Analysis: Trans suicide and the way the media reports the trans community

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Following the death of Lucy Meadows, Maeve Regan explores for PinkNews the impact of transphobic language in the media and the findings from the Trans Mental Health Study.

I’ve been driven to write this article by the widespread reporting on the death of Lucy Meadows, a primary school teacher in Lancashire. I should say that at this point, there is no confirmation that it was suicide, but there have been informal reports on social media, and some bloggers have felt confident in saying that it was. The reason that this particular death is receiving widespread coverage, is that Lucy was the target of a vicious article in the Daily Mail just three months ago, covered in detail by Zinnia Jones (no direct link to the DM). Jane Fae wrote about the links between Lucy Meadows’ story and press regulation, which is high on the media agenda right now.

In related news, this week the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) responded to a selection of the 800 complaints they received about Julie Burchill’s transphobic rant in January. The PCC ruled that the decision to publish was not in breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice, predominantly because the article did not name an individual.

It is with those details in mind that I want to turn to the data. It is all too easy to read a report like the Trans Mental Health (TMH) study and forget that every data point is a person.

The TMH study was the largest of its kind ever undertaken in Europe, with almost 900 respondents. As the researchers knew anecdotally that suicidal thoughts and experiences are a major issue for the trans community, there was a whole section dedicated to it in the survey. The key results are:

84% of respondents had thought about ending their lives at some point, a huge majority.

Of those people:

  • 63% had thought about attempting suicide in the past year
  • 27% had thought about it in the past week
  • 4% thought about it every day

Of those who had thought about suicide:

  • 48% had made an actual suicide attempt
  • 33% had tried more than once
  • 11% had tried in the past year

Factoring back in the people who responded that they had never considered suicide, the overall figures for the trans community are 35% of people have attempted suicide at least once, and 25% have attempted more than once.

These figures compare with global estimates that approximately 5% of people attempt suicide at least once in their life, and 10-14% of the general population have suicidal thinking throughout their lifetime.

GRAPH trans story

When asked about how their suicidal ideation and attempts changed after transition, 63% of respondents said that they thought about or attempted suicide more before transition, and 3% thought about it or attempted more after transition. Some respondents, 7%, said that they thought about or attempted suicide more during the process of transition, which has clear implications for healthcare and support.

Participants were asked some questions about whether anyone they knew personally had attempted suicide. 68% of respondents reported knowing someone who had attempted suicide due to being trans or having a trans history, and 31% knew someone who had committed suicide.

The TMH study also asked specifically about the media, and 51% of respondents reported that the way that trans people were represented in the media had a negative effect on their emotional wellbeing. 4% felt it had a positive impact, and 31% reported no impact.

Clearly, suicidal thinking and attempts are dramatically higher for the trans community than for the population as whole. That we live in a society where such an at-risk group can be subjected to personal and generalised vilification in mainstream media should be a source of deep shame for us all. As David Allen Green so eloquently puts it; “the tabloids treat trans people the way they would treat anyone, if they could get away with it”.

To bring us back to the start, remembering that these data refer to individual people, I will end with a selection of quotes from the survey participants:

On suicide:

“We need to start helping trans teenagers. This would have helped me and probably prevented me from attempting suicide.

“If I had not undergone surgery when I did I would almost certainly have either been a suicide or at very least a long-term depressive and possible inmate in some mental hospital.”

On the media:

“Tabloid stories about trans people are often exploitative, invasive of privacy, inaccurate, irrelevant or intended to drum up transphobia in their readers, often successfully as revealed in the comments on stories. Reading these sometimes upsets and angers me because it shows how hostile many people are to trans people in current society.”

“The caricatured and stereotyped portrayal of trans issues is the same as racist and sexist jokes. It gives phobic people a means of expression towards other people who are specifically targeted by these jokes. Where are the transgender social heroes who have raised thousands of pounds for charity?”

“It makes me angry. It also denies me my civic rights. I would never DARE to stand for election, either to the parish, borough or county council, much less to parliament as I would be sure to be ‘outed’ and made to look stupid by the gutter press.”

“The media consistently misgenders, refers to previous names, makes a trans person’s body theirs, theorises why we do it without talking to us properly, makes assumptions about our genders and motivations. They use language that makes ‘trans’ a third gender, stripping us of our identities. They use language that refers to us as abnormal and disrespects our bodies and our rights.”

“At best it’s patronising, at worst it’s a hate crime.”

“We are made out to be freak shows and I am scared that they may come after me or my friends next.”

“We are seen as having sex swaps and mutilating our genitals or we are sexual deviants, we are never just seen as us, the trans angle is always there for titillation.”

“It is a constant reminder of how much most people despise me for what I am.”

“My parents read into the news too much and think being trans is wrong, this affects their treatment of me.”

“The ways trans people are portrayed in the media generally fosters negative views of trans people. It makes me feel unsafe because it normalises ridicule and violence towards trans people, portrays our identities as invalid, posits being cis as the ‘natural’, ‘normal’ way to be etc.’”

Researchers of the Trans Mental Health Study have launched an online fundraising page – with aim of creating suicide prevention resources – more details can be found here