The Media Pays Attention When Trans People Die, But The Living Are Struggling With Grief
Violent attacks and discriminatory laws have taken a toll on the mental health of trans people. Many wish there was as much attention on the well-being of those living with traumas as there is on those who have been killed.
In April, Rell Lowery was getting ready for an interview in which he planned to talk about being an openly trans man in Charlotte, North Carolina.
He was prepared to discuss all the great things happening in the place he’s lived his whole life, the work he does as the trans liaison for Charlotte Black Pride, and the excitement of getting to hold Pride festivities in person once again. He was even prepared to talk about the city’s long-standing affinity for disc golf. The conversation with Acton TV host Kelly Jenkins, who has been traveling to all 50 states to interview trans locals and highlight LGBTQ history, was supposed to focus on positive experiences, and Rell was eager to share his perspective because he believes those stories don’t get enough attention at a moment when news coverage of trans people often zooms in on the rights others are trying to take away from them.
But, just before Lowery was set to meet with Jenkins, his plans for the interview had to change.
Within a span of 11 days this April, two Black transgender women were murdered in Charlotte. Jaida Peterson, 29, was found in a hotel room on April 4. On April 15, Remy Fennell, 28, was found in another hotel. Both had been shot and robbed.
“It literally was less than 24 hours before the interview, and everything shifted,” said Lowery. “I just had to shift my focus, because that was more important then. Of course we want to include everything for Pride, but right now, right here in our city, that was two murders within two weeks.”
It was a sobering reminder for Lowery that no matter how much he wanted to tell people about the experience of being trans outside the lens of trauma, tragedy, and victimhood, it’s hard to paint a broader picture when the community is so often on the receiving end of such shocking displays of violence and discrimination. In the weeks after the murders, he gave more interviews than he could count, hoping that Peterson and Fennell would not be forgotten when the news cycle moved on and that their lives would not be defined only by their sex work, which was prominently noted in some news stories. He considered it his duty to speak about them, and the community they were a part of, because if he didn’t, would anyone know them as anything more than hashtags, the latest names added to lists on news sites tallying the rising number of trans people murdered in the US?
Once again, anti-trans violence and discrimination had made headlines; simultaneously, the actual well-being of a community that continues to grieve loss after loss was ignored. While there has been plenty of attention on the dead, it is the living who must carry the burden of trauma and grief — what, Lowery wondered, was being done for them?
When people talk about trans mental health, the emphasis is often placed on gender dysphoria or the challenges of transitioning — less is said about the toll that a climate of intolerance, violence, and political hostility can take on transgender people. Studies have found trans and nonbinary people are affected by microaggressions and anti-trans discrimination, and social rejection, in particular, makes it difficult to find ways to cope. We frequently hear about the annual count of trans and gender nonconforming people murdered in the US, or see magazine covers treating trans identities as a politically driven sociological debate. Rarely do we actually hear about how these events impact the mental health of trans people.
“I hate to say it makes you live in fear, but it does,” Lowery said. “It’s just the idea that someone or some people dislike a group of people just that much that their goal is to make them as uncomfortable as possible, or to make their life as hard as possible.”
Through the first half of 2021, at least 27 trans or gender nonconforming people in the US have had their lives ended by violence, according to the Human Rights Campaign. That’s compared to 44 across all of 2020, and 27 in 2019, although the count is likely higher as trans people are often misgendered even in death. Adding to the climate of hate, a wave of legislation aimed at denying trans people access to gender-affirming bathrooms, athletic teams, and vital medical care has swept the country: More than 100 anti-trans bills have been proposed across 33 states this year.
Taken together, this violence and discrimination harms the mental health of trans people, even those who haven’t been subject to it personally. The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth, found that more than half of transgender and nonbinary minors they surveyed had seriously considered suicide in the past year, up 12% from their 2020 survey.
“Having a stigmatized identity in a particular society has [an] actual impact on people's mental and physical health,” said Jody Herman, a scholar of public policy at the Williams Institute. She primarily focuses on trans well-being through what’s known as a “minority stress model,” which postulates that experiences of discrimination can have a palpable impact on the health of marginalized groups.
The stressors that model takes into account can be external, like laws or harassment, or internal, like feelings of shame. And it seems to apply whether you’re a trans teen watching a state legislature debate your own right to participate in sports at school, or whether you’re on the other side of the country following updates over social media in solidarity.
For Cody, a first-year college student in Florida who came out as a trans man last year and requested partial anonymity to protect his privacy, seeing the endless stream of hate-filled news stories in his social media feeds has left him feeling anxious, worried, and sad for his community.
“I’m afraid for myself and my friends and even people I don’t know,” he said.
When Cody came out to his mother, Lorayne, she devoured everything she could find about the trans experience, from articles to the Netflix documentary Disclosure, which critiques representations of trans people in entertainment. She wanted to understand how to raise a confident young man while also protecting him from discrimination and rejection.
“It’s a lot of pressure because you want to avoid all the different worst-case scenarios that you're seeing in the media,” she said.
The volunteers who work the lines for Trans Lifeline know all too well how this stress weighs on trans folks. The crisis line was launched in 2014 as a nonprofit organization run by and for trans people. Callers can be connected to a volunteer, who will be trans themselves, and receive emergency support and referrals to local resources. Or they can just chat, sharing concerns with a sympathetic ear.
The hotline averages about 230 calls per day, with lines open to the US and Canada, as well as one for Spanish speakers. When major events happen, calls spike, said Ivan Staklo, who has been answering calls to the line since 2015.
In October 2018, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump was considering defining gender solely as a person’s birth-assigned sex. Calls to Trans Lifeline rose to three times their normal volume afterward. In June 2020, the Trump administration reversed healthcare protections for trans people, the Supreme Court was weighing a decision on LGBTQ workplace protections, and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was defending anti-trans tweets. That week, Trans Lifeline calls came in at four times their normal volume.
“Because trans people are a marginalized community, particularly Black and brown trans people, we're going to see an uptick in calls because people are afraid for their lives,” Staklo said.
Callers are sometimes just looking for someone to talk to about the secondhand trauma of these events. Sometimes they or their loved ones have experienced violence or discrimination, and they need to process that grief.
“A lot of the time it’s just to have a peer who understands and who hears you to hold space for you,” Staklo said. “And to allow for you to be scared and vulnerable in that space without judging you.”
He said volunteers don’t put pressure on callers to feel better when the call ends.
“It’s not always possible, because people feel distressed and people feel grief and people feel pain — not because they're having a neurochemical imbalance,” he said.
HC Cristina, a psychotherapist in Brooklyn who works with trans and gender nonconforming people, particularly youth, said her clients often just feel defeated. Additional stress can result from how trans people are covered in the media, she said. Too often, trans people are only covered as victims of violence, and even then they are often deadnamed or misgendered. It makes it hard to find role models or examples of trans people thriving.
“My kids, they don’t see themselves anywhere ever,” she said.
But she does see change. Her clients crave better representation and community, and they’re not afraid to find it or make it themselves.
Cody said he has trouble finding people to look up to in traditional media and pop culture, so instead he turns to social media influencers and his own friend circle. They respond to news events by sharing, commenting, and talking on Instagram. It makes things feel better.
That method of mitigating the effects of discrimination fits into a version of the minority stress model developed for trans folks by researcher Rylan Testa. He created a measure of stress for trans people by looking at gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. His model looks at discrimination and rejection, but also at the mitigating effects of community connectedness and a sense of pride in oneself. When trans people are able to reach out and bond with people like them, it can lessen the pain caused by other stressors. Research has shown that having a supportive significant other or social group reduces suicidal ideation for trans people.
For Cody, annual Pride festivities in June are a joy to see. And back in Charlotte, this year’s Pride feels especially poignant.
Charlotte’s Black Pride will take place in July. Last year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, all events were held online, and if community is a way for trans folks to combat stress, the pandemic has taken away a vital avenue for connecting with other people. Restrictions have shuttered not just flashy parades but also in-person support groups, community center programs, LGBTQ bars, and the smaller, grassroots Pride events that LGBTQ people know as the living heart of these celebrations.
“There’s so many people that don’t have the support of their family, their friends and things like that,” said Lowery. “Pride as a whole is that time of year where we can actually be out, and feel semi-safe, because you're around other people like you that embrace you.”
This year’s events, which will be held outdoors, include a town hall on trans justice where attendees will pay tribute to Peterson and Fennell.
“We can’t afford to allow the murders of Jaida and Remy to go under the rug,” he said. “Because we don’t want that to be the new normal for Charlotte. … We’ve got to keep moving forward.” ●