I never really knew how uncomfortable the backseat of a police car was until that night. Yet, as I was being driven to the Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca, N.Y., at 11 at night, all I could think about — all I wanted to think about was how painful it was to sit on the hard plastic. It was much easier to think about that than how I had ended up in that cop car in the first place.
Earlier that evening, I was drunk and high, a common occurrence most nights at that time in my life. I found myself walking around my old college campus, Ithaca College, from which I had graduated a few months before. I had stayed in town after graduation because I had recently come out as transgender and wanted to focus on my transition before ultimately moving to Los Angeles to pursue my career. Yet, that evening, that career and life that I hoped for seemed so far away. Like a fantasy that I had made myself believe in to keep myself going. Just like the fantasy of my transition to a woman.
As I walked around the campus, I realized that all the hope I had for my future during my college years seemed so pointless. So naive and stupid I had been, to believe that I could ever achieve the things that I had wanted. How could I expect to achieve a life I hoped for when I couldn’t even look in the mirror and like what I saw?
My entire life, I had felt wrong. I wanted so desperately to be a woman, and it consumed my every thought. I couldn’t go to school without looking at my female classmate with jealousy. At home, I would take long showers to hide my crying as I desperately wished to just wake up as a girl. At college, I would drive down to the local thrift store and walk through the isles of female clothing. I kept wishing I could have the courage to buy some, or even try some on. Yet, my fear consumed me, and I always left angry at myself for being so upset.
After finally coming out to some friends at college, I thought it would change. Right after graduating, I started hormones and was out to a select group of friends. Yet, every morning I looked in the mirror and still couldn’t see the person I wanted to be. I was never going to be a woman, I believed. And if I couldn’t even do the one thing that I had halted my whole life to focus on, then how could I ever think I would achieve anything else? I was never going to be happy. So why prolong that pain? Why not just end it so that I don’t have to worry about it anymore?
As these thoughts began to swirl, as they did most nights, I called a close friend, sobbing frantically. I told her I was on campus and that I wanted to die. I thought about finding somewhere to jump from.
This was by no means the first time I had contemplated suicide. I had thought of it many times throughout my life. Earlier that year, I had taken a knife, walked out into the woods, and held it to my wrists. I sat there for an hour, trying to find the courage to end it all. I couldn’t do it and ended up self-harming instead.
That night, after I hung up on my friend, she decided to call campus security. After calling me and searching, they eventually found me wandering the campus. I begged them to let me go home, but they refused. They ended up putting me in the back of a police car and drove me to Cayuga Medical Center. I spent the next 12 hours stuck there watching reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond (one of the worst shows to watch if you want to embrace hope for humanity). A doctor eventually released me, after I lied to him saying that I never had any suicidal thoughts or that I wanted to die.
My story is by no means unique in the transgender community. Trans people have one of the highest suicide attempt rates of any group in the world. About 40 percent of transgender people attempt suicide, and that number is higher for transgender people of color. Thankfully, I never made a suicide attempt that left any permanent damage. Many in the transgender community are not so lucky.
While the high suicide attempt rate is tragic, it is often used as justification for discrimination against the transgender community. In the wake of Donald Trump’s announcement of the transgender military ban, some cited the high suicide rate as “high risk” behavior that justifies their removal from the military. Others use it to call transgender people mentally ill or less stable than other human beings.
Conservative commentator and vocal anti-transgender spokesperson Ben Shapiro articulates these arguments as thus: “I think the idea that you’re going to sacrifice society’s entire proper definition of sex because you think there is a, in legal terms, somebody with an eggshell skull, meaning somebody who has a pre-existing condition that makes them susceptible to criticism, that is not a way to run a society… The idea behind the transgender movement as a civil rights movement is the idea that all of their problems would just go away if I would pretend that they were the sex to which they claim membership. That’s nonsense. The transgender suicide rate is 40%. It is 40%. According to the Anderson School at UCLA… it makes virtually no difference statistically speaking as to whether people recognize you as a transgender person or not. Which suggest there’s a very high core morbidity between transgenderism, whatever that mental state may be, and suicidality that has nothing to do with how society treats you… I’m against bullying of any sort… the normal suicide rate across the United States 4%. The suicide rate in the transgender community is 40%. The idea that 36% more transgender are committing suicide because people are mean to them is ridiculous. It’s not true and it’s not backed by any science that anyone can cite.”
So let’s cite some science for Mr. Shapiro. First, it should be noted that the 40 percent number is suicide attempts, not completed suicide, as the UCLA study that Shapiro cites points out. Shapiro also claimed that the study argues that the suicide rate is not affected by whether someone recognizes you as transgender. This is actually false, as the study states “respondents who experienced rejection by family, friends, discrimination, victimization, or violence had elevated prevalence of suicide attempts,” with data showing that the suicide attempt rate can reach as high as 78 percent under these conditions.
Shapiro also argues that the idea that the bullying of the transgender community leads to the disparity in the suicide attempt rate is “ridiculous.” First and foremost, again, the same study (as well as many others) disproves the idea that bullying plays no factor in the suicide rate. Additionally, few would argue that bullying would be the sole factor in increasing desire for transgender people to seek suicide as a solution to their pain. A confluence of things — from housing discrimination, to rejection from family, to a lack of access to medical care, to a lack of medical care that adequately understands how to handle transgender patients, to constantly having to hear your basic identity debated as valid on a national stage — means being transgender can take its toll on your mental health. It would be no small wonder if any transgender person could face all of that, and come out unscathed. I certainly didn’t.
For me, my desire to end my life came from a lack of belief that things would ever change for me. That I could ever become the woman I wanted to be. That fatalism consumed me and wouldn’t let me go… until one day when I stepped out of the shower and looked into the mirror. This was unusual, as I always tried desperately to avoid my reflection for fear of seeing the horror that was my body. Yet, this time, I stood transfixed. It had been so long since I studied myself that I was surprised to find that I looked so different. My face was smoother from hormone therapy. I was skinnier from months of working out. I finally started to see the face of someone I could love; like chunks of marble falling off to reveal a masterpiece hiding somewhere within the stone.
After years of hormone therapy, gender therapy, and gender confirmation surgery, I am proud to say that I no longer have a passing thought of suicide. Certainly, taking one look at the state of transgender rights in this country or a look at the comment section of a transgender article certainly hurts me deeply. Yet no one will ever be able to make me feel bad for who or what I am. That wasn’t always the case. I am so thankful to be where I am today.
I know I am privileged. I was able to get access to all the medical care that I needed. This is by no means available to everyone. Like my close friend did for me, I have had to spend too many nights receiving calls from my own friends who feel trapped in their situation like I did and, unlike me, they don’t have a direct medical path ahead for them to find their way out of that pain. Not to mention the transphobia, bigotry, and violence we all face on a daily basis.
There are some who believe that transgender rights have gone too far. Yet, when I still hear people believing that transgender people attempting suicide at such horrifying rates are somehow a personal failing on our part, I sometimes wonder if we'll ever be able to get our rights far enough. I fall into that same fatalism that controlled so much of my life.
Yet, I pull myself out because I know there is hope. I know that we can change the world because I already changed my own world. I look in the mirror today and see a person that a younger version of me — the one in that police car — believed could never exist. So if that impossibility can happen, I know we are all capable of so much more.
JESSIE EARL is a video producer for The Advocate.
If you are a trans or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide Trans Lifeline can be reached at (877) 565-8860. LGBTQ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at (866) 488-7386. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 can also be reached 24 hours a day by people of all ages and identities.