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Saturday 12 November 2016

"A wake-up call"

Posted in: Health & HIV, Features
By Jacqui Stanford - 23rd January 2014

Ground-breaking research backing up all the anecdotal evidence that many transgender teenagers are struggling with mental health issues, lacking access to healthcare and being bullied is being described as "a wake-up call for all of us".

In a world-first, the University of Auckland's Adolescent Health Research Group has collated the transgender specific answers from the Youth ’12 survey of more than 8,000 high school students.

What did it find?

In the survey, 1.2 per cent of the students reported being transgender, while another 2.5 per cent were not sure about their gender. About two thirds who identified personally as trans had never told anyone so.

Both transgender students and those unsure about their gender experienced compromised mental health and personal safety and described more difficulty accessing health care.

Transgender students were less likely to report believing that a parent cared about them and that school was okay, but were more likely to report having significant depressive symptoms.

Nearly 20 per cent had attempted suicide in the previous 12 months and nearly half had been hit or physically harmed by another person on purpose.

A ‘wake-up’ call

Lexie Matheson
Auckland lgbti community leader and transgender rights campaigner Lexie Matheson says the research is a wake-up call for all of us.

“At its heart it’s a human rights issue and, while the problems aren’t going to be fixed overnight, having transgendered people covered by the Human Rights Act would be a great start. There’s currently no political will to do this – so we’re in a situation of limbo and trans kids are hurting.”

Matheson says a really scary factor is the number of transgender kids who had difficulty accessing healthcare when they needed it.

“40 per cent - that’s a huge figure – had significant depressive symptoms and had self-harmed while 20 per cent had attempted suicide. Think of any five kids you know and, were they transgendered, one of them would have tried to kill him, her or them self in the past year.

“These are frightening statistics but I suspect we often hide behind the neutrality of numbers to avoid facing the fact that these statistics represent real young people in pain, serious pain, and at risk. Each number is a living, breathing, hurting and lost, human being.”

Matheson says it highlights the need for health services directed specifically towards trans youth. “I’d go further than that and say trans people overall because the issues identified … also exist in the wider trans communities. Issues such as depression, suicide ideation, self-harming, isolation and a susceptibility to bullying don’t go away when you become an adult. Untreated they cause havoc in people’s lives until they are addressed.”

Kelly Ellis
TransAdvocates co-founder and Whangarei lawyer Kelly Ellis agrees, saying it’s ‘horrifying’ that 20 per cent of the trans students who carried out the survey had attempted suicide in the previous 12 months.

“The difficulties trans people face are evidenced by this awful figure. It reflects the prejudice that is still out there, particularly for those emerging as transgender,” Ellis says.

“Even for someone as resourceful, privileged and brazen as me, there were times when I struggled to face the world; times when, as I drove down the highway, every lamp post would call my name and I could feel the almost magnetic pull of the concrete bridge abutments as they flashed past. At least I had a loving home to return to. Without that love, I doubt I'd be here.

“How it must be for young people without the huge advantages I have is shown by that tragic 20 per cent figure. If there's a message in all this, it's simple: Lose your prejudice. Love your children.”

The data’s crucial

Joe Macdonald
Transgender Aucklander Joe Macdonald, who works as a Rainbow community liaison and trainer at Affinity Services, says it’s rare to get such solid statistics. “We need this kind of data to be able to push for change on all sorts of levels, including education and healthcare,” the community advocate says.

He says his experience training nurses, doctors, social workers, occupational therapists, and mental health workers completely backs up the findings.

“For example, I often have clinicians asking how to support their young person who is talking about possibly transitioning, who is questioning their gender and not sure what their options are. So it’s really gratifying to have that anecdotal experience reflected in this research, with 2.5 per cent being quite a large number of students who are unsure about their gender identity.”

His intuition and experience tell him compromised mental health and personal safety and lack of access to healthcare or medical support are common experience for gender diverse people of all ages.

“We face a lot of external pressure,” he explains. “Cisnormativity, transphobia, the combination of racism with transphobia, or sexism as well - I mean there’s a lot of challenges in the wider social contexts, in which we live.

“We often suffer the consequences of other people’s baggage or ignorance. So hearing that nearly 20 per cent of young people who identified as transgender had attempted suicide in the last 12 months was not surprising to me, but still a reminder of the massive stress caused by living in a sometimes hostile environment.”

Enlightening numbers

McDonald likes it that the research was conducted in terms of asking whether students identified as transgender, or not, and also having the options to say they were not sure about their gender identity or they didn’t understand the question.

“So in addition to having the very useful statistic of 1.2 per cent of students identifying as transgender, we also have the wonderful statistic of 2.5 per cent of students not being sure, or questioning their gender

Kelly Ellis says the 1.2 per cent figure is very significant. “When one looks at previous estimates of trans populations which have at times been estimated at 1 in 30,000 or even one in 100,000,” she says.

“This report shows that those numbers are way off. People need to believe there are far more people out there who are transgender than they'd previously thought.”

Lexie Matheson agrees, saying the study’s findings suggest there are 54,000 New Zealanders who identify without question as being transgendered.

“This is a conservative figure considering that 2.5% of those surveyed said they weren’t sure. That’s a lot of ticking time-bombs if you want to look at it that way.”

Where to from here?

Matheson hopes what she describes as a fine piece of research leads to further studies, and action, such as the health services directed specifically towards trans youth she has already mentioned.

“Anecdotal evidence has been telling us of these concerns for years but successive governments have chosen to ignore the warning signs.

“This is what makes this research critical – it leads the way to change – but I’m not holding my breath.”

Claudia McKay from the support and advocacy group Agender agrees the findings, which she says are no surprise to her personally, quantify all the anecdotal evidence.

“It is important to have such findings available for the powers that be who would otherwise find it all too easy to ignore.

“The main thing now is to use these figures effectively to press for change. That is always the hardest part but no success without a little sweat.”

Joe Macdonald would love there to be more conversations about gender questioning people, of all ages.

“I think we too often go into framework of people being either transgender or cisgender, with no grey area or room to move in between. It’s common sense that young people will question their gender, be unsure, experimental, or just go through processes of trying to figure out who they are – we are usually quite familiar with young people doing this around sexuality, but somehow we forget that the same is true of gender.”

Macdonald thinks we should also be recognising the amazing contributions of gender diverse people, “the ways in which we enrich the worlds we live in, the creativity and knowledge and experiences that we bring to the places we work, study and live,” he says.

“Those places need to be made hospitable for us. We are worth that effort, and we are part of that struggle. That struggle includes looking at the intersections of our lives, so we can bring our whole selves, which means challenging racism, classism, sexism etc.”

Matheson says people who work in universities, as she does, can and do help.

“AUT University, for example, has highly effective support mechanisms to support trans identifying students. We have social groups, highly skilled counsellors and medical staff all of whom are trained to support and empathic towards trans kids. I’m pretty public about who I am and I regularly get questioning students wanting to chat or access facilities but the difference is we have them. Secondary schools don’t. School must be a bloody lonely and potentially unsafe place for these kids.”

She thinks ‘we’ as a community are doing all we can, being visible and being active, while Rainbow Youth does a great job with the kids who front up - and in schools.

“In the trans communities we have some very amazing people doing powerful and worthwhile work on the ground but they need to be supported,” Matheson says.

“We need to lobby government for legislative changes that will establish a level playing field for trans kids – and adults. It’s not much fun being a second class citizen in your own country.

“We need to be active with our health providers to ensure appropriate services are available. This isn’t a costly exercise as the hardware for this already exists.

“Most of all we need activists working in all schools to bring about attitudinal change. Unless these kids feel supported, acknowledged and valued we’re going to go nowhere. It could start at the top. How about a huge step forward – principals saying regularly at assemblies how much the school values all its students and especially those ones from minorities of all sorts.

“How hard is it to say ‘we love our trans kids just like everyone else’. It’s not hard at all – and it’s a great start.”

Are you a trans or gender diverse young person who would like to tell your story? We can do so without using your name, if you prefer. Just email

If you need to talk, there is plenty of help out there. Please call OUTLine on 0800 OUTLINE, or Rainbow Youth on (09) 376 4155. After hours you can call the 24 hour Depression helpline: 0800 111 757.

Jacqui Stanford - 23rd January 2014

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