As both a parent and as a psychiatrist, I was filled with hope and joy by the introduction via Vanity Fair of Caitlyn Jenner. I have been involved in advocating for transgender rights for several years. When I was in my psychiatry residency at Kansas University Medical Center, I did my scholarly project on transgenderism. My research involved a review of the literature as well as “field work.” I interviewed transgender individuals in various settings: Navajo Nation, San Francisco, Kansas City, among others.
I learned about embryological gender development, and how this can lead to both intersex disorders and transsexualism. My training as a physician made it quite easy for me to understand how a discrepancy between genital differentiation and brain sexual differentiation can result in transsexualism.
I learned the horrifying statistics with regard to violence against transgender individuals. While the average American has a one in 18,000 chance of being murdered (which to me is a deplorable number), a transgender individual has a one in 12 chance of being murdered. I think of that statistic every time I give one of my elderly patients a clock test for dementia. I learned how Gwen Araujo was brutally murdered on October 4, 2002, just shy of her 18th birthday. The four men who killed her were found innocent due to their “gay panic deception” defense.
The grim statistics with regard to suicide in the transgender community are inescapable to me as a psychiatrist. A staggering 41% of transgender individuals in the United States have attempted suicide. For transgender youth, that statistic jumps to over 50%. When Leelah Alcorn died from suicide in December 2014, I was haunted by her plea left behind in her suicide note: “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was.”
How was Leelah Alcorn treated? In a note she wrote prior to her death, she makes it clear she is committing suicide “because life isn’t worth living as a transgender.“ She acknowledges that her peers and school were supportive, but not her parents. Her mother “reacted extremely negatively,” and she urges other parents to be more accepting. Her mother’s lack of acceptance, on many levels, persisted after her death, when she posted on Facebook that her “sweet 16 year old son” was hit by a truck when out for a morning walk.
Given the realities faced by the transgender community, Caitlyn Jenner’s public act of courage, which is accompanied by widespread acceptance, including that of her family, is cause for celebration. It is so refreshing to see the word “transgender” NOT followed by the word “tragedy” or suicide.” While it is true that she comes from a tremendous amount of privilege, with the accumulation of resources made possible by capitalizing on a male persona for several decades, it is wonderful that she is using her celebrity as a vehicle to help others, especially members of an extremely marginalized group.
Research shows that the younger a transgender individual is when she or he transitions, the greater positive effect this will have on his or her mental health. They suffer less bullying, discrimination and isolation the younger they are when they assert their true identity. Treatment with hormone blockers to prevent unwanted physical characteristics allows for a more complete social development.
Given these findings, I can’t help being sad that Caitlyn had to wait until her 60’s to assert her true identity. This is tempered by the fact that by giving a positive public face to transgenderism, more transgender youth will be able to transition and live their lives to their full potential. We are much closer to having Leelah Alcorn rest in peace.
Thank you, Caitlyn.
Appointment information for Dr. Wexler: wexlerpsych.com