Part of the Hiding in Plain Sight blog series
Written by Kee Dunning, author & psychotherapist providing crisis intervention
August 4, 2021
The Oxford Dictionary defines an “assumption” as something that is accepted as true or certain to happen, without proof. We all make assumptions. Our assumptions can lead to judgments that affect the mental health and wellbeing of others. How can we discover what we don’t know about ourselves and others?
Ask yourself, what would you assume about a man in his 70’s, living on a farm in the upper Midwest, who served in the military, was an EMT, firefighter, and successful stockbroker? What would you assume about an 18-year-old wearing makeup, pink hair, flashy clothing, studying political science with aspirations to become a lawyer? What would you assume about a 10-year-old in a glittery hairband holding back her auburn hair to show a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks?
Think about it. What assumptions might you make about these three souls? What if I told you that all three, while very different, share one thing in common? What if I told you that they each have “male” listed as the gender on their birth certificates, yet all three identify as a “female?”
Does this information change your initial assumptions? Does knowing they are transgender, lead you to make some new assumptions? It shouldn’t, but odds are that it does affect your patterns of judgment.
According to the National Institutes of Health, it is estimated that 1 in every 250 adults, or almost 1 million Americans, identify as transgender. Research has shown that transgender individuals are frequently targeted by widespread social stigma, discrimination, harassment, physical and sexual abuse. According to a 2021 report by The Trevor Project, and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, more than 50% of youth identifying as transgender have considered attempting suicide in the past year.
Transgender individuals often live in fear and face violence regularly. Stories go unreported. Those cases of anti-transgender violence that are reported, according to the Human Rights Campaign, many of the victims are “misgendered” in police statements and media reports, which can further delay our awareness of deadly incidents. A record number of transgender and gender non-conforming people in the U.S. were killed in 2020.
Our assumptions and judgments can profoundly stigmatize individuals struggling for understanding, support, and acceptance. According to the Consumer Health Foundation, the average life expectancy for transgender women of color in the United States is 35 years, compared to an average life expectancy of 78 years of age for cisgender (non-trans) women.
My 70-year old client has struggled her (preferred pronoun) entire life to reconcile the discord between who she is on the inside, and who we see on the outside. She tried to compensate by excelling in every facet of her life. She could not talk about it, without being shamed, and so, she learned to hide who she was on the inside, until she almost took her life.
My 18-year-old client has struggled, surviving name-calling, vandalism, an eating disorder, and also suicide attempts. But they (preferred pronoun) have come to terms with a lot at a young age. They’ve found the right doctor to correct issues of inadequate hormone therapy. They’ve conquered the fear of telling their parents and have been fortunate to ultimately find acceptance among them.
My 10-year-old client’s parents recognized early on that their child gravitated toward female attributes and preferences, and they sought help and expert consultation early on. They are allowing her to decide for herself what her path will look like. There are challenges, but they encourage open communication and are offering support every step of the way.
Why should it matter if someone is different from what you know or feel comfortable with? Does their gender identity make them less than, or less deserving of your kindness and respect? Does it change their worth as a human being? Would your opinion change if any of these individuals was your friend, family member, or child?
Look inward and challenge yourself to consider the assumptions you make about others. Try it daily. Instead of making quick decisions, stop, listen and think, before you react and judge others. Instead of assuming, extend yourself to someone you don’t know or that you don’t understand. Let them know that you are open. Ask them how they are doing? Mean it, don’t marginalize them, and you might be surprised to find out something you do not know.
You are not alone. If you or someone you know is in crisis, whether they are considering suicide or not, please call the toll-free National Suicide Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor. If you don’t want to talk on the phone, you can also text. Crisis Text Line offers free mental health support. Text “10-18” or “SCRUBS” to 741741 for help. The call and text lines are open 24 hours a day.
About the Author
Kee Dunning is a psychotherapist in private practice, adjunct faculty and author, writing on topics such as rural youth suicide risk assessment and intervention, cognitive behavioral therapy, teen dating abuse, bullying, and concepts in communication, anger and conflict management. For nearly two decades, Kee has provided crisis intervention for triage for homeless, trafficked, and at-risk youth and families and their support systems; and was Clinical Supervisor for Graduate Studies in Counseling at Montana State University.
The “Hiding in Plain Sight” Blog is a series leading to the upcoming 2022 documentary Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness, produced and directed by Ewers Brothers Productions, executive produced by Ken Burns, and presented by WETA, the PBS flagship station in our nation’s capital.