I was inspired to write this blog post by an article in an online newspaper, today’s Daily Mail. It’s a UK newspaper though the main events it describes occurred this past Sunday, in Ohio. The headline reads: “Transgender teenager, 17, leaves heartbreaking suicide note blaming her Christian parents before walking in front of tractor trailer on highway.”
I’m not a suicide prevention counselor. It’s a specialized field of endeavor and I lack all such qualifications. If you’re close to the edge then probably you shouldn’t be reading this but you should be calling a suicide prevention hotline instead, and then later come back and read this.
My blog post will, I hope, help keep you far away from that dark place in the future, albeit more as a strategic solution that a tactical one.
If you’re a transgender teenager, transexual or otherwise, I hope you will remember this blog post fondly, and be able to do so for a long time.
If the people around you are less-than-supportive of your situation (or worse, they deny it or are otherwise hostile) then it’s easy to feel terminally overwhelmed, alone and embattled.
That doesn’t mean you ARE alone — but when it comes to no longer wanting to live, or dying in a way that makes a statement, then how you feel tends to influence your decision much more than what might objectively be going on.
Many transgender people, especially transexual girls, are killed by violent criminals who target them. But many deaths are self-inflicted.
Walking in front of an oncoming city bus is an unusually rude way of choosing to die. Had I thought about it, then my empathy for the bus driver and the passengers would be made me choose another way. However, that dark day in Los Angeles, when I was 23 and walking across Culver Blvd., I didn’t think about what would happen after I’d died. I didn’t care. I was non-caring in a way that didn’t ponder the aftermath and then dismiss it. I didn’t even consider it. I was just going to get hit by the bus, die and that would be that. Nothing else filled my consciousness than the basic decision: keep walking, or not.
I hadn’t planned it. I was just a transexual girl having a really difficult time. I was crossing the street anyway, and there was a bus coming. If I kept walking, I’d be fine with plenty of time to spare, as I’ve done dozens of times in the past, and the bus driver wouldn’t even be aware of what had almost happened. But that day, as I was crossing the street, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to keep walking. I could just … stop.
I didn’t feel the need to make a statement, or leave a note, or explain myself. I was just so tired, so drained, so emotionally exhausted. Instead of dismissing the thought of stopping, I considered just being done with it all. And to my shock, it was almost overwhelmingly tempting.
Such is the speed of thought during a crisis that many things are pondered rapidly in a very small slice of time. That’s why in an emergency everything feels like it’s happening in slow motion: your brain processes are that rapid. All of this happened while I was walking. I remember not even slowing down or stopping. I kept walking. But I know that I SO almost didn’t.
And so I know what it feels like to be right there, on that edge.
I’m not ashamed of it or proud of it, but maybe it gives this blog post a bit more credibility because I’m writing to people in that same sort of embattled mindset
I grew up in such a stultefyingly oppressive culture that it makes a Bible-belt US small-town culture downright wholesome by comparison. The dominant religion where I grew up, in South Africa, wasn’t just Christianity but an especially negative variant named Calvinism. The Afrikaner culture around me was obsessed with this religion, and the people were always scrutinizing and criticizing each other.
Whatever Afrikaners were doing to the rest of South Africans wasn’t pretty but what they were doing to each other, and to themselves, was arguably worse yet. If you showed even a hint of being effeminate you were pounced upon and ostracized. If you were gay then you literally went to prison. Possession of a Playboy magazine was a criminal offense.
I was a transexual teenager girl in such a culture, and as the other children were ganging up on me, I withdrew more and more. I kept to myself, and I read a lot, including about what it means to be transgender. I didn’t know for a fact that I was a transexual girl although the mountain of circumstantial evidence was already huge and growing daily.
Whatever I was, I decided, I was in an environment very hostile to my true nature. When someone who is considered officially male is seen as effeminate, this puts that person in grave danger. I consciously decided that from then on, I was going to ignore my internal issues and concentrate on, literally, surviving.
I trusted no-one, certainly not my parents. I had few friends and none of them knew. I assumed that if I told any one person, that was too much to burden that person with, because from then on my life depended on their silence. I’d do them a favor by keeping quiet. It’s easy to keep a secret. Don’t tell it to anyone, ever. Period.
And so, although I had a few high-quality friends, all younger than me, I felt very much alone.
I lived my life as a daily battle, trying to come across as macho as I could, so that the aggressors would leave me alone long enough for me to survive. Being small of stature at the time, and already having been branded as effeminate didn’t make things any easier for me.
This was before the days of safety glass, and one night I was sitting by my bedroom window studying — when a local teenager (no doubt) threw a half-brick through the window right where I was sitting. The curtain limited the damage from flying glass shards and the brick didn’t hit me, but it wasn’t a fun event for me.
One night the mob energy grew and I was running away from a pack of dozens of teenage pursuers intent on simple, crude, physical violence against me. I ran, hid, and ducked in and out of buildings. Neutral teenagers who saw me as I rushed through their living quarters warned me to be careful because there was a violent mob after me. “Believe me, I know,” I said and moved on. By the time that my pursuers finally caught up with me, they were exhausted and no longer a mob, just a crowd. One bully walked towards me, roughed me up half-heartedly and then tiredly walked away. The others just looked on. I’d survived.
It was pretty clear to me that all this hostility was aimed at focusing on a perceived-to-be-weak person (though, objectively, I was probably mentally the strongest person there). Had I come out as a transexual girl, I would probably have been dead within the next 24 hours — or worse. South Africa at the time had a policy of locking up in an insane asylum anyone who didn’t quite fit the normal pattern, and claiming I was transexual would have meant a one-way ticket to the local loony bin even if the local bullies failed to snuff me out beforehand. Unfortunately, this isn’t just a guess. Both of my parents had professions that involved working closely with the country’s mental health prison system, and so I had disconcertingly close insights into how that system functioned.
In practical terms, my everyday life as a teenager was very dangerous. Psychologically, it felt strange to be so outcast that even a sanitized front of who I was, was socially unacceptable. Knowing that the “real me” would be attacked even worse … that didn’t make for a happy childhood. Puberty came and went, and it was a mixed blessing. My body permanently changed into the shape of the gender that I’m fundamentally not, so that aspect was miserable. But, I looked less effeminate and so my chances of literal survival increased.
I knew that old sailors with craggy skin looked more rugged and masculine, so as a teenager, I laid in my parents’ back yard for hours at mid-day in the African sun without sunscreen — in the hope that it’d destroy my skin and I’d look more masculine as a result and maybe be able to survive longer by being targeted less violently. Desperate measures … and yes, I did indeed get skin cancer, later.
Psychologically, I looked wherever I could for help. I read American novels. I read American non-fiction books including Masters and Johnson. I read the Bible and immersed myself into Christianity. I read British magazines, German magazines, American magazines … and it was the American magazines and books that lifted my spirits. They taught me of a different type of culture, a shining city on a hill, where I might be safe.
So, I worked hard, developed many marketable skills, got my University degree, and left South Africa when I was 22. I went to Germany and to the UK. These cultures were both overwhelming to me and yet oddly restrictive in a different way. They were an improvement over South Africa but I wanted to see America and so I came here. I liked it a lot.
Problem is, by then I hadn’t attended to my psychological needs. Whatever I really was, the first adjective that described it for so many years was “dangerous.” So, I hid my true nature from the world, and I saw little value in exploring it psychologically.
But, ignoring my own nature didn’t change it. I ended up in a romantic relationship with another girl, with the sort of close emotional bond that is natural between two girls but unusual for a heterosexual relationship. Neither she nor I understood my true nature well enough to realize that this was really a girl-girl romance, at its core. I loved her as one girl loves another, but it wasn’t what she’d signed up for, and it bothered her. She loved me but not the way in which I loved her. We were both perplexed. She took it hard, personally. It was a difficult time.
As an unintended consequence of all this, even though I was by then in America, I didn’t like myself much. It was almost like a brave soldier who fights her way out of a POW camp and makes it physically to freedom but with enough injuries that she dies on the beach of the free country to which she managed to escape.
Hence that dark day when I was 23 and seriously considered ending it all.
It happened one more time after that, too. That was many years ago. I lived near the LA Marina Del Rey, and I owned a windsurfer and was quite skilled with it. One day, everything had become too much for me. That day, I made a more conscious decision. I was going to get onto my windsurfer and head out in the Pacific. If I decided to come back, I would. If not, then not. It was as simple as that.
And so I set up the windsurfer in the D basin of the Marina, ironically a place where much of the sport had begun many years before. I thought it poetic that this might also be a place in which to begin an ending, as it were. Through the channels of the Marina I sailed, out past the breakwater into the Pacific, way out, past Venice Beach pier …
Whoever named this ocean “Pacific” hadn’t windsurfed on it. The name doesn’t fit the size of the waves, even relatively close to shore. Wow. On a small boat, they’re scary. On a windsurfer, they’re terrifying. Anyway, with a stubbornness born of desperation, I continued sailing. And finally, my mind cleared. I decided I was going to live, dammit. I tried to turn around to head back, but the Pacific Ocean wasn’t supportive of my new plan. A large wave hit me and I fell off my windsurfer. Suddenly, ironically, my will to live was being severely tested. To stay on a windsurfer in high waves is hard. To get back on it, and to get the sail up and get underway again in such conditions … is almost impossible. Almost. But I managed it, and here I am, still alive and happy to be so.
I’ve since figured out a lot about myself, and about how transexual girls are treated in US culture. Often, even well-meaning folks do harm. An example is an article that describes a transexual girl as “having been born a boy.” Well, stop right there. I have an issue with that sort of statement. (For the reasons why, please see my other articles on this website.) My point is that even well-meaning people can cause problems.
And nice people are very much not the only types of people around. For many transexual girls, their own parents are the biggest psychological danger. For a child, her parents often seem to represent the world at large. The child is unwilling or unable to consider the possibility that perhaps her parents are just simply mistaken or worse, and their opinions really do not matter in the grand scheme of things.
I know many girls, transexual or otherwise, whose lives as adults are marred by having been preoccupied with the irrational ideas of their parents, by whose standards their daughter is a misfit. Often, the problem is with these standards, not with their daughter.
This is where my observations are at best from a distance. It’s been said that for a girl who’s sexually abused, her childhood ends on that day. She no longer thinks of the world as basically being a safe place (and rightly so). The event is so stark that there is no evading or denying that, whatever else can be concluded, the one inescapable conclusion is that the world is not a safe place for her, and to survive she had better start looking out for herself. I don’t know at what age non-abused girls reach adulthood normally. I never got to find out. At age eight or so, something was done to me (yes, THAT) and so I switched to an adult mindset on that day.
In retrospect, in a way, I’m glad it happened to me. I became very independent-minded, fiercely so. It certainly helped this little girl to survive. Starting on that very day, for example, I recall evaluating my options and consciously thinking of my stepfather or my mother as not being all that bright.
I recall observing their irrational behavior and thinking, “these people are behaving like idiots and it sucks because I’m only eight years old and yet I’m dependent on them for food and a roof over my head.” I remember that thought so vividly, even now. That’s a pretty stark, realistic thought for an eight-year old little girl to have.
Anyway, as a consequence, I was not vulnerable to my parents’ disapproval — and there was a lot of it, mostly from my stepfather, who was a mean, abusive drunk. My mother had many good traits but she also chose to be his apologist. This greatly diminished my respect for her.
My friends were not so lucky. For them, their parents’ opinions meant a lot, and even as they openly rebelled against their parent’s irrational beliefs, they found themselves also agreeing with these ideas at a deeper level, thus doing things to hurt themselves in many tragic ways, physically and otherwise.
In the process of coming out as an adult transexual girl, I became re-acquainted with irrational beliefs at close range. I found that a few of my adult friends were fundamentally unwilling to reason through the issue with me. They were simply closed to reason, on the subject. Several stopped talking to me completely, and even the more-personable ones nevertheless insisted on referring to me using male pronouns, in my presence. I finally gave up on them and they are no longer part of my life.
In trying to understand one particularly puzzling example, I found that he’s a fundamentalist Christian who belongs to an organization named Focus on the Family, and if destroying a family is their focus, then their name is well-chosen. Regardless of how astute its members might be on various other subjects, when it comes to fundamental intellectual matters, these people will not read a book or watch a movie until they have checked on the organization’s website as to whether this is approved material. When it comes to issues such as being gay or being transexual, the organization looks to its appointed guru on such matters, whose condescending and patronizing tone is the more annoying since his basic message is that these are choices made by that individual and morally bad choices besides. To make matters worse, this mindset then presumes to be able to “cure” the “diseased” with a set of conversion “therapies” that are misguided at best and fundamentally flawed at their core.
If you are a transexual teenager growing up in a culture that fundamentally embraces such irrational beliefs, it’s probably tempting to rebel against the unfairness of it all, but so much of that can be hurtful to you, and you deserve better. If you want to cuss or get a tattoo or cut yourself or get a piercing or dress like a slut or have sex or drink or smoke or do drugs then regardless of the merits of any such particular decision, there is also a common theme to all that: it’s your way of telling the adult world in general (and your parents in particular) that it’s your body and your mind, and yours to do with as you choose.
Often, the things that a teenage girl does to harm herself end up being a tacit endorsement of her parents’ worst opinions about her.
1. The first way of damaging yourself relative to your parents irrational beliefs is to adhere to them implicitly and explicitly. A friend of mine is gay and troubled about it. She is in her mid 50s and she is still not “out” because she is worried about what her parents might think. Personally, I think she’s valuing their opinion too highly.
2. The next step up from that is explicit rebellion against irrational beliefs and yet still adhering to them implicitly. This means secretly punishing yourself such as by cutting yourself or doing other self-harming things, with suicide being the most extreme of these.
3. The next step up is where you reject these ideas and oppose them at every level of your being.
At this step or the one before it, please understand that your trust in reason won’t work with unreasonable people. Be clear as to your own logic and get it flawless, but once you’ve reached that stage, then if you can’t convince your parents or church, then that is no reflection on the quality of your ideas or your presentation. It just means that they’re not open to reason. Some people just aren’t. I mean this nicely, but: get over it. Don’t waste any more time on them. Think of all the energy you’ve wasted arguing with your parents and being infuriated because they won’t listen to reason.
As a logic check, parents’ arguments can sometimes be valuable. They’re not always mistaken. They certainly have a broader adult-based perspective on the world than you do. For example, the reason I’m now an atheist is because of an argument that I, as a devout teenage Christian, lost with my atheistic biological father.
However, you’re probably giving most parents an undeserved compliment if you think everyone can be won over with reason. In the long run, reason makes the world a better place. But it rarely changes parents’ minds to see things as their teenage daughter does, even if she’s in the right.
4. The final step is where you reject these ideas as you reject all irrationality, and your parents’ irrational beliefs are just one more flavor thereof — and not even worth getting disproportionately upset about. You live a happy, rational life, surrounded by fair, benevolent, rational people, and how you got here hardly matters except perhaps as an inspiration to others.
However, to reap the benefits of a long-range perspective, you have to survive the short-term. So, here are some ..
Short-term psychological survival tips for transexual teenage girls:
As a transexual girl, it’s good to have a solid grasp on the facts. Yes, you’re a genetic anomaly, like a black panther or a four-leaf clover. You have a female brain structure and male-shaped body parts ‘down there.’ You can be sad about it or happy about it, but it is what it is, and life goes on. It doesn’t mean you’re any less sane that those around you. It doesn’t mean you’re sick and need to be healed. There’s no cure because it isn’t a disease.
And being gay or straight or bi is a totally separate issue yet.
Some people will be mean with you based on how you were born, and your main defense might be to hide it from them until you’re away from them, but that makes such people very simply and clearly unfair. They are the problem. They — not you.
If you’re in a small town, travel as much as you can. Visit relatives in big cities. See the world. See how large the alternative cultures of the world are compared to stilted small-town thinking.
Religion tends to be the intellectual nucleus of your adversary, so consider if you’re making things safer by embracing or endorsing religion. Read about religion and the critiques of it. Think critically — for your own intended benefit.
When you can’t travel physically, travel intellectually. Watch shows that champion rational values. Read books. Read magazines. Read websites. Chat with like-minded people online.
Be open-minded but careful. It’s a wonderful world but also dangerous.
Accept that you’re different and that it’s OK, possibly much more than OK. Watch the X-men movies and learn how being genetically different is OK, and quite possibly much better than OK.
Get used to the idea that you are a woman. Find and watch movies about strong women, about dreaming of better things and achieving them.
I hope you live a long and happy life. I have. You deserve no less.