OPINION

Paris Lees: The media is obsessed with trans people – until we kill ourselves 

Paris Lees (Photo: Getty Images)

While the media debate trivial transgender toilet etiquette, children are quietly dying. Paris Lees on why, from now on, she’ll only talk about suicide when it comes to trans issues

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By Paris Lees on

Almost half of transgender school pupils in the UK have attempted suicide. Not “thought about”. Attempted. Thousands of children, their whole lives ahead of them, coming to the same, sad conclusion that so many of my long-lost friends in the trans community came to as adults, too: that life is not worth living. One in nine of those pupils has received death threats. Eight out of ten young trans people have self-harmed. Again – say it with me – 45 per cent of trans pupils, at schools up and down this country, have attempted to take their own lives. And – while the trans community is very much in the media spotlight, and futile debates over bathroom etiquette dominate national headlines and radio airtime, and trans people are chastised for the “inconvenience” we are causing everyone else, simply by existing – when it comes to children trying to fucking kill themselves, everyone falls into deathly silence.  

On Monday I was invited to speak on BBC Radio Five Live to discuss the government’s plans to make the legal process of changing gender a little bit less difficult. Currently, as well as a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, the person applying must provide evidence that they have been in transition for at least two years, and are subject to an intrusive process to “prove” they are who they say they are. My best friend had to show her GP her private parts to get him to sign a letter saying she was officially a woman.

And so it began. I received a phone call from a (very sweet) producer who isn’t trans and whom the legislation does not affect. I arrive at broadcasting house and am signed in at reception by receptionists who, as far as I can tell, are also not trans and whom the legislation doesn’t affect. I’m taken upstairs by another producer who isn’t, as far as I know – and I’m assuming he’d have said if he was – trans and for whom life would be exactly the  same before and after any legislation came into effect. I’m taken into a studio and the discussion starts between me and Mary Douglas, a member of activist group Grassroots Conservatives – whom, yes, you’ve guessed it – isn’t trans and the legislation doesn’t affect, chaired by a presenter who is also not trans and… you get the rest. This is my job.

I absorbed these same cultural messages – that we shouldn’t be who we are, or do what we do; that being “queer” is a “problem”, not an identity – as a child

I got angry. Like 69 million other people in Britain, Douglas had an opinion. Over the past few days, she has been using her opinion to misinform the British public from a series of high-profile platforms. She told listeners that the newly proposed legislation could make it easier for men to walk into places like women’s changing rooms. That was the crux of the debate. Never mind that her assertion was factually incorrect – there are currently no laws whatsoever about who can walk into what changing room, so these changes won’t make a blind bit of difference to that. Frankly, she didn’t have a clue what she was going on about. Why are media outlets giving these people a megaphone?

Now, it seems, many people seem to have so much to say about the government’s proposals – but, oh, how times change! Back in 2004, when the Gender Recognition Act was passed – allowing trans people to legally change our gender – it was barely mentioned in the press. No radio shows. No front pages. No endless comment pieces. Yet 13 years on, in 2017, the wider public is finally aware that trans people exist. It’s starting to dawn on people that they might even be sat next to one of us on the bus. And what a double-edged sword this newfound awareness has been.

The fact is, hundreds of thousands of trans people have been quietly living their lives in peace for decades without causing anyone any problems whatsoever. Not exactly a Daily Mail headline, is it? But it’s the rather boring truth. However, suddenly, our existence is causing an inconvenience to everyone else – the “normal” people who aren’t trans. I’ve seen it all before, growing up trans. I absorbed these same cultural messages – that we shouldn’t be who we are, or do what we do; that being “queer” is a “problem”, not an identity – as a child. They are the same messages causing trans kids today to feel that it might be best to end their “inconvenient” existence altogether. And while some of the discussion seems openly hostile, I’m not sure that all of the people forcing their rude, ill-informed and often completely unnecessary opinions about the trans community are aware of the damage they are causing.

Yet, any time we make any progress to make life a little bit less difficult for trans people, you can guarantee that someone, somewhere, will pop up to rain on our parade with some ridiculous concern about “what if”. Like that time MP Caroline Flint used the very first debate in parliament on trans equality to complain about her fears that men might start using women’s toilets. I wouldn’t mind if these people’s fears were based on any kind of evidence, but we don’t know what small impact on public bathroom culture, if any at all, legislation to help trans people would have on the rest of the population. (I am quite certain: none.)

 

Because no one appears to want to talk about it, I’m only going to talk about trans suicide and attempted suicide – and who and what is causing it – from now on

 

There are things we do know for sure, though: that study after study shows trans people face family rejection, bullying at school, discrimination in the workplace and abuse and violence on the streets. We are more likely to suffer from depression, more likely to kill ourselves, and more likely to be murdered. These are the facts.

We also know what supporting trans kids looks like. I recently met a 16-year-old trans girl called Ceira. She's supported by her friends, family and school. She's happy, healthy and looking forward to her life. Why shouldn't she be? Ceira is an indisputable example of how supporting kids means they will grow up and prosper. Deny them that support and study after study shows they go into decline.

But instead of tackling these grave issues, the conversation remains firmly on toilet chatter, and pointlessly rude articles declaring that trans women are not real women. The Sunday Times afforded Jenni Murray four pages to discuss just that, over which she picked apart one imperfect study to cast doubt on the fact that trans people are vulnerable – something which is verified by various studies around the world. Time and time again, the trans debate, as played out by non-trans writers, addresses the suicide rate among young trans people only to undermine research, or to tell people to keep quiet about it. And I’ve had enough.

Yesterday I decided that from now on I will talk about the suicide rate in everything I write about trans people from now on or indeed any discussions I get invited to do on TV or radio. Because, while these discussions take centre stage, children are quietly dying.

Worse, we don’t even know how many trans people have killed themselves, precisely because of the stigma being perpetuated by these attitudes – many are still in the closet. Until we have a proper and responsible conversation about what is causing this and who, and what we can do about it, as far as I’m concerned, you can take your “debates” about trivial nonsense and shove them up your arse.

Because no one else appears to want to talk about trans suicide and attempted suicide – and who and what is causing it – I'm going to talk about it at every opportunity. I will talk about it, and I will talk about it. Till I’m blue in the face. Till the whole of Britain is sick of hearing about it. I will talk about the trans suicide rate, and who and what is causing it until, in hope, we won’t have to any more. I will talk about it until innocent, desperate children, who happen to be trans, no longer feel like they want to end their own lives.

If, in the meantime, you would like to do something to help these kids and make a big impact on their lives, check out two wonderful charities – Mermaids and Gendered Intelligence – who are doing great work against this backdrop of ignorance, hostility and scarce funds.

@parislees

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Paris Lees (Photo: Getty Images)
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