Transgender people are often portrayed as having sad lives, needing of pity and as having poor mental health. In this blog post I am attempting to problematise the pity that is afforded to trans people and to suggest the importance of highlighting recovery in trans narratives.
One of the first times I was made aware that trans people exist was during an A Level Psychology class. There’s a module on the A Level psychology syllabus where students are required to study the “phenomenon” of transgender people. This module is optional – for the college that is, not for the students. I had a good teacher for psychology, one who worked out that giving me copies of Psychology Today to read would stop me from distracting other students. However, she peppered her teaching of this particular module with comments such as ‘Isn’t it so sad?’ or ‘These poor people’. I was introduced to the concept of trans people as an unfortunate circumstance.
The pity my teacher displayed for transgender people was not something I’d seen in her teaching of the other modules. She had little concern for Skinner’s rats, shocked at random whilst attempting to find food, or for the people who were found to be genetically susceptible to addiction. I noticed that not everyone we studied was treated in the way transgender people were. For instance, we were taught that in some cultures people who would be diagnosed with schizophrenia are viewed as being gifted, rather than stigmatised. What we focused on with transgender people were the possible causes, coupled with some emotional-music-laden reality-TV style documentaries that the college had on DVD.
Why was it then, that we were only hearing about transgender people as a sad story in an otherwise balanced syllabus? This trend also appears in a lot of media about trans people. This is possibly because somewhere around 84% of transgender people have considered suicide. This is an old, well-known and often used statistic that was re-reported last year in the Huffington post as one of the ‘shocking facts’ about transgender life in Britain. These facts are displayed placed over smiling photos of some of the most successful transgender people in the UK..
The 84% statistic is supported by pretty much every study you’ll be able to find that records suicidal intent in transgender people. What is often left out is that after transition, only 3% report suicidal intention, a number that is in fact lower than the general population (see this trans mental health study and this suicidal behaviour study for more info – both links are PDFs). This is the same population that is a high risk group for other factors which can lead to suicidal intent. This statistic suggests an exceptional recovery rate in people who the odds are significantly stacked against. The statistics that are used to elicit pity are often ones that are only representative of pre-transition transgender people, and not a full picture of the resilience and brilliance of the transgender community.
This plays into the narrative that something must be done to help transgender people. What this, and my psychology teacher, is inadvertently doing was presenting the entire transgender population as people who need to be pitied, liberated and rescued – from themselves and their destructive inner thoughts. The reality is that transgender people are failed on many levels: social stigma and medical neglect are routine experiences for trans people. This is a community that is being failed and not one that should be pitied by the same people who benefit from the systems that put transgender people down. It isn’t sad that transgender people exist, and despite people’s assumptions, a transgender life is not automatically a sad life. We need less pity and more stories about recovery. When we talk about trans narratives in terms of only negatives, young trans people are being told they cannot recover from things like mental health problems and suicidal intent. In actuality, generations of transgender people have been and continue to be recovering, surviving and thriving.
Jesse Ashman currently works in mental health. He has a Master’s degree in Sexual Dissidence and an undergraduate degree in English Literature. Jesse has been a freelance writer, illustrator and designer for Gendered Intelligence as well as being a involved in our Speakers Programme.