(Content warning: suicide, self-harm)
“When we speak we are afraid / Our words will not be heard / Nor welcomed / But when we are silent / We are still afraid / So it is better to speak / remembering / We were never meant to survive” – Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival”
Dear trans girls of color who are considering suicide,
I know that the white LGBTQIA+ rights movement isn’t going to save us.
I know that gay marriage becoming legal in the United States isn’t going to stop anyone from harassing and assaulting us on the street.
I know that a bunch of television shows and movies starring cisgender actors as trans people and rewriting queer history to star white, cis gay men isn’t going to keep landlords and employers from discriminating against us.
I know that skinny white trans models and actors appearing in fashion ads are not going to make it easier for us to access healthcare or social services.
I know that a magazine cover featuring Caitlyn Jenner after hundreds of thousands of dollars of surgery, styling, and photo-editing isn’t going to make us feel sexy, beautiful, or worthy of love.
Dear trans girls of color, I know that there are some days when it seems like nothing out there – certainly not a white gay rights movement that prizes assimilation in the mainstream and marginalizes our voices – can make it seem like life is worth living.
The first time I attempted suicide, I was fifteen years old.
Even now, almost a decade later, I can still feel that bone-crushing hopelessness, that cold certainty that nothing good would ever happen to me, that my family would never forgive me, that no one would ever love me. That I would never escape the abuse and violence that always seemed to follow wherever I went.
Even now, from time to time, I still think about it.
Trans girls of color, I know that we share a close, complicated relationship with suicide. Nearly half of us have attempted or will attempt suicide at least once over the course of our lives.
As Laverne Cox points out, we live in a state of emergency – at higher risk than almost any other population for discrimination, murder, and violence. Much of this violence is committed by our own families and intimate partners. Meanwhile, transphobic medical institutions often further hurt, instead of helping, our mental health.
Dear trans girls of color, we all know why the call of suicide is so, so strong. Who can we turn to when our supposed allies ignore us? Where do we find hope in a world that’s trying to kill us?
I would never have lived this long without queer and trans woman of color strength, beauty, and poetry to inspire me and give me new life after each mental health crisis, each attack on the street, each sexual assault. I could not be the woman I am without the wisdom my queer and trans elders have given me.
Dear trans girls of color who are considering suicide, here are some of the lessons they taught me. I hope that, in some small way, they bring you life.
Because I need you all – we need each other – to survive.
1. Society Makes You ‘Crazy’ –And It’s Not Your Fault
As trans woman writer Morgan M. Page points out, the “crazy trans woman” stereotype is an old and vicious self-fulfilling prophecy.
Trans women of color are driven out of community spaces – schools, jobs, hospitals, shelters, bathrooms – because we are too strange, too scary, too ugly, too loud.
This exclusionary dynamic is supported by transphobic medical and mental health discourse that has traditionally classified trans women’s identities as a form of mental illness.
Even so-called “anti-oppression,” “LGBTQIA+,” and “social justice” spaces can be hostile to trans women of color who aren’t well-versed enough in academic social justice language to be politically correct at all times.
When we refuse to be silenced, to toe the line, to conform to misogynist norms that require women to be demure and cooperative, we are accused first of having male privilege and then of the apparently unforgivable crime of “being crazy” (which is ableist even if it were true).
It’s certainly true that trans women are more at risk than the general population for mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This is what happens when you are constantly abused and exploited by the people around you.
Trans girls of color, your being crazy is not the problem. The problem is a transphobic and ableist society that attacks us over and over, and then turns around to shame and stigmatize us for being wounded.
Society calls us crazy to absolve itself of guilt for driving us toward suicide. Refuse to take the blame.
Crazy or not, there is nothing wrong with who you are.
2. You Don’t Have to Be Ashamed of Feeling Hopeless or Suicidal
You may have noticed, dear trans girls of color, that we are all the rage nowadays in the inspirational media business.
Where once the mainstream neither knew nor cared that trans women of color existed, we are now suddenly poster children for the “courage” and “resilience” of the LGBTQIA+ community (even if we tend not to get most of the funding donated to LGBTQIA+ advocacy organizations).
After all, it’s a lot easier to be inspired by our lives than it is to live them.
Sometimes, it feels like we have to be superhuman in our ability to stand up to anything, to give as good as we get on the street, to take everything that society throws at us and come back for more.
Sometimes, it feels like there’s no room for tenderness or vulnerability – because even a single weak moment could cause a total collapse.
But there is nothing wrong with feeling hopeless when nobody offers you any hope. It isn’t weak or cowardly to feel fear when terrifying things happen to us all the time.
Dear trans girls of color, even in your most terrified and despairing moments, you have always, always been brave.
3. Your Rage and Sadness Are Incredibly Powerful
At some point in your life, dear trans girls, someone has probably told you (likely on the Internet) not to dwell on negative emotions like anger and despair.
Happiness and optimism can change the world! It gets better! We just have to trust and love our neighbors, and everything will turn out okay!
I call bullshit.
Our anger and sadness can be the best survival tools.
Sadness and anger have gotten me through years of fighting, striving, holding on to life. Rage and despair are what motivated me to become a writer, a story-teller, a survivor.
A friend of mine once said that she used to not understand why her feelings of anger and despair were always so intense, so insistently present. Then she realized what she was feeling: grief. Overwhelming, constant, grief – as though she was at a funeral every day of her life.
Trans girls of color, we live in a sick, broken world.
Racism and transphobia come to claim us, our bodies, every single day. Our grief has a cause, a reason, and it can keep us alive if we listen to it.
Sadness tells us that what is being done to us is injustice, that we do not deserve what is being done to us. Anger gives us the strength to stand up, the will to fight back.
A trans woman of color’s rage and despair once started a riot in a bar called Stonewall. From that riot, a revolution was born.
Never let anyone take your fury or your tears from you – they are the most powerful weapons you have.
4. It Isn’t ‘Whining’ or ‘Being Too Sensitive’ to Expect Better From the Gay Rights Movement™
Sometimes, it seems like any time a trans woman of color opens her mouth, a white gay rights advocate is there to put his hand over it.
Time and time again, gay rights groups, primarily led and by white cisgender individuals, have ignored and silenced trans people in favor of assimilating into mainstream heteronormative culture.
As white, middle-class, cisgender gay and lesbian people have accrued increasing rights and legal protections, trans women of color are being left out of legislation and murdered at an increasing rate.
Dear trans girls of color, it isn’t wrong or whining or being too sensitive to be enraged by this. It isn’t wrong to call out the members of a community you’re supposed to belong to for trying to leave you behind, or worse, sell you out.
We don’t have to be patient or understanding or wait our turn for the white gay rights movement to remember us. If we did, we’d be waiting till we died.
Dear trans girls of color, we deserve better. We need better.
Let’s hold them to it.
5. Your Sisters Hold the Secrets to Survival
The most important thing I know about surviving as a trans woman of color is that I need other trans women of color in my life.
No one else can understand and support me the way you do. We are the only ones who can save each other.
Trans girls of color have a long history of finding and protecting each other. It was a Mauritian trans woman, one of my best friends, who was the first and only person to tell me that she wouldn’t let me die.
With my trans sisters, I don’t have to rely on charity or beg for scraps. I’m not being tokenized or fetishized or treated like an exotic animal, a flavor of the month.
We teach each other how to dress, how to hustle, which places are safe and which people to avoid. We help each other get writing jobs and performance gigs. We hold each other up as we fly and catch each other as we fall.
But for all of that, trans women of color are still relatively rare in my life.
More often than not, I’m surrounded by white, cis people in my professional life. They are my clients, my employers, my classmates in university. And there is a strange, competitive vibe between me and many of the trans girls of color that I do know – as if we’re all hustling for the same piece of the pie, and there’s only enough for one.
Transmisogyny and racism want to keep us jealous of each other, want to keep us apart. They know that we are so much weaker when we are lost and alone.
Dear trans girls of color: I will spend the rest of my life finding each one of you.
6. Forgive Yourself
In the fight to survive, we sometimes have to do terrible things – things we would never have even considered, given the choice.
We may have to leave family behind, or lovers, or friends. We may have to run away from home, maybe more than once. We may have to break the law, fight dirty, compromise our values about we will and will not do to make rent or get through the day.
Transmisogyny and racism do more to us than make it hard to live – they make us feel guilty and ashamed of the things we do to stay alive. They make us feel ashamed of the fact that we did stay alive, while so many others have died.
Every day, I ask myself, why do I deserve to go to university? Why do I deserve to be a writer, a professional, to be (kind of) financially stable?
When I write an article or do a keynote speech and make money from talking about how much my trans sisters of color suffer, am I allowing myself to be tokenized? Am I selling you out?
Dear trans girls of color, I am working on forgiving myself: For being trans when all my parents wanted was a nice, normal son. For saying yes when I wanted to say no, but I was feeling too lonely, or I needed the money, or I didn’t know how.
Trans girls of color, let’s forgive ourselves together.
On good days, when I am thinking clearly, I don’t believe that we’ve done anything wrong.
7. Find Life in the Struggle
The white gay rights movement has bought into the idea that happiness is something that you have to purchase: monogamy, marriage, children, a white picket fence.
Happiness, we are told, is something that trans girls of color can never, will never have.
Who wants to marry us? Who will give us a big salary to pay for a car, an apartment, for IKEA furniture? If you’re not a model or an actress, we are told, then we will never be happy.
Dear trans girls of color, I believe that we are capable of achieving anything.
Sure, if we fight hard and long enough, someday some of us will make it into the middle class. But do we want to?
Trans girls of color, you and I know that there is a better, truer kind of happiness out there. It is based on sisterhood. On a struggle that is real, and terrible, but that allows us to discover our own beauty.
8. Love Yourself However You Can
People are always saying these days that the answer is self-love. If we just love ourselves enough, then we can heal the trauma, beat the oppression, start the revolution.
People tell us to love ourselves as though we have all the time and money in the world to sleep in, go to yoga, eat kale, get therapy.
But what if the only love you have left to give yourself is rough, crazy love? What if the only way to get through the day is by drinking or using? Sometimes, our self-harm and our self-care tactics are hard to tell apart.
As a therapist, I once saw a patient who cut herself all the way up her arms, at least once a week. When I asked her why, she said, “it’s better than dying.”
And though I encouraged to find other, less painful ways to keep herself alive, what she had said rang true to much of my own experience: Sometimes, it is all you can do to keep yourself breathing.
Dear trans girls of color who are considering suicide: I want a world for you, for us, where we can love ourselves tenderly, sweetly, easily. I want a world where we are given the space to be soft.
But we live in this world. And sometimes, you have to love yourself in the only way you know how.
Dear trans girls of color: Love yourselves. Whenever you can, wherever you can, however you can.
And remember that every breath we take is another step toward the revolution.
Kai Cheng Thom is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a Chinese trans woman writer, poet, and performance artist based in Montreal. She also holds a Master’s degree in clinical social work, and is working toward creating accessible, politically conscious mental health care for marginalized youth in her community. You can find out more about her work on her website and at Monster Academy.