VOICES: Ohio lawmakers need to listen to experts on the health of trans youth

Sam Ames is the director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project. (CONTRIBUTED PHOTO)
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Sam Ames is the director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project. (CONTRIBUTED PHOTO)

If you’ve ever talked to a young transgender or nonbinary person, you know how resilient and radiant they can be — insisting that a better life is possible, that a brighter future is possible. What you may not know is that 52 percent of young people like them have seriously considered suicide in the past year. One in five have made an attempt.

The hard truth is this is a public health crisis. But the good news is there are solutions. Medical experts point to a range of best practices to improve mental health outcomes among young transgender people, from taking steps to support social transition like respecting one’s chosen name and pronouns, to inclusive legal policies and gender-affirming care like puberty blockers that delay major decisions until young people are old enough to make them. Of course, nobody takes these decisions lightly. There are serious considerations that belong in doctor’s offices and around kitchen tables, where a young trans person and their family can talk through the options that are best for them.

Yet, today, Ohio state lawmakers are trying to insert themselves into this sensitive process, proposing a blanket ban on gender-affirming care that would punish doctors who follow best practices, and threaten teachers who do not out transgender and nonbinary students to their parents. The so-called SAFE Act, “Save Adolescents from Experimentation,” is a dangerous misnomer. Over and over, research shows that gender-affirming medical care, along with social support and acceptance, is associated with reduced risk for suicide. This bill would put young lives at risk by denying access to life-saving, evidence-based care, and jeopardizing the safety of students who live in unsupportive homes.

H.B. 454 is not new. It’s the latest iteration in a wave of legislation across the United States persecuting transgender youth. Some bills strip young trans people of affirming healthcare; some of their sports teams; and others of the ability to access public accommodations. No matter the approach, the message is the same: transgender people — people like me — should not exist.

We know this mindset directly contributes to the disproportionate rates of discrimination, violence, and poor mental health our community faces. Transgender and nonbinary people are not prone to suicide because of their gender identity, but because of relentless mistreatment.

As the largest suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth, The Trevor Project’s crisis counselors hear every day from young trans people who want nothing more than to be seen and respected for who they are. What they tell us aligns with decades of scientific research that affirming the gender identity of transgender and nonbinary youth helps prevent suicide. If Ohio lawmakers are genuinely interested in protecting young people from unnecessary risk, they should follow the lead of medical experts and researchers, who overwhelmingly say that it is trans-inclusive policies and practices that promote safety, not prohibitions. For example, Trevor’s research has found that transgender and nonbinary youth attempt suicide less when respect is given to their pronouns, when they are allowed to officially change their legal documents, and when they are able to learn in an LGBTQ-affirming school.

Trans youth benefit when health care professionals support their identity, not force them to change it. Leading medical associations — including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics — are aligned in their opposition to conversion therapy, a range of dangerous and discredited practices aimed at changing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. A 2020 study found that LGBTQ youth who underwent these abusive practices were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide in the past year. It’s time for Ohio to join the 20 other states that protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy, and to reject any message that who they are is wrong.

It is perhaps fitting that this conversation is taking place now, during the days each year when we observe Transgender Awareness Week and grieve Transgender Day of Remembrance. Tomorrow, trans people and those who love us will come together all across the country to name and mourn the trans lives cut short by violence this year — all 375 of them. Most of those names belong to Black women, people of color, and sex workers. 45 of them belong to people killed in the United States. The youngest belongs to Keron Ravach, who was 13 years old.

2021 has been the deadliest year on record. It is not a coincidence that it has also seen a record number of state and federal bills singling out transgender youth. We know how violence, racism, rejection, and suicide work hand in hand to rob our community of breath. We know they fall most heavily upon the most marginalized. We know what happens when a group of people is singled out and dehumanized. And we know what protects them: support, solidarity, community, and care.

Cutting off access to that care, especially medical care, will cost young lives. Today, of all days, we must commit to creating a safer, more accepting world for our transgender youth. We must protect our people from laws designed to bully them out of existence. Most importantly, we must fight for a year when the number of young trans lives lost is zero, when all trans people and all trans youth hear a different kind of message, loud and clear: you deserve to exist.

Sam Ames is the director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project.

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