Survey: More than half of transgender bullying victims have attempted suicide

by Shaun Knittel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday October 21, 2010

A new survey indicates more than half of transgender and gender non-conforming people who were bullied, harassed or assaulted in school have attempted suicide.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality conducted the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. And the results are particularly alarming, in light of the spate of recent LGBT teenage suicides.

"From our experience working with transgender people, we had prepared ourselves for high rates of suicide attempts, but we didn't expect anything like this," said NCTE executive director Mara Keisling. "Our study participants reported attempting suicide at a rate more than 25 times the national average."

Forty-one percent of respondents reported they had attempted suicide, compared with an estimated 1.6 percent of Americans.

"These shocking and disheartening numbers speak to the urgency of ending bullying in our nation's schools and ending discrimination in our nation's workplaces," said NGLTF executive director Rea Carey. "We know from the recent rash of suicides among young people who have been bullied just how critical it is that we act now and act decisively to save lives."

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey is the most extensive survey of trans discrimination ever done. It includes responses from more than 6,400 people from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Among those who had been bullied, harassed or assaulted while they were in school, half reported having attempted suicide. Most notably, suicide attempt rates rise dramatically when teachers were the reported perpetrators: 59 percent of those harassed or bullied by teachers, 76 percent among those who were physically assaulted by teachers and 69 percent among those who were sexually assaulted.

Of those who reported they had to "leave school because the harassment was so bad," 68 percent said they attempted suicide. Sixty-one percent of respondents who expressed a trans identity or gender non-conformity while in school reported significant abuses in educational settings. From elementary through graduate school, the survey showed high levels of harassment and bullying (59 percent,) physical assault (23 percent,) sexual assault (8 percent) and expulsion from school (5 percent,) all on the basis of gender identity or expression.

Other findings include 35 percent of the participants who had been bullied, harassed, assaulted or expelled because of their gender identity or expression while in school said they used drugs or alcohol to cope with the effects, compared to 21 percent of those who had not had similar experiences in school; 25 percent reported they were currently or formerly homeless, compared to 14 percent of those who did not report mistreatment in schools; and those who reported they had to "leave school because the harassment was so bad," had an HIV infection rate of more than 5 percent, which is more than eight times the HIV infection rate for the general population.

Marsha Botzer, a Seattle-based trans activist and founder of the Ingersoll Gender Center, praised both the Task Force and the NCTE for undertaking the survey.

"This powerful survey of discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming people is a terrific example of how the Task Force really does use its talent and resources to make change in our world," she said. "I'll be carrying copies of this into every legislative and policy meeting from now on!"

Botzer, who served as co-chair of the Task Force's Board of Directors, added she has seen "the destructive reality of transphobia and discrimination up close and in real lives." She said the survey finally puts a face to this problem.

"We know it happens, we see it, we fight against it, and yet without big-picture numbers and solid research the struggle is ten times harder," added Botzer. "That's why this Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality report is so important - it truly will change lives for the better."

Seattle: a case study for a trans-positive city

According to Ingersoll Gender Center officials, Greater Seattle's trans population is well in excess of 3,000 people. This figure puts Seattle has the city with the second highest concentration in the country after San Francisco.

"The size of the trans community in Seattle is a function of the positive environment here," said Breanna Anderson, co-president of Ingersoll Gender Center. "The positive environment here has multiple components. Seattle is generally progressive with a laid-back culture. In addition, we have a strong and progressive queer community."

She stressed trans Seattle residents have integrated themselves into the city's lesbian and gay communities.

"We were one of the first communities to officially integrate bisexual and transgender into the official titles and charters of many of our now LGBT organizations and institutions," said Anderson. "I believe that this is a direct result of the investment and commitment of key leaders in the trans community being invested and involved in larger LGBT activism and concerns. This common cause has ensured that transfolk have generally been embraced and included in the progressive legal and social causes that have benefited our community in general."

From June 2006 to June 2007, Ingersoll conducted "Perspectives Northwest," a needs assessment and community survey. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said their income is less than $20,000 a year, 41.5 percent reported employment discrimination based on gender identity and expression, 14.7 percent of respondents said they became homeless or lost housing and 30 percent said they are hate crimes victims-with 65 percent of respondents believing their gender identity or expression led to their victimization.

"I would cautiously characterize the climate for transgender persons living and working in Seattle as very good and progressively getting better, as a result of persistent and focused efforts to make it so," said Anderson. "I want to be cautious in making that statement because the experience of transfolk in Seattle, as anywhere, is extremely personal and highly varied. Depending on personal circumstances such as personal opportunity, race, ethnicity and family environment, individuals may experience a wonderful acceptance support and low levels of personal discrimination or tremendous personal, emotional and economic distress."

The big question, of course, is what to do about the continued discrimination, harassment, violence, and more subtle social suppression that continues in Seattle and across the region.

Anderson said she believes education and visibility, legal protections and good social policies with solid enforcement and integration into support systems in schools, health, social services, and employment programs are key.

"Visibility and personal familiarity has been a critical factor in improving the social acceptance and personal experience of gay and Lesbian people," she said. "We absolutely see that the same principle applies to transgender people."

Anderson said that while legal protections don't change minds, "they send important signals and provide tools for handling the most difficult cases of discrimination."

"Integration of transgender issues and concerns specifically through involvement of transfolk in education, social services, employment, and health care can have tremendous tangible benefits in making lives healthy and productive," she said.

Despite the work that still needs to be done, Anderson said the greater Seattle area, particularly the city of Seattle, is an amazing place to live and thrive as a trans person. "Seattle is a major magnet for transfolk from across the country and the world for that matter," she said. "Our institutions are some of the strongest and our culture one of the most inclusive that I know."

While trans-specific movement at the federal level remains elusive, Anderson said increased visibility; community building; collaborating with like-minded groups and integration; among other things, will spur further progress.

"Though this is a major metropolitan area, our community is still generally best served by making existing institutions more inclusive and supportive of the needs of transfolk rather than building trans-specific stand alone services and organizations," she said.

Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News.