On Saturday I was basking in community connection until I got home and read Steve Massey’s opinion piece. I had just attended a 25th anniversary celebration for Odyssey Youth Movement, which for the past 25 years has been “creating, sustaining, and advocating for safe and affirming programs, policies and services for LGBTQQ+ youth.”
The organization exists because of the deep need for supportive space to serve a community that is disproportionately rejected by their families and communities, often due to societal or religious bias. As a trans adult, I feel that it’s vital to nurture these youth to try to fill in the gaps a little.
The event celebrated our community’s youth, recognizing the history of the organization and asking for donations and continued community support; it was all pretty great. It was held at Gonzaga, and I was pleased that a Catholic university had agreed to host the celebration.
Three teens spoke, all trans, all mentioning how Odyssey had helped save their lives. I left in a great mood, and then came home to Massey’s column about his perception of God’s opinion on these kids.
The piece was bad. Not because I don’t agree with the opinion, not because of some political stance, but because it does harm to the youth it ostensibly supports.
Massey quotes the statistic (presumably from the National Center for Transgender Equality’s U.S. Trans Survey) that 41 percent of trans or gender-nonconforming people have attempted suicide. I remember being staggered when I first read that, too. But I also remember filling out the survey myself, how I had clicked that button, and how I never called a crisis line because I was afraid of reaching a transphobic person at my most vulnerable moments. There’s now the Trans Lifeline, which can be reached at (877) 565-8860.
Trans people don’t struggle to exist because we’re trans, but because we live in a society that makes it almost impossible to imagine futures for ourselves. We’re steeped in a culture where our media shows trans people dying after tortured lives. The moral of those stories is the same as the one Massey espouses: being trans is a sin and should be repented.
Can you imagine living a life where you’re told that your identity, your core being, is a sin? What would it do to your mental health, being told that you need to ask forgiveness for being who you are? Whether a person buys into Christian beliefs or not, that undercurrent shapes this society, and living with such heavy judgment is detrimental to our mental health.
I volunteer at Odyssey mostly to show young people that there are Real Live Trans Adults, as an example that they can make it through adolescence without dying. My partner works with young people, too, and has chosen to be out at work.
My partner has worked with multiple students who have been super excited to meet them, simply because my partner is a trans person who is an adult with a job. Being an employed adult shouldn’t be cause for excitement, but at this point the possibility is almost a revelation for trans youth. Without cultural visibility of successful trans people, it’s unsurprising that trans folks are more likely to struggle with mental illness.
I was terrified to come out, because I was afraid that my parents would disown me. Even though my family isn’t religious, I found myself preparing arguments in response to biblical bigotry, just in case I needed them. Ultimately, one parent did disown me, but the other has been a consistently supportive advocate, even though she didn’t have a lot of informational resources to draw from back then.
Having supportive parents can greatly reduce the amount of societal trauma that a child faces, so I sincerely thank the Associated Press for spreading some helpful tips for parents of trans children. The article that so concerned Massey doesn’t even advocate life-altering medical changes to children; it simply says to support them and reduce their distress. “Using a child’s happiness and health as a guide is critical.”
I’m not a health professional, but as someone who’s supported a lot of mentally ill queer folks, here are my top tips for supporting trans youth (and all youth): model respect, no matter how different people are; teach your children not to point at people; help them imagine positive futures for themselves; don’t tell them that their identity is a sin.
Puck Kalve Franta is a community educator based in Peaceful Valley.