Brynn Tannehill

Building a More Resilient Transgender Community

Filed By Brynn Tannehill | February 16, 2015 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: coming out, community building, cultural norms, gender identity, resilience, suicide, suicide prevention

A few years ago when I was reviewing my company's online suicide prevention training, I realized something. The slideshow had a list of "Suicide Protective Factors" listed. However, these "protective factors" are often unavailable to transgender people.

Here's the list of preventative factors, and why transgender people often do not have these safety nets in place.

Optimism About Your Future

When you're dealing with gender issues, it is tough to see a happy ending. If you do nothing, you're still stuck, unless you can go back to a state of denial and cognitive dissonance. If you move forward, then you risk losing everything. This includes family, friends, children, spouse, savings, and romantic relationships.

Even after transition, even if you don't lose everything, your gender identity and history can still severely limit your ability to change areas of your life you are unhappy with. For example, looking for a new job as a well-known transgender blogger can be difficult...

Strong Social Support from Family, Friends, and Co-Workers

When you come out, even those who don't reject you can end up pulling back emotionally. Family and friends can distance themselves -- even if they mean to be supportive -- because transgender is so alien to them and they don't know how to deal with it.

Co-workers? Sometimes you're simply met with awkward silence. Some always look at you like something the cat vomited onto the carpet. Others may actually resort to verbal abuse, dead naming, and misgendering if they think they can get away with it.

In short, coming out as transgender can be intensely disruptive to your existing social support networks.

Belief That Your Life Has Purpose and Meaning

The vast majority of religions in the U.S. regard dealing with gender dysphoria in any way other than crawling into the closet and staying there as a one-way ticket to hell. Some (like the Southern Baptist Convention) have begun pushing the narrative that anyone who accepts a transgender person's identity is also going to hell.

Typically, "life has a meaning" implies some cosmic import, a bigger plan or purpose than simply being an ape with opposable thumbs. Escaping traditional theology is hard since most people are wired for it, and society rewards being within the mainstream.

Finding a religious group and congregation which actively embraces you regardless of how you identify your gender is difficult. Many faiths that are supposedly affirming have congregations and leaders who are still uncomfortable around transgender people.

Leaving (or being rejected) by the faith you grew up with is difficult. Escaping the browbeating of traditional religions via agnosticism or atheism may be the simplest solution, but it also precludes a belief in an intrinsic meaning or purpose. Both of these more difficult humanist options require finding or making your own purpose or meaning.

Feeling Like You Belong to a Group

Being transgender is uncommon enough that you might only find a few other transgender people, even in a good-sized city. And even when you do locate these people, finding enough commonality amongst yourselves (besides being transgender) to form a social group is difficult.

In my case here in rural Ohio, it's a 50-minute drive in any direction to visit another transgender person. What interaction we have tends to be web-based.

Many transgender men in areas with low acceptance rates try to go "stealth." This option is in many ways just trading one closet for another, and I suspect that it is a factor in why transgender men have suicide attempt rates similar to or slightly higher than those of transgender women.

Willingness to Seek Help/Willingness to Talk

Seeking help may ultimately be good for you, but it is very hard to do. There is a high degree of social stigma attached to being transgender, and admitting it to anyone -- even a therapist -- is intensely stressful.

Just by admitting your "problem," you lose a lot of the mental stability you enjoyed by being in a state of denial, so there is an immediate consequence to your willingness to talk. Seeking help from family and friends is difficult because even if they are sympathetic and supportive, they usually have no idea how to handle this admission.

Finding a good therapist with experience in the field can be an adventure in itself. Horror stories of bad therapists, even with those who purport to be experienced with the transgender community, abound.

Effective Coping and Problem-Solving Skills

For many transgender people, their most highly-developed coping skills are denial and cognitive dissonance. These habits are hard to break, and the alternative is terrifying. Why deal with it when you know full well that when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you?

Cultural Norms That Encourage People to Seek Help

resilience-parchedearth-sprouting-green.jpgNothing within our culture encourages people with GID to get help -- not our religion, our families, our work, or our friends. The most common perception is that if we seek help, it is done for selfish reasons. We often hear, "Can't you just pretend to be normal for the sake of your (wife / kids / family / immortal soul)?"

Most people in our lives would be much happier if we stayed safely locked in the closet. Once we're out to someone, even pre-transition, their perceptions are irreparably altered, and very rarely for the better.

Coming out as transgender and being your authentic self is a high-wire act with no net -- and someone greased the wire. There are no easy fixes or solutions.

Working towards greater acceptance and understanding will help alleviate the isolation many transgender people feel. The reduction of stigma helps people come out of the closet earlier (which is good), seek help more readily, and abandon counter-productive coping strategies.

Additionally, while we cannot dictate the beliefs of religions, we can work towards helping ostensibly accepting faiths be more welcoming and affirming.

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