Suicide or transition: The only options for gender dysphoric kids?

by J. Michael Bailey, Ph.D  and Ray Blanchard, Ph.D

This is the first in a series of articles authored by Drs. Bailey and Blanchard. As their time permits, they will be available to interact in the comments section of this post. Please note: As always on 4thWaveNow, if you disagree with the content of this article, your comments will be more likely to be published if they are delivered respectfully. Hateful or trollish comments will be deleted.


Michael Bailey is Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University. His book The Man Who Would Be Queen provides a readable scientific account of two kinds of gender dysphoria among natal males, and is available as a free download here.

Ray Blanchard received his A.B. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1967 and his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in 1973. He was the psychologist in the Adult Gender Identity Clinic of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) from 1980–1995 and the Head of CAMH’s Clinical Sexology Services from 1995–2010.


It is increasingly common for gender dysphoric adolescents and mental health professionals to claim that transition is necessary to prevent suicide. The tragic case of Leelah Alcorn is often cited as the rallying cry: “transition or else!” Leelah (originally Joshua) was a gender dysphoric natal male who committed suicide at age 17, blaming her parents for failing to support her gender transition and forcing her into Christian reparative therapy. Subsequently, various “Leelah’s Laws” banning “conversion therapy” for gender dysphoria (among other things) have been passed or are being considered across the United States.

The suicide of one’s child is every parent’s nightmare. Given the choice for our child between gender transition and suicide, we would certainly choose transition. But the best scientific evidence suggests that gender transition is not necessary to prevent suicide.

We provide a more detailed essay below, but here’s the bottom line:

  1. Children (most commonly, adolescents) who threaten to commit suicide rarely do so, although they are more likely to kill themselves than children who do not threaten suicide.
  2. Mental health problems, including suicide, are associated with some forms of gender dysphoria. But suicide is rare even among gender dysphoric persons.
  3. There is no persuasive evidence that gender transition reduces gender dysphoric children’s likelihood of killing themselves.
  4. The idea that mental health problems–including suicidality–are caused by gender dysphoria rather than the other way around (i.e., mental health and personality issues cause a vulnerability to experience gender dysphoria) is currently popular and politically correct. It is, however, unproven and as likely to be false as true.

Suicide vs Suicidality vs Non-suicidal Self-injury

Suicide is a rare event. In the United States in 2014, about 13 out of every 100,000 persons committed suicide. Suicide was most common among middle aged white males, who accounted for about 7 out of 10 known suicides.

It is helpful to distinguish at least four different things: Completed suicide means death by suicide. Suicidality means either thinking about committing suicide or attempting suicide. Non-suicidal self-injury means injuring oneself (most often by cutting one’s skin) without intending to die. Finally, mental illness includes a variety of conditions, from depression to conduct disorder to personality disorders (such as borderline personality disorder) to schizophrenia–some of which are especially strongly associated with completed suicide and suicidality, others of which are more strongly associated with non-suicidal self-injury.

Obviously, completed suicide is what we are most worried about. Because it is so rare, however, and because it is often difficult to know about the dead person’s motivations for suicide, it has been especially difficult to study. There are fewer studies focusing on gender dysphoria and completed suicide than on gender dysphoria and either suicidality or non-suicidal self-injury. Studies of suicidality must rely on self-report (for example, someone must report that they are, or have been, thinking about committing suicide), and this complicates interpretations of results. (Maybe some people, some times, are especially likely to say they have been suicidal, even if they haven’t been.) Also there is more than one kind of gender dysphoria–we think there are three (this is a topic for another day)–and we should not expect risks to be identical for all types.

The Scientific Literature

Our aim here is not to review every available study, but to focus on the best evidence. Larger, more representative studies–and most importantly, studies of completed suicide–are most informative.

Studies of Completed Suicides

 Two large systematic studies of completed suicide and gender dysphoria have been published, one from the Netherlands, the other from Sweden. Notably, both countries are socially liberal, and both studies were conducted fairly recently (1997 and 2011). Both studies focused on patients who had been treated medically at national gender clinics. These patients all either began or completed medical gender transition, and we refer to them as “transsexuals.” (We don’t know how many of the patients there were from each of the three types we believe exist.)

The Dutch study’s suicide data were of male-to-female transsexuals (natal males transitioned to females) treated with cross-sex hormones (and many also with surgery). Of 816 male-to-female transsexuals, 13 (1.6%) completed suicide. This was 9 times higher than expected. Still, suicide was rare in the sample. The Swedish study found an even larger increase in the rate of suicide, 19 times higher among the transsexuals than among a non-transsexual control group. Still, only 10 out of 324 transsexuals (i.e., 3.1% of the group) committed suicide. Again, still rare. Note that both studies were of gender dysphoric persons who transitioned. As such, their results hardly support the curative effects of transition.

The Dutch and Swedish studies were of adults whose gender dysphoria may or may not have begun in childhood. No published study has focused only on childhood onset cases. However, psychologist Kenneth Zucker has tracked the outcome of more than 150 childhood onset cases treated at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health into adolescence and young adulthood. He has generously shared with us (in a personal communication) his outcome data for suicide. Out of those more than 150 cases followed, only one had committed suicide. Furthermore, Dr. Zucker’s understanding (based on parent report) is that this suicide was not due to gender dysphoria, but rather to an unrelated psychiatric illness. On the one hand, one suicide out of 150 cases is more than we’d expect by chance. On the other hand, it is a rare outcome among gender dysphoric children and adults.

Studies of Suicidality and Non-suicidal Self-injury

People who commit suicide were suicidal before they did so. But most people who are suicidal do not commit suicide. “Suicidal” is necessarily a vague word, encompassing “intends to commit suicide” and “thinks about suicide,” both in a wide range of intensity. Furthermore, most studies would include as “suicidal” someone who falsely reports a past or present intention to commit suicide.

Why would anyone falsely report being suicidal? One reason is to influence the behavior of others. Saying that one is suicidal usually gets attention–sympathy, for example. It can be a way of impressing others with the seriousness of one’s feelings or needs. Although this possibility has not been directly studied, reporting suicidality may sometimes be a strategy for advancing a social cause.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the rates of intentional but non-fatal self-injury peak during adolescence at about 450 per 100,000 girls and a bit fewer than 250 per 100,000 boys. These rates are much higher than the 13 per 100,000 American completed suicides per year (and remember that suicide is more common among adults than adolescents). So it is reasonable to assume that most adolescent self-injury is not intended to end one’s life. We are not suggesting that parents ignore children’s self-injury. We simply mean that self-injury often has motives besides genuinely suicidal intent.

 Not surprisingly, given the increased rates of suicide among gender dysphoric adults, suicidality (i.e., self-reported suicidal thoughts and past “suicide attempts”) is also higher among the transgendered. One recent survey statistically analyzed by the Williams Institute reported that 41% of transgender adults had ever made a suicide attempt, compared with a rate of 4.6% for controls. This survey recruited respondents using convenience sampling, however, and this may have inflated the rate of suicidal reports. Additionally, the authors of the survey included the following (admirable) disclaimer):

Data from the U.S. population at large, however, show clear demographic differences between suicide attempters and those who die by suicide. While almost 80 percent of all suicide deaths occur among males, about 75 percent of suicide attempts are made by females. Adolescents, who overall have a relatively low suicide rate of about 7 per 100,000 people, account for a substantial proportion of suicide attempts, making perhaps 100 or more attempts for every suicide death. By contrast, the elderly have a much higher suicide rate of about 15 per 100,000, but make only four attempts for every completed suicide. Although making a suicide attempt generally increases the risk of subsequent suicidal behavior, six separate studies that have followed suicide attempters for periods of five to 37 years found death by suicide to occur in 7 to 13 percent of the samples (Tidemalm et al., 2008). We do not know whether these general population patterns hold true for transgender people but in the absence of supporting data, we should be especially careful not to extrapolate findings about suicide attempts among transgender adults to imply conclusions about completed suicide in this population.

That is, importantly, the authors realize that suicidality and completed suicide are very different things, and it is suicidality that they have studied. Completed suicides in their group will be much, much lower.

Increased suicidality for gender dysphoric children was also reported by parents in a recent study by Kenneth Zucker’s research group.

A systematic review of non-suicidal self-injurious behavior in “trans people” found a higher rate, especially for trans men (i.e., natal females who have transitioned to males). The most common method mentioned was self-cutting. (Self-cutting is a common symptom of borderline personality disorder, which is also far more common among non-transgender natal females than among natal males.)

Is Transition the Answer, After All?

In a very recent study psychologist Kristina Olson reported that parents who supported their gender dysphoric children’s social transition rated them just as mentally healthy as their non-gender-dysphoric siblings. Furthermore, parents’ reports suggested that the socially transitioned gender dysphoric children were not less mentally healthy than a random sample would be expected to be.

This research falls far short of negating or explaining the findings we have reviewed above. First, it was relatively small, including only 73 gender dysphoric children. Second, families were recruited via convenience sampling, increasing the likelihood of various selection biases. For example, it is possible that especially mentally healthy families volunteer for this kind of research. Third, the assessment was a brief snapshot; we would expect socially transitioned gender dysphoric children to be faring better at that snapshot compared with children struggling with their gender dysphoria. (There is little doubt that at first, gender dysphoric children are happier if allowed to socially transition.) Young gender dysphoric children do not show that many psychological or behavior problems, aside from their gender issues. The aforementioned study by Kenneth Zucker’s research group showed that mental health problems, including suicidality, increased with age. Perhaps this won’t happen with Olson’s participants, but it’s too soon to know.

Why Is Gender Dysphoria Associated with Mental Problems, Including Suicidality?

 We don’t know.

The current conventional wisdom is that gender dysphoria creates a need for gender transition that, if frustrated, causes all the problems. That is a convenient position for pro-transition clinicians and activists. But they simply don’t know that this is true. Furthermore, both our past experience studying mental illness scientifically and specific findings related to gender dysphoria suggests the conventional wisdom is unlikely to be correct.

As an example, Leelah Alcorn’s suicide (like most suicides) was tragic, but she appears to have had problems that were not obviously caused by her gender dysphoria. She posted as Joshua (her male identity) on Tumblr:

“I’m literally such a bitch. shit happens in my life that isn’t even really that bad and all I do is complain about it to everyone around me and threaten to commit suicide and make them feel sorry for me, then they view me as sub-human and someone they have to take care of like a child. then when they don’t meet my each and every single expectation I lash out at them and make them feel like shit and like they weren’t good enough to take care of me. since I can only find imperfections in myself I try my hardest to find imperfections in everyone around me and use them as a way to one up myself and make others feel bad to make myself look better.”

Sophisticated causal analysis of mental illness and life experiences has invariably shown that things are more complex than previously assumed. For example, although depression is certainly caused by adverse life experiences, those vulnerable to depression have a tendency to generate their own stressful life experiences. So it’s not as simple as depression being caused by life experiences alone. Also, depression has a considerable genetic influence. Similarly, women with borderline personality disorder (BPD) report that they have experienced disproportionate childhood sexual abuse (CSA), and many clinicians and researchers have assumed that CSA causes BPD. But one just can’t assume the causal direction goes that way–one must eliminate alternative possibilities. Recent sophisticated studies suggest that, in fact, CSA does not cause BPD.

Research to understand the link between gender dysphoria, various mental problems (including suicidality), and completed suicides will take time. There is already plenty of reason, however, to doubt the conventional wisdom that all the trouble is caused by delaying gender transition of gender dysphoric persons. We have already mentioned the fact that transitioned adults who had been gender dysphoric (i.e., “transsexuals”) have increased rates of completed suicide. Their transition did not prevent this, evidently. Suicide (and threats to commit suicide) can be socially contagious. Thus, social contagion may play an important role in both suicidality and gender dysphoria itself. Autism is a risk factor for both gender dysphoria and suicidality. No one, to our knowledge, believes that gender dysphoria causes autism.

Conclusions

Parents with gender dysphoric children almost always want the best for them, but many of these parents do not immediately conclude that instant gender transition is the best solution. It serves these parents poorly to exaggerate the likelihood of their children’s suicide, or to assert that suicide or suicidality would be the parents’ fault.


References

Aitken, M., VanderLaan, D. P., Wasserman, L., Stojanovski, S., & Zucker, K. J. (2016). Self-harm and suicidality in children referred for gender dysphoria. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry55(6), 513-520.

Dhejne, C., Lichtenstein, P., Boman, M., Johansson, A. L., Långström, N., & Landén, M. (2011). Long-term follow-up of transsexual persons undergoing sex reassignment surgery: cohort study in Sweden. PloS one6(2), e16885.

Marshall, E., Claes, L., Bouman, W. P., Witcomb, G. L., & Arcelus, J. (2016). Non-suicidal self-injury and suicidality in trans people: a systematic review of the literature. International review of psychiatry28(1), 58-69.

Nock, M. K., Borges, G., Bromet, E. J., Cha, C. B., Kessler, R. C., & Lee, S. (2008). Suicide and suicidal behavior. Epidemiologic reviews30(1), 133-154.

Van Kesteren, P. J., Asscheman, H., Megens, J. A., & Gooren, L. J. (1997). Mortality and morbidity in transsexual subjects treated with cross‐sex hormones. Clinical endocrinology47(3), 337-343.

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Trans United Fund plays suicide & race cards to emotionally blackmail the balking masses

A key trans-activist political tactic is to accuse pediatric transition skeptics of “hating” trans kids. Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from hating gender-defiant young people who have been labeled transgender by the important adults in their lives, our interest is in protecting them from drastic medical interventions. Many who contribute to 4thWaveNow are parents of such children and teens. If anyone is doing the “hating” it is the trans activists, who vilify parents like us and our supporters.

Why do I bring up the hate angle? Because the rationale given by the new political action committee Trans United Fund (TUF) for their slick new video featuring trans kids and their parents is to counter the “hate” being aimed at these kids. In announcing TUF’s professionally produced 2:20 minute infomercial, the trans-activist lobby GLAAD  (whose Board Chair is Jennifer Boylan, an MtoF activist) had this to say:

In light of the recent rise of anti-LGBT bills nationwide, Trans United has released a new ad entitled “Meet My Child” that humanizes transgender people.

Implicit in this wording, of course, is that opponents of sterilizing and drugging children are engaged in a dehumanization campaign.

The video, above all, glorifies parents who simply go along with their child’s proclamations that they are, or want to be, the opposite sex. [Calling all child development experts of yesteryear: Teach us about concrete thinking as a developmental stage.]

We see children who look to be about 7 or 8, and others who appear to be middle school age—all of them “presenting” as the opposite sex by way of dress, hairstyle, and toy-and-play-activity stereotypes.

Quiz: Can you tell the “trans boy” from the “trans girls”?

multicolor hair

Long multicolored tresses = ?

basketball

Basketball..hint, hint

dollhouse

Do they even make blue dollhouses?

So much for transgenderism being about “challenging the binary” and “breaking gender molds.”

The images of happy trans kids and their parents are juxtaposed against a TV-clip cameo of a bloviating Ted Cruz, US Senator and former GOP presidential candidate, a far-right conservative. The message to liberals is clear: You’re just like the Tea Partiers if you don’t buy what Trans United is selling.

At 1:43, we are reminded (as we are in daily media stories):

41%

This is a lie—or more charitably, a distortion. Like most such cynical distortions, it is derived from something true.  The 41% figure comes from the oft-cited Williams Institute survey, whose authors themselves note that this (yes, unacceptably high) suicidality rate includes not just trans-identified but also gender nonconforming adults who have ever had thoughts of self harm. It is not an actual suicide “attempt” rate. Moreover, and most importantly, the survey found that people who have sought and/or received medical transition services have a HIGHER RATE of self harm and suicidality.

My bringing up the Williams Institute survey does not indicate a callous attitude towards high self-harm rates in trans-identified people. In fact, all gender nonconforming people (which includes many gay, lesbian, and bisexual people who have never identified as transgender) have a higher rate of suicidal thoughts and self harm. My purpose in bringing up the 41% statistic is to shed light on the cynical use of self harming rates to bludgeon parents and others into thinking that pediatric transition is the cure for despair.

(For more detail on the Williams Institute survey and the origin of the 41% figure, please read this whole post.)

Directly after the 41% appears on screen, we see the tearful mother of a trans girl saying,  between sobs, “She’s my heart. I don’t want to lose her.”

The media experts at Trans United know exactly what they are doing.  The death of a child is the most devastating possibility imaginable to any loving parent, with suicide almost beyond contemplation. No parent would face the suicide of their child without blaming themselves.

So, this is checkmate. Game, set, match:

  • Gender defiant kids–no matter how old they are–are the opposite sex if they say they are. Period.
  • Trans kids are cute and innocent—like all children.
  • If you don’t accept that these kids are actually the opposite sex, you will cause them to kill themselves.
  • If you don’t accept that these kids are actually the opposite sex, you are a hateful bigot—just like Ted Cruz.
  • Having any doubts or questions about the actions of adult transgender people is tantamount to hating children and their loving parents.
  • Don’t be a transphobe! [Note to liberals: You might even be a racist transphobe, because the video includes non-white parents and kids. More on that in a minute.]

In this recent MetroWeekly story showcasing TUF and its propaganda video, the mother of a 5-year old trans girl tells us this:

My daughter Ariel is only five years old. She is beautiful and perfect, just the way god made her. She is also trans,” Fajardo said. “Like many little girls, she loves Elsa and Barbie and dresses.

metroweekly

Apparently the child was trans while still an in-arms baby

As is always the case, when talking about their children, parents of young trans kids always refer to gender stereotyped play, clothing, and behaviors, and Fajardo is no exception. (How many adult gay and lesbians today could testify to their love of the activities and lifestyle of the opposite sex?). And lest we forget: Parents who have allowed their young kids to decide “who they are” will mean, in many cases, a lifetime of hormones, surgeries, and almost certainly, if they follow the path of other children who have been socially transitioned and moved on to puberty blockers—permanent sterilization via cross-sex hormones.

The TUF professionals who created the inaugural ad seem to have made a point of using ethnically diverse people in their infomercial.  It is the African American mother who delivers the nightmare implicit warning that any parent who doesn’t transition their young child will be directly responsible for their suicide:

 AA mom crying

“She’s my heart. I don’t want to lose her.”

Making sure liberal skeptics (like me) know it’s not just white people who have trans kids appeals to our commitment to support people of color. But while it’s politically incorrect to bring it up, there is evidence that people from some communities tend to have more traditional, rigid ideas about homosexuality. If a parent is averse to the idea of (for example) an “effeminate” son who might grow up to be homosexual, it’s not much of a stretch to think that parent might find some modicum of relief in thinking their child has a condition which can be cured by modern medicine; maybe even turn the child straight.

But regardless of whether ethnicity or culture is a factor in homophobia or parental support for transitioning children, Trans United Fund is using children to promote an agenda. Even with the sound turned off, the imagery in the TUF ad peddles the message that people are transgender from birth (for which there is no evidence—if anything, the peer-reviewed evidence runs counter to this), playing neatly into the trans activist assertion that children who claim the opposite sex in childhood are definitely going to grow up to believe they are trans as adults.

Trans United Fund launched with a splash in April, and even though this first expensive piece of propaganda takes aim at a Republican (Ted Cruz), they say they will accept money from whoever wants to pony up the funds.

Hayden Mora, a founding member of the Trans United Fund (TUF), says that the newly launched PAC will take support wherever it can be found.

“Our vision and our goal is to have a conversation with anyone who is serious about supporting the trans community and supporting trans people,” he told The Daily Beast. “That includes Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and everyone else on the political spectrum.”

TUF is not alone. There is plenty of money and power behind the trans lobby, and many of these organizations work in coalition, with interlocking board members and staff. Hayden Mora , a transgender man and TUF spokesperson, is also the Director of Strategic Relations at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), another deep-pocketed trans activist organization.

Other national advocacy groups focused on transgender issues include the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), which has long coordinated with federal, state, and local governments on various policy issues. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Lambda Legal have both been influential in the fight over North Carolina’s recent anti-transgender legislation.

TUF’s lead story today focuses on the pressure the group is bringing to bear on Hilary Clinton; they want her to take a firm position on the “bathroom wars” currently being waged between the US Government and balking states via a flurry of competing lawsuits.

hilary

As always and everywhere, money talks. We will likely be seeing and hearing a lot more from Trans United Fund in the months and years to come.

TUF background

 

The 41% trans suicide attempt rate: A tale of flawed data and lazy journalists

If there is one constant in reports about transgender people, it’s the prevalence of suicidal intent.  Nearly all media accounts cite an average 41% suicide attempt rate. A Google keyword search for “transgender 41% suicide” results in over 43,000 hits.

Often, the attempted suicide rate is presented in the context of a story about a young person desperately needing to medically “transition” to the opposite sex. Caitlyn Jenner mentioned the 41% when accepting the ESPY courage award last month, and gender specialists like Johanna Olson routinely bring up suicide as a rationale for hormone and surgical treatments.

In every one of the stories I’ve read, the unspoken or explicit assumption is that transition cures suicidality.

A parent reading one of these stories will be terrified. The very notion that a child might attempt suicide is the worst possible nightmare a mother or father could imagine. The message being hammered  over and over again is that we can only save our young people by supporting their transition to the opposite sex, no questions asked, if that’s what they say they want.  Period. End of discussion. (I have personally been accused of contributing to the risk of youth suicide, simply by raising the questions I do in my blogs.)

So where does this 41% figure come from?

Many media accounts don’t cite the source of the 41% number, but this one does: an analysis released in January 2014 by The Williams Institute, in collaboration with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The report, Suicide Attempts Among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults, drew its data from a 2008 U.S. National Transgender Discrimination Survey of 6456 self-identified transgender and gender non-conforming adults (ages 18+). Of these, 2566 (40%) were biological females at birth. (As always, natal females will be the main focus of my post.)

A suicide attempt rate of 41% is an emergency. Surely the Williams Institute analysis is conclusive enough to warrant the burgeoning number of gender clinics hurrying to diagnose and start “transitioning” young people who identify as transgender? Does the data convincingly show that gender dysphoria is alleviated by “passing” as the opposite gender, and that medical transition lowers suicide rates?

It does no such thing.

The authors of the study were well aware of its limitations, as I’ll show in this post. But you don’t have to take my word for it: read the AFSP/Williams Institute analysis yourself. It’s written in accessible language and is only 18 pages long, much of which is summarized in easy-to-understand tables. This material could be absorbed by even an average journalist, who presumably is paid to be at least marginally interested in the actual findings of the survey. Even a part-time, unpaid, obscure blogger like me can digest it in under an hour.

But it seems the actual “reporters”—even the ones who cite the source of the 41% figure–don’t analyze the report beyond such generalities as: The results are staggering..disturbing…alarming…

Yes, they are. A 41% lifetime suicide attempt rate is horrific, especially when compared to a 4.7% suicide rate for the US population as a whole, and a 10-20% rate for lesbian, gay, bisexual people (these numbers are according to the authors of the survey). What, exactly, does the survey tell us about attempted suicide in the gender nonconforming (GNC) and trans community?  What is causing this high rate of suicidality?  As with most things, the devil is in the details.

I will not attempt to cover all aspects of the Williams Institute analysis in this post, but will highlight a few of the more interesting nuggets of information I gleaned;  in particular, weaknesses and findings that have not been addressed in other accounts I’ve read.

  • The authors note that the survey was flawed because only one binary, Yes/No question was asked: “Have you ever attempted suicide?” More careful and rigorous studies always follow up with in-person interviews, and when self-harming behaviors (not intended to end life) are controlled for, the actual suicide attempt rate is typically halved—meaning the suicide attempt rate could be as low as 20%.
  • The highest suicide attempt rate of all–60+%–was GNC and trans people who self-report a mental disability. No big surprise there; it’s well known that having certain mental conditions is a risk factor for suicidality. But by the authors’ own admission, the survey made no effort to ask for further details about these mental health issues. The status of having a mental condition was self reported, with no corroboration from medical records or a provider. Nor was there any attempt to discover whether the actual rate of mental illness was objectively higher (via diagnosis by a mental health provider) than reported by the subjects.
  • People who had either sought or received transition-related services had a higher suicide attempt rate than people who have not. And the survey did not ask whether suicide attempts occurred before or after services were sought or received.
  • The data suggest that natal females seem not to be helped at all, in terms of self harm, by being either “stealth” trans or passing as male.  (This is the opposite finding from that of natal males.)

Right from the get-go on page 3, under Methods and Limitations, the authors acknowledge the fundamental flaws in the survey. They urge caution in interpreting their findings:

First, the…questionnaire included only a single item about suicidal behavior that asked, “Have you ever attempted suicide?” with dichotomized responses of Yes/No. Researchers have found that using this question alone in surveys can inflate the percentage of affirmative responses, since some respondents may use it to communicate self-harm behavior that is not a “suicide attempt,” such as seriously considering suicide, planning for suicide, or engaging in self-harm behavior without the intent to die …The National Comorbity Survey, a nationally representative survey, found that probing for intent to die through in-person interviews reduced the prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts from 4.6 percent to 2.7 percent of the adult sample … Without such probes, we were unable to determine the extent to which the 41 percent of NTDS participants who reported ever attempting suicide may overestimate the actual prevalence of attempts … In addition, the analysis was limited due to a lack of follow-up questions asked of respondents who reported having attempted suicide about such things as age and transgender/gender non-conforming status at the time of the attempt.

We could stop right here and say the survey’s main data point–the 41%–is worthless. If, in general population studies, it has been shown that, without followup questions, the rate of actual suicide attempts could be artificially inflated to nearly double, the real rate for GNC/trans people could be closer to 20%. In addition, the authors point out that, without some sense of when the self harm took place, there is no way to determine whether identifying as gender nonconforming or transgender was the key factor in the self-harming behavior.

But let’s not stop there. Even if the rate is closer to 20%, that is still unacceptably high. And self harm is a huge problem, whether the actual intent to end one’s life is present or not.

Second, the survey did not directly explore mental health status and history, which have been identified as important risk factors for both attempted and completed suicide in the general population. Further, research has shown that the impact of adverse life events, such as being attacked or raped, is most severe among people with co-existing mood, anxiety and other mental disordersThe lack of systematic mental health information in the NTDS data significantly limited our ability to identify the pathways to suicidal behavior among the respondents.

In other words, the survey is seriously flawed because there is no reliable information about the actual mental health status of the participants; and, since mental health problems are a known self-harm risk, there is no way to accurately figure out whether the suicide attempt rate is as high as it is due to co-occurring mental illness–not necessarily because of  “gender dysphoria.” Further, another high risk factor for suicidality is being physically or sexually assaulted, especially for people with mental health disorders.

So the authors tell us two things: the 41% figure should be interpreted with great caution; and the causes of the elevated self harm/suicide attempt rate (whatever that rate actually is)–the “pathways”–cannot be reliably determined.

Williams Table 12

What about people who have contemplated or received medical transition services? The survey tabulated everything from transition-related counseling to bottom surgery:

Respondents who said they had received transition related health care or wanted to have it someday were more likely to report having attempted suicide than those who said they did not want it. This pattern was observed across all transition-related services and procedures that were explored in the NTDS.

Williams Inst suicide table 5

People who said they “did not want” these services had a lower self-harm rate. Does medical transition, or seeking transition services, decrease or increase suicide attempt rates? We don’t know, because the survey didn’t ask respondents if the self harm occurred before or after such services were soughtas the authors note:

The survey did not provide information about the timing of reported suicide attempts in relation to receiving transition-related health care, which precluded investigation of transition-related explanations for these patterns.

This is very important: I have most often seen the 41% rate mentioned, with no caveats or analysis, to justify young people receiving medical transition services. It’s clear from the authors’ own words that this survey cannot be responsibly used as a basis for the presumption that medical transition reduces self harming behaviors over the lifespan.

And now to one of the more interesting findings in the Williams Institute report:  natal females (in contrast to natal males) who say other people generally don’t recognize them as trans or GNC have the same or higher suicide attempt rate as females who are more often recognized by others.

Williams Table 7

Trans men (FTM) were found to have the same prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts (46%) regardless of whether they thought others can tell they are transgender. … for respondents in the last two gender identity categories – female-assigned cross-dressers and gender non-conforming/genderqueer people assigned female at birth – the prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts was found to be higher among those who said other people “occasionally” or “never” can tell they are transgender or gender non-conforming, compared to those who said that other people “always,” “most of the time,” or “sometimes” can tell. 

And later–buried  in the Executive Summary, we find this:

Importantly, our analyses suggest that the protective effect of non-recognition is especially significant for those on the trans feminine spectrum. For people on the trans masculine spectrum, however, our data suggest that this protective effect may not exist or, in some cases, may work in the opposite direction.

What does it mean to “not be recognized” as transgender or gender nonconforming? It could be one of two things: these natal females “pass” as male, or they are secretly gender nonconforming, perhaps cross dressing at home, in private. But in either case, being stealth or passing doesn’t seem to alleviate the urge to self harm.

I am going to guess that, for at least some of the natal females who answered this survey question, they did interpret  “people can’t tell”  to mean that they usually “pass” as male.  So for at least some of these females,  being perceived as male didn’t help them.  And FTMs, by all accounts, “pass” better than MTFs. Why wouldn’t passing relieve the distress for these female-born people? What is causing the misery in girls and women who are GNC or trans-identified?

If self harm risk remains elevated for many young women, whether they “pass” or not, wouldn’t a more compassionate and prudent approach be to help them–and their families–accept themselves as females who simply don’t fit societal gender norms? Many of these girls, prior to transition, live a lesbian lifestyle (even if they reject the label “lesbian”). How much kinder would it be to help them embrace the only bodies they will ever have, with the sexual preference they have, instead of endorsing extreme interventions that may never resolve their dysphoria?

Elsewhere in the survey, we learn that lack or loss of family support is a big factor in self-harm risk. This seems like a no-brainer. But support for what? Accepting a loved one’s gender expression or identity is not the same as getting on board with hormones and surgery. In fact, by encouraging the idea that they must medically transition (which entails lifelong and sometimes painful interventions) to be happy, might family and gender specialists even be increasing the risk of self harm?

It’s obvious that teens who are gender nonconforming are bullied and rejected because they don’t fit into the stereotypical boy or girl box–however they subjectively identify.  And like all kids, they just want to be accepted. Listen to Ash Haffner, the 16-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina who died (as Joshua/Leelah Alcorn did) by bolting in front of a moving vehicle in February 2015, writing this days before her death:

if I die…I don’t want to be remembered as the faggot gay girl with all the scars on her arm. unfortunately thats who I am to alot of people. if those people would have just stayed silent and kept their ignorant thoughts in their heads then maybe i wouldn’t have those scars on my arm. maybe. it wasn’t always about what they had in their heads, it was what was inside of mine to. i just didn’t understand why i felt the way i did when i had a decent life. i may have come from a broken family but i always had a roof over my head and a loving mother who fully accepted me for who i was and never stopped trying. she was the only person who never gave up hope on me. but anyway, i don’t want to be remembered as the girl with problems, just remember me as someone who understood and stayed strong for as long as i could.”

Ash’s mother, who, according to media accounts, accepted her child as whatever gender Ash preferred, said:

“She was trying to figure out her identity,” Quick said. “She felt like a boy trapped in a girl’s body. She was caught somewhat in between. People weren’t really giving her the time to figure herself out. … All she wanted was for people to just accept her. Ash started enduring the most bullying when she cut her hair short.”

Ash’s “gender nonconformity”–her short hair, for crying out loud–is what caused the increase in bullying. Isn’t our challenge, as parents, as therapists, as a society, to  support our young people when they step outside stereotyped gender norms? To allow a girl to have a crew cut or wear boxer shorts? For a boy to wear a dress if he wants?


The Williams Institute analysis raises many more questions than it answers. It seems clear that being–or, more precisely, identifying as–some flavor of gender nonconforming or trans is correlated with a high rate of self harming behaviors. Mental health problems, coupled with a history of physical and/or sexual abuse or trauma, are associated with the highest risk of self harm. But judging by the evidence, gender specialists don’t seem to be taking those key risk factors into account when prescribing “transition” as an answer.

Whether the majority of these individuals who have self-harmed will ultimately benefit from medical transition is unknown (and for young people, this will not be known for years, if not decades), but there is absolutely nothing in the Williams survey analysis to indicate that medical transition will decrease suicidal intent or self harm.

In the words of the survey authors themselves:

Well-designed studies that specifically engage the transgender community will continue to be needed to identify and illuminate the health and mental health needs of transgender people, including access to appropriate health care services.

How about including the following things in “appropriate health services” for gender dysphoric young women?

  • family therapy aimed at helping parents and young women come to terms with being “gender nonconforming” women
  • evaluation and therapy for underlying mental health issues apart from gender dysphoria
  • strong female role models for girls and young women that don’t entail conforming to porn star chic
  • support for and acceptance of lesbian identity– especially for girls who don’t look like the gender-conforming, makeup-wearing “lesbians” on the “L” Word

Given the flawed data available to us, the leap in logic to assume the only viable choice is to medically transition or die ought to shame any provider, researcher, or journalist worth their salt. The Williams Institute data, if looked at honestly, should instead spur providers to offer effective psychological health evaluation and treatment for both young people and their families, and the least invasive intervention possible.