Trigger warning: this article contains references to suicide.
This has been a tough year for trans people in the UK. February saw the brutal murder of 16-year-old Brianna Ghey in a park near her home in Warrington. In September, 20-year-old Brighton woman Alice Litman died by suicide after waiting over 1,000 days for a first appointment with the NHS Gender Identity Development Service. And that same month saw 14-year-old Corei Hall died in similar circumstances after enduring relentless transphobic bullying. When she posted about his passing on social media, his mother, Rita Williams, was subjected to bullying herself.
Trans community in crisis
Since 2017, a steady stream of hostile, frequently misleading articles in the media has seen a general public that largely knew nothing about trans people but tended to ignore them turn into one which, in significant part, still knows nothing about them but is convinced they are dangerous. Over the same period, recorded hate crimes committed against trans people have increased by 186%. With many trans people no longer bothering to report transphobic abuse because it happens to them so often, the real figure is probably much higher.
Given these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that trans people face a risk of suicidality which is many times higher than that in the general population. This can be aggravated by other factors like isolation, and when people are afraid to come out, the reasons for their deaths may never come to light. Whilst struggling to counter the negative perceptions of outsiders, the trans community has also been struggling to support its own. The events being held around the world to remember the dead this Transgender Day of Remembrance will get public attention. Less noticeable are the day-to-day conversations which have become routine for many people trying to talk each other into staying alive.
Changing the narrative on trans people
It doesn’t have to be like this. Trans people are currently a political football, an easy target for cultural warriors who exploit people’s fear of what they don’t understand to create division. Where we have seen the anti-trans movement gain ground in countries like the US, Hungary and Poland, attacks on the rights on lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and on women’s rights, have soon followed, along with other regressive measures like the banning of books. But what if we made different choices?
Many trans people are now hopeful that, with the Conservative government apparently on its last legs, that will happen soon – but it will need some political courage from Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. The first and most obvious course of action is to stop actively making trans people’s lives harder by rolling back established rights. This would provide some breathing space for those most affected. Then there are other, positive actions which the government could take.
Addressing the prejudice
Nobody should have to wait 1,000 days for an NHS appointment. In fact, some waiting lists are currently as long as five years, when the NHS has pledged to try to see all patients within a maximum of 18 weeks. This is a problem which could be solved by increased funding and visa provision to help clinics recruit suitably trained professionals from overseas.
Nobody should have to endure chronic bullying at school, for any reason. Again, funding – along with proper training and support for teachers – is needed to clamp down on this. Parents also need support to help them respond to children who begin questioning their gender. Studies show that simply being accepted at home can dramatically reduce the risk of suicide. There is nothing irreversible about this. Changing names, pronouns, clothing and haircuts shouldn’t be a big deal. It’s just a matter of giving young people room to explore and figure out what’s right for them.
Other organisations also have a role to play. The scale of bullying on social media – much of it targeted at young people – is horrific. Most of this is already in breach of the rules of the platforms concerned, but is ignored – a problem which is also affecting other vulnerable groups in society. Where it breaches UK law, action needs to be taken to deal with this.
Everyone can make a difference
What about everybody else? If you’re worried about what’s happening to trans people, you don’t just have to sit and wring your hands. You can report malicious posts on social media and send messages of support to people targeted by them. You can keep an eye out for trans friends and neighbours and report things like vandalism and verbal abuse when you witness them. In some cases, just being available as a shoulder to cry on, or escorting somebody to the shops and back if they feel unsafe to go on their own, can make an enormous difference.
Attacks on trans people – verbal, physical and political – happen because of the erroneous belief that most people think they’re justified. Every individual who speaks up helps to change this. If you’re worried about putting yourself in the firing line, you can still do things like signing petitions, writing to your MP, or even just offering a sympathetic smile to somebody who seems to need it. Trans people will notice and it will help to give them hope. It will help them to stay alive, and help us all to move towards a better future.
If you are affected by the issues raised in this article and need support in any way, please contact one of the following organisations: