I remember one of the fathers of a little girl on a soccer team I was coaching years ago who came out to me and told me he was going to go through a transgender process. We were friends, so I was able to ask him about his motivations to go through the painful and expensive process. He said he wanted to finally look how he felt.
After it was all said and done, and I ran into her in the grocery store, I asked her how it felt now. She said two things I have never forgotten. The first was how relieved she felt to be herself now. “When I see old photos of the man I was before, he feels like a distant relative.” The second thing she said has always stayed with me: how she had underestimated how painful it would be to feel the eyes of all the people she knew before who now avoided her and talked about her as she was walking away.
It would be easy for me to say: “It doesn’t matter what those people think,” and it is a worthy aspiration to not identify with those who judge but won’t communicate. But honestly, no matter how old we are, feeling different and excluded because of who we are can be the most challenging and painful experiences we live through. Everyone is driven by the need to belong and to be accepted, and we all have experienced moments when the shame of our differences exiles us into a space that threatens us to the core.
Based on the numbers alone, we know that this exclusion – and the cruelty and bullying LGBT youth face – makes their growing-up years a veritable landmine. Many don’t survive. LGBT youth contemplate suicide at three times the rate of heterosexual kids and are five times more likely to have attempted suicide than their heterosexual peers. These numbers multiply again by three times when the LGBT kids come from families who reject them because of their gender identity.
In fact, every episode of verbal harassment and physical abuse increases the likelihood of self harming behaviors by two and a half times. It’s hard to imagine, actually, how exponential the harm of peers can be to a teen who is just trying to figure out who they are, who is just coming to terms with their own differences. And although as a country we are making small strides in both the owning and acceptance of gender identity differences, there is a long way to go.
I remember the first time I met Dan Savage at the University of Oregon. He was at a sexual health event where we were a sponsor and exhibitor and he began sharing his own story of discovering and trying to find a language to express his newly discovered sexual preferences. It was a deeply human voice than I often missed in reading his column. But, when he started sharing the stories of thousands of kids who have found themselves in a community and saved through his project called It Gets Better, I became a devoted fan.
Since its beginning, It Gets Better has compiled over 60,000 unique and inspiring stories from people who have survived the relentless and cruel bullying that so many LGBT youth face while growing up. And their website provides access to immediate help in over 40 countries around the world and many ways to get involved.
We all need each other more than we need anything else. Learning to celebrate our differences creates community for all of us.
Support Equality This Summer
In honor of Pride Month, we are donating to GLMA–Health Professionals Advancing Equality during the month of June and Dan Savage’s project It Gets Better during the month of July. They will each receive 10% of our web proceeds for the month. Shop now through July 31 to support these awesome organizations!