By Gwendolyn Ann Smith
A transgender woman, distraught with her life, walked out onto a U.S. Highway to take her life. She was struck by a truck and killed. She left behind a suicide note.
You may have immediately thought of Leelah Alcorn, who did this very same thing at the end of 2014. Alcorn, as you may recall, was raised in a strict conservative Christian household, and had been send to a conversion therapy program. Later, her parents removed her from school and restricted her social media contact. She committed suicide on Interstate 71, after leaving an impassioned note.
“My death needs to mean something,” said Alcorn. “My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say, ‘That’s fucked up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
But my first paragraph was not about Alcorn, but Ashley Hallstrom. She took her life in mid-October, stepping in front of a dump truck on Interstate 89/91. She too left a letter that echoed Alcorn’s note.
“I believe my last words can help make the change that society needs to make so that one day there will be no others like me,” said Hallstrom. “Please help make this change because trans people are everywhere. You may never know who you’re hurting until it’s too late. Please help fix society.”
Hallstrom is not the only transgender suicide in recent days. Gabriel Tinto was found dead a few days after she complained to her school about bullying around her gender identity. Cristan Williams also reported on her eponymous blog of two others, Viv and Sarah, who also took their lives in the last week or so. Two weeks ago, as well, 14-year-old Kyler Prescott took his life after staff at a clinic repeatedly misgendered him while seeking care.
In the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, it was show that 41 percent of transgender people attempt to take their own lives. In comparison, the National average stands at 4.6 percent, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The NTDS showed that those who faced discrimination in other areas were even more likely to commit suicide, but that has not stopped right-wing and anti-trans commentators to claim that being transgender itself is what causes this high rate, implying that it is therefore better to ignore transgender identities overall.
That is nonsense, and one need look no further than those listed above.
Not a one blamed their own transgender identity so much for them taking their own lives as they blamed the society around them and the myriad of things that harmed them, hurt them and kept them down.
We live in a society that is seeing positive steps for transgender people, including some incredible Obama-era policies that benefit transgender people, as well as an overall increase in positive visibility for transgender people. At the same time, we’re seeing a huge backlash that is eroding these same rights, and is creating quite a lot of negativity towards transgender people overall.
While we have sterling role models like Laverne Cox, we also have the proponents of bills like North Carolina’s House Bill 2 that are painting transwomen as male sexual deviants out to harm other women in restrooms. All this scaremongering is not only harming us directly, but is also contributing to an environment toxic to trans people overall.
All of this toxicity has contributed to 23 or so anti-trans murders just in 2016 to date, topping last year’s record number of anti-trans murders. Violence against us is rampant, as are other forms of discrimination.
Meanwhile, we have a presidential candidate who, amongst other things, wants to roll back the many protections we have gained in the last eight years and install Supreme Court Justices that will further erode trans rights.
I look at all we have to face in this society and, much like Hallstron or Alcorn, I find myself wondering how we can even survive — let alone thrive — in such a world. Should any of us be surprised when Ashley Hallstrom, or Viv, or Sarah, or so many others take their lives?
One of my personal heroes is Harvey Milk. Like him, I believe in giving people hope. Hope is what keeps me fighting, even in my darkest times. We’ve got to have hope, but it’s getting damned hard in 2016 to keep that hope burning. I find I can’t fault those who have felt the need to check out early.
So how do things “get better,” and how do we fix this society? In the wake of all this horrible-ness directed at trans people — as well as the rampant racism, sexism, xenophobia, and more currently polluting the air — is it even possibly to make it better? How do we improve this world, in the wake of all this anti-trans bias and hatred? How do we push back?
It’s the hippie in me: I want a world that will embrace trans people as just another wonderful part of human diversity, and will allow us the space and freedom to be all we can be. I want the trans movement to be a movement of joy, of laughter and of music. I want this to be a harmony of voices, as my friend Lauren Wilson said more than two decades ago. She said that just months before taking her life, for all the same reasons as Alcorn and Hallstrom.
Are we resigned for yet more trans people taking their own lonely walk out onto the highways — or will we fix this world?