Society’s misguided attitude toward transgender people remains complicated and, as a result, can be very isolating for transgender youth, experts say.
“Stigma is an important barrier to mental health care for transgender and gender nonconforming youth,” said Regina Brewer, director of the National Center for Transgender Equality and an author of a new report by the Center for American Progress on the health of this group. “Someone who is not accepted as a woman, as a man, as someone who’s trans, is very fearful about what may happen to them in the next day.”
The report, “Transgender Youth Under Attack: How Stigma Undermines Health and Well-Being,” comes on the heels of a National Football League ban on transgender individuals playing in or serving on the team, which has drawn criticism from a number of advocates, including Brewer.
And in February, one Maryland high school blocked 17-year-old Jade, a transgender youth who attended The Southern School of Law, from playing in a volleyball game because of a transgender policy approved by the school.
“Adolescents experience difficulty taking care of themselves, even the best health care provider can’t correct the stigma, and they may be forced to rely on basic resources that don’t address their needs,” said Inés Ferreira, education director for the National Center for Transgender Equality. “Jade found that the level of attention to her well-being at school was not high enough for her.”
At the end of October, Jade and her mother addressed a capacity crowd at the Desmond Tutu Human Rights Award Show in Washington, DC, where they were thanked for helping raise awareness about LGBT issues and for lifting the barriers that prevented her from participating in sports at Southern.
“My fighting back has helped me,” Jade told the audience. “Unfortunately, I’m not the only one, but the Advocate came out and talked about me and my story. That brought light and attention to the situation and it allowed me to travel and meet the athletes I wanted to meet. I hope this story can help people open their eyes to the LGBT world, that we are just people, trying to live life like everyone else.”
Despite the negative headlines, a number of young people actually benefit from being transgender and gender nonconforming, according to the report, including those who are distressed as a result of external discrimination and psychological harms associated with living in a sex-perverted identity, including physical and sexual abuse, rejection by friends and family, economic hardship, family violence, and suicide.
The researchers described transgender individuals as “doctors, nurses, teachers, car mechanics, lawyers, computer engineers, designers, celebrities, news commentators, politicians, students, friends, CEOs, politicians, a scientific research program, and even a famous person like Caitlyn Jenner.”
But with stigma still keeping them from health care providers who can support their care, these young people may have to rely on their own resources to take care of their bodies and well-being, or may be at risk of not accessing care at all, according to the report.
“The stigma often also means you are not represented by the health care provider,” said Jacquelyn Moore, a child abuse and neglect expert. “What works for adults does not always work for transgender youth.”
Transgender teens typically experience much higher rates of abuse and neglect than other youth, often from family members, neighbors, coaches and teachers, according to the report. And low self-esteem, coupled with depression, suicide attempts and self-harm, also have a disproportionate impact on transgender and gender nonconforming youth.
As transgender and gender nonconforming individuals become more visible and in the public eye, there’s “greater confidence and trust in these individuals within the community,” Ferreira said. “It’s a very positive thing but it does mean that there are going to be others not as known and in need of support. And that’s just not good for youth.”