On Trans Day Of Remembrance, I Ask: How Many Have Been Forgotten?
Content warning: mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation
My own experience opens up the terrifying possibility that more trans people than we know have taken their life or tried to.
Today we mark yet another Transgender Day of Remembrance, a holiday for trans people to remember those friends of ours who’ve passed over the last year. Frequently, events for TDoR involve public gatherings where the names of murdered trans people are read aloud while the crowd grieves. Each year we can’t help but note the increasing number of names on the list of victims. Last year there were 295 names to be read. This year there will be over 300. What’s truly heartbreaking is the sheer number of victims for whom we don’t even have a name or age; the only known facts we have are that they were trans and they were murdered. Silent victims.
While the TDoR event itself rightfully centers those targeted by violence, it’s also meant as a day to remember all of the trans friends we’ve lost along the way. This year, I’ll be thinking of my friend Elise, who took her own life suddenly this past summer. She and I went to TDoR together last year.
Unfortunately, suicide is a familiar experience for much of the trans community. Forty one percent of trans people will attempt suicide at least once in their lives. With an estimated 1.4 million transgender people in the US, that’s 574,000 people in the U.S. attempting suicide at least once.
41% of trans people will attempt suicide at least once in their lives.
I count myself among those numbers — but those numbers don’t actually reflect me. I was very much in the closet at the time of my attempt, meaning no one would have known to count me as a trans suicide.
Using my own experience, it opens up a horrifying possibility: What if we’re undercounting?
It was a hot day in late July 2015. The previous month was the most difficult of my life, marked by panic attacks of varying degrees brought on by the prospect of dying. Rendered useless by gender dysphoria and the accompanying depression, I realize now that my brain was trying to warn me of the impending existential danger.
The panic attacks themselves were an expression of my immediate fear of dying, but that shouldn’t have been the case for a person in their early thirties who had recently lost 80 lbs and was in the best shape of their adult life. I had hoped that losing weight would help improve my self image and alleviate my dysphoria; instead it got worse.
While I was fitter, my body was still unquestionably male in appearance and shape. The Sunday before that fateful day, I had a crushing panic attack triggered simply by the male shape of my shadow visible on the ground as I took my morning run with my back to the sun. I sat on the side of a country road and openly sobbed. When I finally got back to my house, I hoped my wife wouldn’t notice my tear-streaked face.
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With a family and a full time job, I was rarely home alone by myself — except during lunch. I worked right around the corner from home, so a trip home for a warm meal was often the highlight of my day. It was the only time of day I could truly relax and not care if my movements gave my secret identity away. Imagine a life where fleeting moments of solitude are like oxygen for your soul.
But that hot day in late July, I sobbed through lunch, choking down cold leftovers as my brain battled itself over my gender. I knew I was a woman, but the fear of coming out was overwhelming. I knew my marriage would be over, I wasn’t sure how my career would be affected, and what if the rest of my family rejected me? It was too much.
And so — I tried to take my life. I parked my car in my closed garage and waited. I left no note. No one save my wife would have possibly guessed why I did it. As I sat there, waiting for the end, I was more troubled than relaxed. A woman’s voice, my inner voice I had long suppressed, was screaming at me in my head. “You’re a woman! What are you doing? You can fix this!” the voice said. Just then a fateful text from my mother dinged on my phone; she wanted to know if I was okay. She saved my life.
Imagine a life where fleeting moments of solitude are like oxygen for your soul.
Afterwards, I actually went back to work and somehow finished my work day. No one suspected a thing. It was in that garage that transitioning became the only option.
Many, many trans people I’ve spoken with have told me that no one would have known they were trans either, if they had been successful with their first suicide attempt. 1 in 25 suicide attempts end up fatal, which means we could potentially be missing many thousands of closeted trans suicides without even knowing it.
I tell this story to ask a question: How many are we missing? There are about 42,773 suicides in the United States alone every year, and not all of them left notes behind explaining why. The only reason we know that 41% of trans people have attempted suicide is because those trans people survived to both come out and also to be counted. How many closeted trans people have attempted suicide? And an even scarier question, how many trans people have taken their own lives without ever letting anyone else know they were trans?
Last year, the total estimate for the number of out trans people in the U.S. doubled from 700,000 to 1.4 million. The commonly accepted reason for this revision is that there are simply more trans people coming out recently. These people have always been trans, even when they were too scared and closeted to be counted.
With the sweeping electoral victory of Trump and a legislature that holds that trans people shouldn’t exist, the already dire situation for trans Americans is likely to get much worse. Not only are we scared about the legislative dangers, but Trump’s bigoted supporters seem newly emboldened to commit violent acts, and trans people seem to be a prime target for them to exercise their hatred. The threat of transphobic violence is definitely a factor in whether a closeted trans person chooses to commit suicide, just as much as it’s a factor in whether or not they transition and finally live openly. The sad reality is the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.
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As a community, survival and self care need to be our top priority. There’s nothing inherently suicidal in the nature of trans people; rather, like me, trans people are often overwhelmed by the hate and discriminatory environment of the society around us. Most cisgender people are oblivious to the numerous examples of transphobia and transmisogyny that are built into our lives. It is crushing. Overwhelming. It’s not just the constant threat of violence against us, or the conservative legislative actions against us, it’s the everyday acts of non-acceptance that we confront along the way.
On this Transgender Day of Remembrance, as we remember the trans people we’ve lost along the way, I hope we can take a pause to think of those we don’t know about. I hope we remember their pain, their torture, and their tragic ends. As we move on, we cannot forget those who’ve gone before us, those who were too scared to live their truths in the first place.