Transgender people suffer a disproportionate risk of suicide, with a recent study suggesting 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide. Life can be difficult enough for transgender adults, but young people are particularly vulnerable. Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note was a harsh reminder that sometimes things don’t just “get better” for trans youth. In order to change that, several programs have attempted to provide messages of hope for young trans people, with the aim of preventing teen suicide.
Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign didn’t exactly exclude transgender people, but trans contributions to the project were few and far between. What few there were set generally positive examples, such as the video from Janet Mock.
One of the more interesting “It Gets Better” submissions was that of the well-known trans writer Kate Bornstein. Like the other trans “It Gets Better” videos, it’s an inspirational message that encourages young trans people to “hang in there” through difficult times. But it also hints at a skepticism of the notion that it really does “get better” for trans people, which is an idea worth exploring.
Bornstein isn’t alone in thinking that it’s really not as simple as telling young trans people “it gets better” and expecting results. Random factors like being born into a family willing to be accepting of a gender nonconforming child, or having the physical traits that make it easy to “pass” in your gender are not matters of choice, but have a potentially huge impact on a trans person’s mental and physical well-being.
The advantage of being able to live your life with the respect of friends and family, and without people constantly questioning your identity really can’t be understated, but these are not promises you can reasonably make en masse to young trans people – many trans people simply do not experience these advantages. Allowing young trans people the opportunity to medically transition before puberty has completed irreversible physical changes can potentially make huge differences in their lives, but it can’t happen without the help of supportive families. In the future, society will progress to the point where families completely accept and understand their trans children; in the meantime we have to deal with the world as it is, and sometimes “It Gets Better” isn’t enough.
A more helpful message might be that young transgender people have a chance of having a satisfying and meaningful life, and while there may be times where it seems impossible, they also have a chance of one day living a life that is about something other than survival. “I Am: Trans People Speak” is a trans-specific campaign that takes a different approach than “It Gets Better,” and avoids making any potentially empty promises about the future.
Unlike “It Gets Better,” this program doesn’t explicitly ask viewers to hold on through difficult times, but instead shows diverse examples of transgender people. Since “transgender” is an umbrella term that covers a wide spectrum of people, part of the appeal of these videos is providing examples of many different kinds of trans people. The “Trans People Speak” videos simply offer examples of transgender people from different walks of life, including celebrity figures such as Laverne Cox, as well as people in more ordinary professions like lawyer Noah Lewis.
Positive examples of adult trans people are an important piece of the puzzle for young trans people who are looking for reasons to be hopeful about their future. Another recent video that did a pretty good job of this, albeit in the limited context of the fashion world, is “The Gaze & Other Stories.”
The “Truth” campaign by the National Transgender Law Center specifically focuses on young trans and gender non-conforming kids who are fortunate enough to have supportive parents. It’s not hard to see the value of highlighting how loving, supportive, and (for lack of a better word) “normal” these families can be. This approach has serious potential to make a real difference by setting positive examples for not only the kids but the parents and families of these kids. These videos include families in places where you wouldn’t necessarily expect a positive experience for trans kids, such as Kentucky.
Whether or not videos like this can actually have a significant impact on the mental well-being of young transgender people remains to be seen, but they certainly can’t hurt. The Internet has played a gigantic role in creating a strong sense of community for transgender people, and these videos build on that. Knowing that you aren’t alone is perhaps the single most important prerequisite for any sort of optimistic outlook on what might otherwise seem like a dismal future. These videos certainly help to accomplish that, if nothing else.
(Featured image via Ted Eytan/Flickr)
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