Transgender People and Suicide: The Tragedy, and the Hope

Written by on January 2, 2015 in All Posts, LGBT topics, Misc with 11 Comments
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transgender suicideTransgender youth and adults have far higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts than the average person. Consider these research findings:

  • The suicide rate among transgender adults in an international study was almost 800 per 100,000. In comparison, the suicide rate in the U.S. for all people is 13 per 100,000. (That study is briefly described in this article.)
  • 41% of transgender adults report having ever attempted suicide, compared to 5% of adults in the general population and 10 to 20% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults, according to a U.S. study of almost 6,500 people.
  • Almost half of adolescents in a small U.S. study had seriously considered suicide, and 1 in 4 reported a suicide attempt.

A Hearbreaking Example: Leelah Alcorn 

Photo from Leelah's Tumblr blog

Photo from Leelah’s Tumblr blog

The plight of many trans people is prominent on the national radar right now, following the suicide this week of a 17-year-old trans girl named Leelah Alcorn.

Leelah (born Joshua) grew up in a Midwestern, Christian family. She posted an impassioned suicide note online, explaining that she saw no hope for a better life. She was convinced that she would only feel worse, due to the discrimination, family rejection, and emotional hardship she already experienced and saw ahead.

“I’m never going to be happy,” Leelah wrote in her note. “Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse.”

While Leelah’s circumstances sound intensely painful, they alone cannot account for her suicide. Otherwise, everyone who feels deeply unhappy and trapped would die by suicide.

Instead, depression or some other force twisted her thinking so badly that she thought her predictions for her future would absolutely come true. This distorted thinking made her mistake her fears for facts.

At the tender age of 17, she thought the only way out of her misery was death. She was not thinking rationally.

The Other Side of the Story 

transgender suicideThe media often focus on the painful aspects of being transgender. The suicides. The oppression. The job and housing discrimination. The violence.

Bad news is interesting. Good news is boring.

Yet the news is not all bad. Even though transgender people face many stresses, there are a great many who succeed at love and work.

In response to Leelah’s suicide, scores of trans people are tweeting about their happiness and successes using the hashtag #RealLifeTransAdult.

The Positive Aspects of Transgender Identity

One research study looked at the good things that trans people have reported about being transgender. The study identified 8 “positive aspects of a transgender identity”:

  1. Congruency of self (that is, feeling the positive effects of living life authentically)
  1. Enhanced interpersonal relationships
  1. Personal growth and resiliency
  1. Increased empathy
  1. A unique perspective on both sexes
  1. Living beyond the sex binary 
  1. Increased activism
  1. Connection to the GLBTQ communities 

Yes, the negative effects of transphobia (fear and oppression of transgender people) are profound. We as a society desperately need to change our responses to trans people.

Even so, many transgender people live full lives and find benefits to their transgender identity. The more that message gets out, the better.

If You are Trans and Considering Suicide… 

No matter how happy or successful trans people can be, there are many trans youth and adults who think of suicide. If you are one of them, please consider turning to one of these places:

  • Trans Lifeline – (877) 565-8860

The Trans Lifeline is for transgender people of all ages.  It is not staffed 24 hours a day, so check the website for hours.

  • Trevor Lifeline – 866-488-7386  (Available 24/7)

The Trevor Lifeline is a hotline for trans, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth (ages 13 – 24).

  • TrevorText – To start, text “Trevor” to 202-304-1200. Available only on Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m. Eastern time (1 – 4 p.m. Pacific time).

TrevorText is the cousin of the Trevor Lifeline, for trans and other sexual minority youth ages 13 – 24.

Trevor Chat is available to youth from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern time (12 to 6 p.m. Pacific time). 

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is for anyone, while the other hotlines are specifically for trans people (Trans Lifeline) or sexual minority youth (Trevor Lifeline). 

The Resources page contains information about places where you can talk to someone anonymously, whether via phone, chat, text, or email.

For Allies: Preventing Suicide Before Suicidal Thoughts Ever Happen

There are also steps people can take to help prevent a transgender person from ever getting to the point of being suicidal:

  • Honor the trans person’s preferred name and pronouns. It is not up to you to decide how a trans person should be called. It is up to them.
  • Do not “out” someone who has rejected their biological sex. Whether to disclose their gender identity, and to whom, is up to transgender people. Great harm, whether psychological, physical, or economical, can come to people whose trans status is disclosed against their will. (Click here for a heartbreaking account of a trans woman who died by suicide after a journalist outed her to her business associates.)
  • Refrain from any judgment, blame, or suggestions that the person should not identify as transgender. I know this advice sounds elementary. But then why do so many people not follow it? Leelah Alcorn said her parents told her “God doesn’t make mistakes.” Even if this is what you believe, what good can come of your rejecting a person’s identity? 
  • Show love. Again, this might seem like another no-brainer. Oh well, I will state the obvious because it is so important: Express love, support, and understanding to the trans people in your life. There is no such thing as too much love or support, but the effects of too little are devastating.
  • Advocate for the protection of trans people’s civil rights. You can do this in many ways:  Come to the defense of a peer who is verbally abused. Educate peers. Lobby your school or workplace for gender-neutral restrooms. Volunteer with or contribute money to an organization that helps trans youth and others, organizations like The Trevor Project, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the Trans Advocacy Network.


If everyone followed these steps, how much would suicidal thinking, suicide attempts, and suicide go down among trans people?

In the days and years ahead, I hope we have the chance to find out. 

© Copyright 2015 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for

First photo purchased from 

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11 Reader Comments

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  1. Pywhacket says:

    According to a 2014 report from John Hopkins University, a prominent and respected research facility, transgender people are mentally ill (gender dysphoria) and need treatment to reconcile the war between mind and body. Unfortunately, accommodating their delusion is neither reasonable or entirely possible, since, also according to John Hopkins, it is biologically impossible to truly transition from one gender/sex to another, so the internal conflict of transgenders never truly ends. And what about the people who have to deal with a transgender person, who are being asked to believe that a man is actually a woman because he says so? Is that fair to them, to force them to repeat, embrace and perpetuate a lie? Is it fair to ask women in particular to put themselves at risk in order to accommodate trans-men who wish to use female facilities like locker rooms and rest rooms? Even if the trans-men are entirely innocent, what about disturbed men who might try to take advantage of the accommodation? Think that won’t ever ever happen, in a world where a woman can’t even walk down a street at night and feel safe?

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      I debated whether to approve your comment, because the rhetoric is hateful and harmful to transgender people. But it’s also rhetoric that’s repeated elsewhere, so I’m happy to provide a forum for examining it.

      The report you cite isn’t from Johns Hopkins itself (that is, the university did not put it out) but, rather, from a lone Johns Hopkins professor who belongs to a group that has been renounced as a hate group by the Southern Law Poverty Center. You can read more about the professor and the truth about his claims on the Huffington Post, in an article titled “Johns Hopkins Professor Endangers the Lives of Transgender Youth.”

      Whatever conflict, shame, or stigma that transgender people feel about their gender identity often stems not from the transgender person’s actual gender identity but, instead, society’s treatment of them. Rhetoric like that of the Johns Hopkins professor (Paul McHugh) only serves to further inflame bias and even hatred against transgender people, when love, compassion, and understanding would resolve much of the stress that transgender people experience.

      Gender dysphoria is not a diagnosis applicable to everyone who is transgender, only to those whose discordant biological and true genders cause significant distress. Many people in the transgender community and their allies argue that there is no mental illness at all, but they also recognize that without a formal diagnosis, health insurance companies won’t cover the treatments (such as hormone therapy and surgery to transition).

      Finally, I do not understand the arguments against trans women using women’s restrooms. First of all, usually you have no way of knowing from looking at a woman if she is trans or not. That’s the whole point. One reason that trans women use the women’s restroom is because it would look and feel absurd for a woman to use a men’s restroom. Second of all, you note that disturbed men might “take advantage of the accommodation” for trans women. If a man is so disturbed that he sexually preys on women, why would we expect him to honor a law that says he is forbidden to enter the women’s restroom?

      So I thank you for raising these points and giving me the opportunity to respond to them for others who venture onto this page. I hope you will consider the information I’ve provided here.

  2. Jamie says:

    Good, keep em comin

  3. Callan says:

    The recommendations for allies here seem to come down to one simple thing: Fight for your trans loved one rather than fighting against them.

    By emerging as trans, they are fighting for themselves, trying to claim their own trans heart in the world. You can either choose to fight for them or fight against them, trying to deny them respect and love until they do what you consider the right thing, until they comply with your version of “reality.” Deciding that they are and always will be defined by their reproductive biology and their history is denying them what they are trying so hard to surface, the truth of their self-knowledge.

    The only way for transpeople to fully understand and own their own identity is to be supported in exploring it, not denied that possibility by suppression by stigma, convention and fear. We have so much pain and feelings that we have locked inside while trying to be normative, trying to fit in, that we can appear twisted and bristling, but only by being safe to work that stuff through can we move beyond it.

    Transpeople fight everyday and when that fight becomes too intense, too much, we think of ending it all. As much as some people think that fighting transpeople to help them see where they are screwed up is the best thing to do, that just makes us build bigger defensive walls and feel more isolated and lonely behind them.

    Fight for the transpeople you love, with respect, in public, and with all the love you can muster. They have had a lifetime of fighting their own nature, a lifetime of having people fight them to tell them they are wrong, sick, perverted. When someone comes along to fight for us, affirming our beauty and our value, we can feel a little more protected, a little more safe, a little less isolated.

    And that really helps.

  4. Gabriela R says:

    If you’re young you can try the transition MtF, because feminine hormones can help you. After my age, more than 50 years old, there’s no way. I did the SRS, vocal surgery, breast implants… But no way to have hip, bottom like the brazilian women (I live in Brazil), hair (the loss is genetic, and unavoidable). So, because of being bullying when trying to use a feminine swimsuit by people here (mainly women), and after 8 years trying to be happy one day, I think I’ll try my 5th Suicidal Attempt (but now using remedy for thrombosis without having one). I’m virgin since the day I was born, in 1962, and never kissed a man or woman in all my life. I don’t know what is social life since I told “my friends” what was going with me (Primary Transsexual, ICD f64.2). I’m at home all night for 365 days a year for the last 3 years. No one calls me at the phone. My name and my sex was changed, but I don’t have the female body. So, I did all things for nothing.

    • Efraim says:

      Gabriela, your frustration and suffering sound to me horrific. I just got a notification in my email in-box about your post, read it, and felt compelled to share how overwhelming your experience seems to me. I’ve also read statistics that the suicide rate among transgendered individuals is peculiarly high. Living inside a body antithetical to everything you (emotionally) feel, and worse, having to modulate every gesture such that one’s community members don’t heap additional suffering on you, sounds like one of the ultimate betrayals of human existence. To make matters even worse, you claim you’re home alone “all night long for 365 days a year,” and that, “[n]o one calls” you. So you’re also going through everything on your own–forced solitude compounding an already torturous circumstance. I would say to you that I’m sorry, but those words would be hollow, even if sincere, because they don’t give you what you need–and from what you’ve written, you need very, very much–and should, in an equitable world, have it. I wish I had an answer.

    • Gabriela says:

      Thanks a lot Efraim. Nowadays few people read posts at the Internet. I was just trying to say, to warn old people, like me, to not go so far. I love the SRS (no way to have “the thing” on me, I only want my front of me flat) and the breasts. But not having “the thing” with me anymore was the best thing of my life. Having a vagina I don’t know if it’s okay or not, because I’m assexual. The worst thing is that no medical doctor told me (and I’ve 10) that without a female body it’ll impossible to be a woman using feminine swimming suit… So, I just want to warne old people to try very hard if the feminine hormones would change your body or not. If not, take only the most surgery to you to let you be happy, but not try to be more than you’re. Or just keep free of surgeries and try to live as you can. Trying lots of surgeries to be someone isn’t okay. Congratulations to you, Efraim, to read and to try some support to me.

  5. “While Leelah’s circumstances sound intensely painful, they alone cannot account for her suicide. Otherwise, everyone who feels deeply unhappy and trapped would die by suicide.” I cannot agree with this assertion. As the author elsewhere on this site draws attention to in comparing the pain of someone stabbed in the chest with that of someone stabbed in the leg, there is a valid degree of severity victims’ expressions of pain may fail to divulge. It’s disingenuous to assert that simply because others who are unhappy and feel trapped do not die by suicide this logically implies that feeling unhappy and trapped to a great enough degree cannot be sufficient to prompt suicidal ideation. Leelah’s circumstances do not “sound intensely painful” to me. It is enough that she judged them to be such, as she was the individual living her life. I’m not aware of any empirical metric that precisely and accurately quantifies the experience of emotional pain. Although we can generate statistical associations about populations, and since we share common human experiences, can judge how we believe we would respond in similar situations to those others appear to be living through, only individuals living their lives can conceive of how significant their stresses and pain are.

    We’re an emotionally and behaviorally variegated species. Sometimes we’re rational and just and benign, and other times we’re breathtakingly brutal. Other than Leelah, no one else is qualified to judge her long-term, day-to-day experience of prejudice and abuse, just as no one could guarantee her that a particular intervention would cause these painful experiences to abate sufficiently that she would wish to continue. Arguing to the contrary, though it bolsters a platform many in the therapeutic community share, does not of necessity alter the judgments of individuals considering their own lives in light of their experience of cultural evolution and their capacities to cope with inevitable stressors, like prejudice, physical violence, and lifelong social isolation. Certainly not every transgendered individual succumbs to these challenges, but the challenges nonetheless are too great a burden for many transgendered individuals. Despite mental health professionals’ attestation that decisions such as Leelah’s final one are emblematic of mental pathology, in the absence of guaranteed succor, many will continue to act on their decisions, regardless others’ disapproval.

    Thanks to the blog owner for generously allowing dissenting comments, in a spirit of open sharing of ideas.

  6. Chevonne says:

    That’s so sad.I myself am a mother of a transgender teenager who is suicidle.I’ve done alot of research and we’ve delt with alot of councilling.It’s been a tough year but I finally have some hope and so does he.I didn’t know the risks were higher for transgender youth and adults.I’m going to do everything I can to help my son have the best positive life possible.

  7. It is heartbreaking that young kids who are transgender like Leelah Alcorn feel no other way possible but suicide. I know what it feels like to be transgender, depressed and suicidal. I’ve been there but I am one of the lucky ones because I had been saved by the love and compassion of others. I pray for Leelah Alcorn and for all transgender people who have sadly taken their lives. They are all loved and now finally at peace. Love, Emily Iannielli

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:


      It sounds like you came out on the other side – “when you’re going through hell, keep going.”

      Thanks for sharing, so that others can be inspired by your experience and know that there are other options besides suicide.