It does not take long while being transgender on the internet to experience someone suggesting that 41% of transgender people die by suicide. This is often mentioned as a means of arguing that being transgender should be disencouraged. Here’s why they’re wrong.
This article is (sort of) a rewrite of an older piece I wrote for Medium in 2018. In that piece I addressed the article to Ben Shapiro who helped popularise this rhetoric and used the figure as part of his anti-trans talking points. I won’t be doing that in this piece, but it is probably worth mentioning he – and other talking heads like him – are the reason this rhetoric has persisted so long.
I wrote the original piece before I’d really had any contact with trans suicide myself. Four years on and sadly that’s changed an awful lot. I still remember crying my eyes out writing about suicides by trans-questioning youth, something which I felt obliged to do due to the obscenely poor media coverage and subsequent transphobia that followed. I also remember all of the friends I’ve lost since then too – people I’d never met in person but who I truly loved and cared for.
So I hope its a lot more impactful when I tell you; the 41% figure is not one of doom and gloom, its one of hope, beauty and survival. Let me explain.
So the way the figure is used is some transphobic person will say something like “41% of transgender people commit suicide” and therefore as a society we should work to disencourage people from being transgender. This is a bad argument from the get-go since it does absolutely nothing to prove any kind of causal link between being transgender and a death by suicide.
This is important for the transphobic worldview because if, for example, transgender people experience a higher risk of suicide because of the way we are treated rather than anything inherent to being transgender itself. Then it puts the ball in the court of those who seemed so concerned by suicidality amongst transgender people to treat us better – something they very clearly do not want to do.
To find out one way or another the first step is to gather data. The 41% figure comes from a survey of transgender and gender non-conforming people in the US from 2014. Funded by the American Society for Suicide Prevention and carried out by The Williams Institute, the survey is the original untainted source of the subsequent 8 years of disinformation laid on top of it.
The survey essentially asks transgender people whether they have attempted suicide or not and then also asks a bunch of other questions such as “have you ever had to perform sexual favours for a place to stay?” It plots these two against each other which then tells you which social factors are likely to increase the risk of having attempted suicide.
The study overwhelmingly found that negative things happening to transgender people, such as not having access to healthcare, housing, being discriminated against, facing violence and rejection made it more likely that someone had attempted suicide. This is important because it shows that it isn’t a flat rate of suicidality, and the transphobic worldview is wrong. We shouldn’t be discouraging people from being transgender, we should just be treating them better when they are.
But we aren’t done with this study just yet, because you may not have caught that slight language change when quoting the study. The “41% of transgender people die by suicide” has changed to “41% of transgender people have attempted suicide”. That’s because this survey is and always was about attempted suicides and also, it’s a survey not an ouija board. They didn’t conduct a seance, they asked living breathing human beings to give their experiences.
Every single one of the transgender people mentioned in the “41%” figure are survivors, at least as of 2014 when the survey was conducted. What’s more, the remaining 59% never attempted suicide at all!
Studies have also shown over and over that just not treating trans people badly is all you need to do for us to have mental health out comes as good as anyone else. In one study about trans youth it actually showed that they had markedly better mental health out comes than their cisgender counterparts.
The way the “41%” figure is used by transphobes is an attempt to beat us down even further than they already do. But its just not what the data says. The data says that suicide isn’t the inevitable out come of a transgender life, that you can and should fight for your survival because there is a light at the end of the tunnel and one day you will be free.