Trump’s Trans Attacks Are Exhausting. But He Won’t Erase Us.
The Trump administration’s desire to erase trans identities has been revealed. In response, trans people, like the author, feel under attack but also stronger together.
Transgender people are tired. I am tired.
Most days after work, I walk by the water. From my favorite overlook, you can watch the cargo ships pass each other under the spotlight of the setting sun.
On Monday, though, my specific corner of the Pacific Northwest was blanketed in fog, obscuring the view. The only evidence my cargo ships were still there was the sound of their foghorns, bleating intermittently through the gray.
Standing in that spot, staring into the seeming nothingness, I cried from the exhaustion of the last two years spent living under—and reporting on—the Trump administration’s anti-transgender actions, the latest of which being a new memo from the Department of Health and Human Services that would define “sex” as “immutable,” and defined by one’s “birth certificate, as originally issued.”
And as the dew on the grass soaked through my sneakers into my socks, I pulled out my phone and did something I had never pictured myself doing: I called Trans Lifeline, not as a journalist, but as a transgender woman who is hurting more than she often feels comfortable publicly disclosing that she is hurting.
“How are you doing?” the voice on the other side asked me.
“I just need to hear another trans person’s voice right now,” I said.
“Well, you got one.”
That same day, TransLifeline—a crisis support number for transgender people—shared that they had received twice their usual number of first-time callers and four times their normal number of total callers. It’s not unusual for the transgender crisis hotline to see volume spike after major anti-transgender initiatives: When North Carolina passed its infamous “bathroom bill” in 2016, as The Daily Beast previously noted, TransLifeline’s number of calls almost doubled.
In a blog post on the HHS memo, Sam Ames and Elena Rose Vera, interim and deputy executive directors of Trans Lifeline respectively, wrote, “It is on the hardest days that we must remember to reach out for each other.”
And that’s exactly what transgender people did on Monday, the day after The New York Times unveiled the leaked anti-transgender memo, reporting that HHS was hoping other federal agencies would implement the language as well.
One friend messaged me to see how I was doing. “Today was bad,” she said. Another texted: “Everything blows right now.”
Scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, seemingly 60 percent of the posts were my transgender friends confirming that they, too, are “exhausted” or “tired”—and then being comforted by other equally wearied transgender people.
But it’s not just this single piece of news that has induced our collective exhaustion. It’s everything.
It’s knowing from the get-go that the Trump administration was going to be a disaster for LGBT people—emphasis on the T—and being ignored by mainstream commentators who insisted that, no, we were hysterical. (“Donald Trump’s More Accepting Views on Gay Issues Set Him Apart in the G.O.P.” was The New York Times headline.)
It’s watching exactly what we predicted come to fruition as Trump, almost immediately, undid Obama’s progress on restrooms. It’s waking up to tweets from the president one summer morning informing us that we are too much of a “burden” to serve in the military.
It’s hearing that the leader of the country reportedly referred to life-saving sex reassignment surgery as “getting clipped.”
It’s counting the number of potentially precedent-setting court cases on transgender rights that will now go to a Supreme Court with a conservative majority.
It’s knowing that the hate groups who see us as harbingers of the apocalypse now receive invitations to the White House.
It is—in the midst of all of the aforementioned awfulness—listening to pundits first blame the outcome of the 2016 election on us, and then pivot to asking whether our movement has gone too far now that we’re trying to help transgender youth stay alive.
“It’s a lot,” is what I told my Trans Lifeline volunteer. That was an understatement.
Not that long ago, I could envision a clear path forward for transgender equality.
There were heady months 2016 when the Obama administration finally put its full weight behind us, with Attorney General Loretta Lynch delivering an address that felt, in its time, like a landmark civil rights moment. In hindsight, that all seems like a false start. Now, I feel like I can’t see the future through the fog.
When the federal government itself is regularly adding to to our more quotidian brushes with prejudice, it’s easy to see how thousands of us, perhaps all 1.4 million or so of us, could be “tired” at once.
“Tired,” however, is so often a euphemistic stand-in for what we really mean—for the proven effects of minority stress: depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, substance-use disorders. We are not just “tired.” We are in pain.
Dr. Ilan H. Meyer, a public policy scholar at UCLA’s Williams Institute, is an expert on LGBT minority stress—or, as he defines it, “how stigma and prejudice and social conditions translate into health outcomes.” In a phone call Monday, he tells me that even reading a news article about an anti-transgender policy can have an impact.
“Just hearing the news about [the memo] is in itself a stressor—and it’s a stressor because a lot of the power of minority stress has to do with how people feel they are treated,” he explains.
If the HHS memo doesn’t become government policy, Meyer says, it still contributes to “a sense of continued assault on transgender people that is in and of itself exhausting.” If it does become policy, the effects will be even more direct.
Either way, he notes, the memo sends a damaging message to the non-transgender population, namely that transgender men aren’t really men and transgender women aren’t really women: “This does have an impact well beyond the actual regulation in terms of public perception.” That, in turn, could lead to more mistreatment of a vulnerable population.
Meyer is not alone in his assessment of the Trump administration’s likely effects on transgender mental health.
Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs for the Trevor Project, a support organization and suicide prevention hotline for LGBT youth, says that “the government erasure of an identity—both of transgender and intersex people—is clearly a form of rejection” of the sort that exacerbates minority stress.
Calls from transgender and non-binary youth, as the Trevor Project noted in a press e-mail, now constitute nearly a third of total volume.
Brinton, who is gender fluid and uses the pronoun “they,” tells me that they have seen increases in calls after major anti-transgender events, like the troop ban tweets—but they would also encourage transgender youth to see them as a resource at all times, not just in moments of dire need.
“We’re still waiting to see what is going to happen following this current challenge of the memo,” they tell me, “but we’re always ready to serve trans youth.”
Elena Rose Vera of Trans Lifeline says that she has seen increases in hotline demand correlated to the 2016 election, the transgender military ban, and the passage of SESTA/FOSTA legislation this April that, as The Daily Beast previously reported, severely limits transgender sex workers’ ability to do business online.
“People are scared and they’re tired of being scared,” she tells me, noting that Trans Lifeline effectively has a “real barometer” on the community’s mood: “We basically get a graph of how our people are feeling across the country… We get a map of how afraid everyone is at any given time, and our people are exhausted and terrified.”
In a strongly worded statement condemning the HHS memo, American Psychological Association president Dr. Jessica Henderson Daniel said Monday that the proposed definition of “sex” in the memo ran contrary to scientific research, concluding, “Purposely ignoring this body of evidence is indefensible and certain to add to the stress and discrimination already experienced by transgender people.”
The most striking measure of that discrimination—but by far not the only one—is how many of us try to take our own lives. Forty percent of respondents to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey said they had made a suicide attempt at some point. Most but certainly not all attempts happen before the age of 25.
Now in my early thirties, I have not experienced suicidal ideation since before I came out in my mid-twenties. I didn’t call Trans Lifeline this Monday to be talked down from the edge—and that was fine because the number functions not just as a suicide hotline, but as a crisis support hotline, too.
I called because, even from my privileged vantage point, minority stress is starting to creep up on me. The chilling thought that I may not live to see full transgender equality in my lifetime is growing harder to ignore.
The fact that I am both directly victimized by anti-transgender policies, and then have to write about them in order to feed myself and my spouse, can be challenging, too—as it is for many of my transgender colleagues in the media.
“Lately,” my friend Kate Sosin, a non-binary transgender reporter at Into, recently wrote, “before I report the day’s news, I have to take a beat, maybe cry it out a little.”
The Daily Beast has offered support internally, but it’s even more important to me that it’s a news organization that pulls no punches when it comes to LGBT issues. As former editor-in-chief John Avlon liked to say, “We love confronting bullies, bigots, and hypocrites.” Too many outlets are still treating transgender people more like rhetorical objects than human beings.
I can’t imagine how transgender youth on the front lines of this battle—the ones who still regularly find themselves in school hallways and locker rooms—must be feeling if things are finally getting to me, after nearly two years of this slowly compounding terror.
But they are getting to me, and I want to admit that, for anyone who feels like they’re not personally imperiled enough to share their pain.
At some point over the last two years, I started reassuring myself that I have experienced enough beauty in life—I transitioned, I fell in love, I wrote a book, I once drove through an Icelandic mountain pass in fog as thick as this Monday’s—and I stopped dreaming about how much more happiness I could cram into my (hopefully several) remaining decades. I’m not in danger but I know that’s a warning sign.
I know I can’t stay still in the fog or else it will eventually envelop me.
Negative mental health outcomes, Meyer tells me, some of the most “dramatic and striking” consequences of minority stress, although physical health problems can manifest themselves as well.
Although there is strong research showing that social supports can help counteract minority stress, Meyer notes that “they don’t erase the actual experience of distress”; they only counteract it.
“They help and they strengthen people, but as a society we need to be responsible to not expose people to stress,” he tells me. “I want to see a world where resilience is not necessary, where everybody doesn’t have to be resilient in order to survive—and I’m afraid that’s what we’re experiencing here, where we sort of expect people to be resilient against all odds.”
We will have to wait a while longer yet for that world. There are concrete actions that non-transgender—or cisgender—people can take in order to help bring it into being, like simply speaking out in favor of their transgender peers.
Many Trans Lifeline callers, Vera says, have been feeling “a sense of isolation” because they say it’s impossible to know “who around you in your life sympathizes with what’s being done to us right now.”
Transgender people who are hurting should know that there is help on tap 24/7. If you are reading this and you are transgender and afraid, please stay. (“You are not alone,” is what Brinton would want you to know. “We are here for you.”) Friendship, community, and support can’t make minority stress disappear, but they can keep you alive.
As for me, I will talk more to my transgender elders, who have been waiting a lot longer for justice than I have, remembering always that living just one day as myself was worth decades of fear. I will message friends more often. If necessary, I’ll call Trans LifeLine again. I can’t afford to let despair’s tendrils tighten themselves around my heart.
The Trans Lifeline volunteer who took my call on Monday didn’t try to sugarcoat things. It would be impossible to guarantee that the attacks on our very humanity will end soon.
Instead, we talked and commiserated while I paced around in aimless circles, sobbing publicly in the anonymity of the fog—and in the process I picked up some new strategies for coping with all of this everything that has been happening. Most importantly, I felt like some kind stranger out there understood exactly what I was going through.
After we hung up, I listened again for the ships on the shrouded water.
Being transgender in the Trump era is a lot like moving through thick fog, stifled, unable to see more than a few feet in front of you at a time. But in the relief that followed that phone call, those foghorns seemed to me to be like the voices of my transgender friends who reached out to each other all day, signaling that they, too, were navigating the sea.
“I am here,” they were saying.
“I am here.”
“I am here.”
Trans Lifeline’s crisis support hotline can be reached in the US at (877) 565-8860 and in Canada at (877) 330-6366. The Trevor Project can be reached at (866) 488-7386.