For most people in the transgender community our earliest memories are experiences of being bullied, or not being loved by some family members because we looked and acted differently than other male or female-bodied persons.
For me this led to an early onset of depression and being diagnosed in the third grade. I was sent to treatment weekly at Bellevue Hospital in Brooklyn, NY. My first attempt at leaving this world and the body I had grown to hate was at the age of eight. Feeling unloved by my family, and being in a body that had betrayed me, I felt disconnected from the world in general. I was unable at an early age to connect to the many people moving in and out of my life. I never felt like I was an authentic and real person.
I grew up thinking self-harm, suicide attempts and dissociation would be a permanent part of my life, and that I would never be able to fully live an authentic life. I had been asked by all of my caregivers if I was a lesbian. I was asked this, I believe, due to the systemic prejudice of care providers in hospitals, group homes and foster care. And I knew if I ever admitted that I wanted to be or believed I was a boy, my housing and treatment would be in jeopardy. The one time I ever came close to saying I felt different, I was forced to sit through months of therapeutic sessions in relation to how young ladies are to act and dress. I never came out; I didn’t have the language to. In the 80’s I had never heard of the word transgender. I knew what cross-dresser meant and I connected on some level to men that cross-dressed.
I walked in this world feeling strange and unwanted. I wanted so hard to just fit in and not be bullied, which led to extended periods of depression during adolescence. Around my fourteenth year I decided to go within and not talk unless I was spoken to. This led to long periods of silence at home and school. I had learned to dissociate myself from the living world. I learned to live in my alternate reality and it became my peace within a chaotic world. I could go to this safe place no matter where I was. Walking to school, in meetings with my social worker, whenever I needed to disconnect, my alternate world awaited.
I spent most of my adulthood living androgynously, as neither male or female, dressing and behaving as genderless as possible until reading the 2007 Newsweek article entitled “The Mystery of Gender.” The article gave me a new outlook on living. I finally felt hope that my life could now be less painful, living as the gender I have always felt inside. I decide to discuss the article and my desire to look into transition from female to male with my treatment team. My doctor listened, and I walked away with a resource in hand to a local clinic that specialized in gender transition.
I now know how privileged I am. The interaction with my doctor and treatment team was not the standard or the norm in 2007. I was fortunate enough to have a forward-thinking team listen and understand that the trauma and my early emotional breaks were part of my history, but not the total sum of it; that my gender expression was not a mental health issue, and that I deserved to have an opportunity to delve into it without being medicated or hospitalized.
There are many adults being told today not to transition. There are young people today being forced into conversion therapy. Mental health treatment should not be doled out based on sexuality or gender. It should be based on the presenting symptoms and environmental factors that cause the stress. For those that identify under the trans umbrella, our symptoms are caused by the multiple traumatic experiences we are exposed to. The traumatic experiences come in many forms, such as the unrepentant violence against the trans community, especially trans women of color; conversion therapy forced onto vulnerable youth, homelessness, being bullied online and at school, being denied employment due to your presentation and being denied healthcare by providers.
In the last two years we have seen some amazing strides in the trans community. The Affordable Care Act provides healthcare for trans folks across the country, and the right to change gender markers on your social security record. We saw Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine, proclaiming that we are at a tipping point in transgender history. Vice President Joe Biden proclaimed transgender human rights to be “the human rights issue of this decade,” and then — at least to the public — out of nowhere Bruce Jenner began his public transition, culminating in a Vanity Fair cover boldly stating, “You can call me Caitlyn.”
Laverne and Caitlyn are accomplished women who have amazing stories about how they came to realize that their very existence depended on living a truly authentic life; that actually doing so was the only option. Laverne Cox: growing up in the Deep South, being bullied, and living with depression. Caitlyn Jenner: starting her first transition in the 90’s, stopping after realizing that she would lose her financial stability and possibly her children.
How did we get here, then, this amazing turning point in the history of the transgender community?
We owe it to the hundreds of trans women and men who came before us. Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Kylar Brodus and Tiq Milan. Men and women who spoke truth to light and helped the world see our community as human. The men and women who stand up and speak for social justice and human rights for our community. And now we are here at this tipping point. A moment in time where we are being seen as people who desire the same opportunities in life as the rest of the community.
We know that trauma, violence, suicide, addiction and mental health have ravaged our community. We know that families are causing more harm to their children when they refuse to understand why their children are experiencing depression and anxiety. We know that depression, anxiety and trauma are direct results of bullying, domestic violence and discrimination. When we decrease the instances of systemic and community violence we can be sure that our transgender community will begin to experience better mental health and less traumatic experience. It’s up to us as a society to create safe spaces, places where people can experience a beloved community on a daily basis.
And now as we enter the tipping point we know that #TransLivesMatter.
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If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or just need someone to talk to call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the National Suicide hotline at 1-800-784-2433.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.