Vaginal Discourse

[Trigger warning for suicide, homophobia, and transphobia]

Note: I wrote this in October 2010. I’ve been sitting on it since then. With the Transgender Day of Remembrance coming up this Sunday, I feel like this is a good time to share it.

I’m a survivor. I’m also not a therapist. It’s not in my interest (or yours) for me to counsel you on mental health. Thus, I’m keeping the comments closed.

xox
Kate

An acquaintance took her life this past weekend.

This post isn’t about me (or her), but for the record, I’m doing alright. Members of this particular social circle are in various stage of processing, doing what they need to do.

I trust many readers will not be surprised to find out that my acquaintance was a young, queer and gender non-conforming woman (who I’ll refer to as Sam). The last person I knew to commit suicide, back in 2008, was a trans woman named Sarah.

It’s important to not erase the many straight people who wrestle with depression and self-harm. However, I want to take this moment to give folks yet another reminder of the shortcomings of the media’s newfound (and, I suspect, fading) interest in homophobic bullying and suicide.

Appropriating death within LGBTQ circles is an extremely sensitive issue, but I’m compelled to point out that this isn’t just a “gay” issue. I don’t know how Sam identified (I know plenty of her friends, but it strikes me as extraordinarily insensitive and beside the point to inquire), but I will say that she struck me as very much “gender non-conforming.”

The labels people give themselves vary with generation and social circle. While I’m not interested in starting a round of oppression olympics, most (if not all) of the media attention I’ve heard about centers on the difficulties on gay kids, on how hard it is to be a “normal” kid just like all the others, who just so happens to like girls or boys instead of boys or girls. Not only does this erase bisexual and queer young people, but it also avoids the terrifying and potentially suffocating reality one faces when one’s gender presentation does not match what society tells one it should be.

News coverage has focused on that one guy in New Jersey, and that other one in Michigan, and perhaps one more in Texas or California; I don’t even know, I’ve had a hard time keeping track. This is not about one or two or five or ten young people. There has been more than one LGBTQ suicide in New Jersey than that of Tyler Clementi this year. I guarantee it.

My morbid confidence stems from my experience in trans communities. If you are trans or are active in trans communities, you already (or will) know a victim of suicide. Period. Suicide is not just something that’s in the news, it’s something to discuss on a Friday night. Particularly when I was going through the especially rough work of self-discovery and early transition, I cannot tell you how many hours I spent online chatting with folks about their self-destructive urges. This was, at the very least, a weekly activity.

One of my dear, dear friends (who has since gone stealth and off the grid– if you’re out there, I’d love to hear from you, E) once confided in me that she felt a bit cheated of the “trans experience” because she had never attempted suicide. Her comment, as always, was dripping with snark, but not without insight. In some trans circles, trading suicide stories is like trading coming out stories.

Of course, this phenomenon is unfortunate for multiple reasons. It’s obviously tragic that so many of us have attempted suicide, and that far, far too many of us have succeeded. It’s also tragic that there are undoubtedly trans and gender non-conforming people out there who feel like depression and self-harm is what society expects of them.

Not every young LGBTQ person who attempts suicide is a student. I actually had long conversations with my friend Sarah about her desire to return to school. Access to education is not universal, yet sadly, exposure to homophobia and transphobia is. Not every person attempting self-harm is young, either. Of course, these stories (along with those of Sam and Sarah) clash with today’s popular narrative of “bullied gay student pushed too far”, and they don’t often get reported.

Suicide by LGBQ and especially trans and gender non-conforming people: it is not a recent, limited, or localized phenomenon.

And about bullying, yes, please, let’s address bullying. Bullying is a huge problem, as it always has been, even before the internet age. However, I don’t like the narrative the media is selling. Bullying implies a certain number of bad seeds saying things that, at the very least, shouldn’t be said, and occasionally doing things that shouldn’t be done. You know, boys will be boys but we really need to watch them, because sometimes they can do things that are really hurtful.

Governments do not bully. Employers do not bully. Newspapers and blogs and movies do not bully. Bullying implies a limited subset of behaviors on the part of a finite number of other people. While it’s fine to concern ourselves with bullying, it also lets us off the hook. What I see, and what LGBTQ people deal with is systemic hatred and oppression, and many, many people are complicit, regardless of whether or not they know it.

We all need to be allies. Those of us, who, like myself, have struggled with suicide and depression can certainly speak out and let others know that there just might be people in this world who understand and are willing to listen. However, this is not enough. We all need to work on bringing about systemic change, and this begins with everyone acknowledging and embracing their role as creators of culture.

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