coming out as trans I experienced ever-worsening anxiety. I had panic attacks that would wake me up in the dead of night. I’d lie in bed filled with despair, with dread. I was painfully aware of the degree to which I was a mismatch for the gender I was assigned at birth.
Last September my partner, Nina, and I started Trans Lifeline. We did it on a whim on a Sunday afternoon. We have an entrepreneurial relationship and we are always looking for ways to improve the world around us. I found some open-source software that would allow us to create a distributed hotline (Pocket Hotline by Chap Ambrose). With the help of the author we were able to get it running within of a week. We created a Facebook page and started to recruit volunteers. It seemed like a crazy scheme at the time. We didn’t have any idea how many trans people would be willing to volunteer for such a crisis line or what the call volume would be.
Although the hotline has been live for several months we didn’t publicize the number or take calls until November 20, The Transgender Day of Remembrance. The response has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. The first day we had 25 new volunteers and helped six suicidal callers.
Every time I answer the crisis line my stomach clenches a little. I wonder how I can comfort someone in a world that is so cruel to trans women. Each time I do I find a way. Each time I do I heal my own damage a little bit more.
GRETA MARTELA is a software developer in San Francisco. Visit TransLifeline for more information. Trans Lifeline can be reached at 877-565-8860.
For LGBT youth (ages 24 and younger) contemplating suicide, the Trevor Project Lifeline can be reached at 1-866-488-7386. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 can also be reached 24 hours a day by people of all ages and identities.