For the longest time, you were more likely to know a trans person because they had died than lived. The names of dead trans women, men, and enbys have hung in the air for my entire adult life. People like Venus Xtravaganza, Brandon Teena, and Islan Nettles have been a part of my community’s history: a reminder of what this society does to people that go against the grain.
These people deserve to be remembered — I am thankful to know their names, even though it's painful — but there is something that has always bothered me about how we use their names as a shield against attack. We point to these people who our anti-queer society has harmed as an argument for our own autonomy. “You hurt us,” I hear us say. “Acknowledge our pain.”
And as the years progressed, I have found it frustrating that queer pain is the first and sometimes last line of defense against those who hurt us.
My most popular article on Medium is titled Dear Ted Cruz: I Do Regret My Transition. It’s a direct letter to Senator Ted Cruz, about how harmful his anti-transness is to my community and to me specifically. I get very personal about how, for years, anti-trans rhetoric stunted my personal growth and contributed to suicidal ideation.
In many ways, the article is a microcosm of what I have seen throughout the years, where trans pain is the opening salvo in the war for our rights. If you have followed this discourse (and given that we exist during an anti-LGBTQ+ moral panic, I’ll wager that the likelihood you have is high), then the trend of trans suicides has probably come up. The argument, and reality, is that anti-trans rhetoric and legislation are terrible for trans peoples’ mental health, and contribute to suicidal ideation and, well, suicides.
There has been an almost clinical approach to the defense of trans adults and youth. Studies are trotted out that show that when our identities are affirmed, our mental health improves (see this somewhat limited meta study here), and when they are not, it deteriorates (see another limited study here).
As Carrie Davis (she/her), Chief Community Officer at The Trevor Project said of a recent survey the group did of almost 34,000 Trans youths across the country:
…“these findings underscore the disparities in access to mental health care and systems of support among LGBTQ youth, a group consistently found to be at significantly increased risk for suicide due to the anti-LGBTQ victimization they face, and how they are mistreated in society at large.”
This same argument is made against “conversion therapy”; the practice of trying to remove someone's queer orientation or gender identity using pseudo-scientific or religious practices. When a child is forced to suppress their sexuality or gender because of the wishes of their family and community, it’s detrimental to their mental health.
And it’s primarily this argument about health that we use to combat the latest anti-queer panic. Many of the articles and debates we see right now are about whether discriminating against a particular group makes their mental health worse: this medico-scientific framing is at the forefront of a lot of discourse.
A few trans activists have questioned this overreliance on the medical community. Quite a few psychologists and psychiatrists have historically been very discriminatory towards the queer community, and this has led to a lot of tensions, even among LGBTQ+ people themselves.
For example, the argument between “trans-medicalists” (those who believe that only trans people with diagnosed gender dysphoria are valid) and everyone else in the trans community is caused by friction over whether the medical community should be the ultimate arbiter when it comes to accessing gender-affirming care.
It’s argued by some that this emphasis on needing validation from medical professionals to be considered trans has led to pathologization and gatekeeping. Many within the medical community (and outside of it) are now actively campaigning for an informed-consent model that tries to lessen the input such practitioners have in denying trans people access to care.
As Henri Feola argues in Scientific American:
"The gatekeeping endorsed by WPATH and other institutions is a product of attempting to fit the infinite array of human gender diversity into a convenient box. It pathologizes trans people and dismisses our suffering and our survival. It punishes us for our anger, our hurt, and our coping mechanisms, and refuses to listen when we say we know what we need."
I believe that the suicide debate in the trans community should be seen through this lens of autonomy. Even if the medical community had always been a beacon of progressivism, the overreliance on trans pain as our primary argument would still make me uncomfortable because it relies on our pain being seen by medical professionals (as well as everyone else) for our autonomy to be recognized.
Ultimately, my argument comes down to the following: I shouldn’t have to be suicidal, and I certainly shouldn’t have to broadcast it, for people to develop empathy for the fact that my autonomy, as well as the autonomy of my queer comrades, is being stripped away.
At the core of the matter, I should have rights because I am a person. We are a society that believes people are entitled to do things to their bodies, and by arguing against that, you are arguing against my personhood (see also: abortion rights).
There is nothing else to be argued or debated; you either respect bodily autonomy or you do not.
Even if transitioning is harmful (and it isn’t), we let people do harmful things to themselves all the time. Excessive alcohol consumption can at the higher end, shave years off your life. Modern video games have gambling mechanics that prey on addictive personalities, and we put those in the hands of children. Most contemporary social media was built from the ground up to build internal triggers so that you are compulsively addicted to it. Autonomy means that you forfeit the right to stop people from doing harmful things to their own bodies.
And it must be emphasized that transitioning is essentially not harmful. Most people do not even engage in medical transition (such as the use of hormones or surgeries). They change their pronouns and gender presentation (the clothing, spaces, and mannerisms attached to their gender). These changes have no cost, other than how other people might treat the individual. By pushing against those changes, you rob people of their autonomy and deny them freedom.
Those that do rely on hormones and surgeries (which, by the way, are vastly different things) find that these interventions have negligible drawbacks, if any at all, when administered safely.
I use hormones legally, and my endocrinologist requires routine bloodwork. I am probably more in touch with my bodily health than most people, and that sense of safety goes away if I have to get hormones “under the table” without that regular monitoring. Yet regardless of the perceived harm, it's still my choice to do this, and I find it hypocritical that the Republication Party, the supposed “Party of Freedom,” would paternalistically stop me from exercising said freedom.
Some will argue that children do not have rights to their own autonomy. That parents have a right to deny their children the free expression of their identities. These are people who loudly proclaim that their children will have the gender expression and orientation that they choose.
And to that, I say, being abusive to your own children is not the trump card you thinks it is. Parents deny autonomy to their children initially because the child lacks the basic faculties to do things such as walking, eating, decision-making and reasoning. You make decisions for your infant child because they cannot do so rationally. In this sense, a young child’s lack of autonomy, and absolute parental authority, are justified.
However, as children develop more personhood, being a good parent means ceding them more autonomy. If your child expresses an action related to their body, and it isn’t harmful (and again, transitioning isn’t, except in a minority of edge cases), then denying them that freedom is abusive.
I’m not interested in going back and forth with someone who does not realize the fundamental fact that being a good parent means learning to let go. That is what we all must do in the end: you either learn to see people as people who can make their own damn choices, or you hold on ever tighter, trying in vain to control the actions of others.
A Declaration of Freedom
I do not want another decade of trans pain. I do not want to argue over statistics and queer deaths. I regret engaging in the tedious online fights over biology and definitions of gender. I regret being open and vulnerable, only for miserable people to discredit my pain.
It’s a fight which relies on the oppressors recognizing the suffering of those they harm, and it's not one I am convinced is very effective.
Hate activists, such as Matt Walsh, routinely call trans people “selfish” for having suicidal thoughts. At best, this argument about suicidal ideation has given us tenuous acceptance, dependent on the medical community’s current understanding of the science; at worse, we are performing for people who nonetheless shut their ears and close their hearts to our suffering.
We can go around in circles disproving what these people believe (I know I have), but this back-and-forth leads to debates that are, ultimately, beside the point.
Queer people deserve rights because we are people and we are entitled to liberty and freedom: we should have autonomy over our own bodies, even if it makes others uncomfortable.
About the Creator
I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.