We Unhappy Trans

I have been thinking that the two campaigns that most of my Trans Scribe articles have been about in 2013, Suzanne Moore and Lucy Meadows, and their common source in Twitter Storms. Over the Easter Weekend I was trying to focus on my theology blog, Faith in Doubt, and take time out from writing trans articles. This did not work as I could not stop thinking about the articles I planned to write connected to these campaigns and it occurred to me that there was a much darker connection between those two cases. That is, the drive to manufacture the notion that the trans community is the most beleaguered and unhappy of all communities in all the world. Indeed, woe betide anyone who dares to try to lighten the mood and detract from this key point of gaining trans political leverage via the message of doom and gloom. Traitors to the trans cause include We Happy Trans, who have the audacity to suggest that there is something positive about being trans or anyone who challenges the dubious statistical analysis of the Trans Murder Monitoring Project. What are these happy trans people doing? Don’t they know that happiness will ruin the chance for the British trans activists to persuade the government to improve our lot? I exaggerate for effect, but not by much.

The connection to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project is instructive, although whether the link to it will be instructive for you is another matter altogether – warning: dubious statistics ahead. That project prepares the lists of the dead for the annual Trans Day of Remembrance [TDOR] and it was the sharp rise in the murder rate of Brazilian trans people that lay behind a lot of the online campaign against Suzanne Moore for an illustration of an unobtainable female body shape goal being “that of a Brazilian transsexual” in an article on feminism. The reaction to Suzanne is not only demeaning to Brazilian transsexuals (who were not the ones complaining), but it points up the danger of those elements of the trans community (and non-trans allies) who define themselves primarily through a day of death. The importance of TDOR is understandable as each of the names that gets read out hides a tragic story of friends and family who have lost a loved one, although not necessarily to a hate crime. This is because the Trans Murder Monitoring Project records all murder victims that can be identified as trans, not restricting itself to victims of hate crime murders. That is something which goes back to TDOR’s origins in the vigil for Rita Hester, for whose murder no motive has been determined. At the 2012 TDOR (as in 2011) the largest number of murders were recorded in Brazil, possibly due to a national project in that country to monitor better if murder victims identified as trans. This meant that those who attended commemorations listened to a very long list of 126 Brazilian names being read out, and consequently to the anger provoked by Suzanne’s passing reference to a beautiful Brazilian transsexual. In the London TDOR 2012 event there was further dubious statistics from the host seeking to justify why trans women were so much more at risk of murder than other women. This was dubious in that it was acknowledged that the majority of victims were sex workers, but the statistical comparison was with all Brazilian women, not just those in the sex trade.

There is a similar process going on in the international online campaign about transphobic media reports and its links to high levels of trans people choosing to end their own lives, which has arisen in the wake of Lucy Meadow’s tragically early death . With one huge difference; those 126 Brazilian transsexuals commemorated at TDOR 2012 were all murder victims, even if not necessarily victims of hate crimes, but we do not yet know if Lucy chose to end her own life,and, if she did, if her deadly choice was driven by the press harassment she undoubtedly experienced. I first entered the debate on this campaign by complaining that activists need to wait until they know what the cause and reasons for her death were. I would rather give Lucy’s family the space to mourn, but the continuing level of misinformation about Lucy’s death means that I have to keep coming back to the subject. For example, since publishing my last article on the subject I have been blocked by a user on Twitter who lambasted me for weakening the anti Richard Littlejohn campaign by suggesting that Lucy might have died from natural causes. This is despite our lack of knowledge of the precise cause of death being the official position (honoured in the breach as much as the observance) of Trans Media Watch, one of the principle campaigning organisations involved.

Trans suicide rates consistently come out alarmingly high in research, at about 35% of trans people having attempted suicide at least once. Note that we are again with dubious statistical methods as most of these surveys would not pass muster in a non-trans survey, due to the unavoidable difficulties in researching small and often publicity-shy communities. These surveys are generally self-selecting samples for online surveys, with the sample gathered through social media. The question asked is usually a simple one of have you ever attempted suicide without any qualitative question about how the respondent is defining a suicide attempt. It is also difficult to gain an accurate result because of a chicken and egg situation – those recruited via social media are generally aware that in terms of activism it is a good thing if the government is told that there is an alarmingly high level of suicide, and so will have a (possibly unconscious) bias in answering that question in the broadest possible sense. Indeed, for many years the main survey used to give these statistics in the UK was that conducted among the mailing list of the trans campaigning group Press for Change, who tampered with the statistics. Note that survey was also conducted through the mailing list of FTM London and that one of the report authors, Stephen Whittle, was a founder of both organisations. Their government funded report Engendered Penalties concludes (p.78) that nearly 35% of respondents had attempted suicide at least once, despite the question being “attempted suicide or self-harm.” That 35% figure for suicide continued to be used despite complaints that this is not what the question asked, but ironically figures for at least one suicide attempt are consistently around that 35% mark in subsequent research. This raises a question mark against what respondents define as a suicide attempt.

Even allowing for a large margin of error in the figure of 35%, the suicide attempt rate is still alarmingly high among trans communities. Yet for some campaigners the statistic is not high enough and I came across one recent commenter on social media who managed by a series of amazing statistical guesses to massage the figure up to 89%, a surprisingly precise number for something based entirely on spurious guesswork. This long-running tendency to talk up trans suicide statistics for political purposes means that there was a hunger to quickly interpret Lucy’s death as suicide (even though those statistics are for attempts, not completions). The coroner may report that she ended her own life when he re-opens the inquest at the end of May, but any campaigning using Lucy’s name seems premature until then, especially as Lucy showed little appetite for promoting such a campaign in the four months between Richard Littlejohn’s article and her sudden death.

It is that politically motivated We Unhappy Trans tendency that led in part to the creation of the We Happy Trans website. Only in part, though, as it is also a response to those deeply opposed to transsexual therapy who argue that for the sake of a trans person’s mental health they must be “cured” of their trans feelings. So the next time that you feel drawn by social media to the dark side of trans politics remember, be happy.

© Mercia McMahon 2013