“My daughter, Kristen Arnold, killed herself 2 months and 3 days ago.”
Kristen’s mother, Barb Reeves, spoke in front of an audience of over 350 transgender individuals, allies, doctors and nurses at the Transgender Health Conference 2016 held at the University of Indianapolis July 16. Reeves’ talk was not a part of the program, but it helped exemplify why people from varying backgrounds were gathered together.
According to a National Transgender Discrimination Survey taken in 2014, 41 percent of transgender individuals have attempted suicide. That number increases to 57 percent if their family has rejected them, and 65 percent if they were a victim of violence.
Dr. Bill Buffie and Transgender Advocate Jacqueline Patterson started working on the conference back in January, both united in the feeling that state representatives weren't prioritizing or supporting the transgender community. It was Dr. Buffie’s hope representatives would use this workshop to help educate themselves about the needs of the transgender community.
“We didn’t want to have an emotional discussion that is affected by religious or cultural bias, but rather something that is really more rational,” says Buffie. “And something that I think should provide moderate and progressive minded politicians with some ammunition for helping move us off the current impasse.”
Buffie opened up the conference by speaking about some of the things that lead to such a high rate of attempted suicides.
“We understand the health care disparities that exist for the transgender community to be as a result of something called the Minority Stress Phenomenon, well established within the public health social science literature,” said Buffie. “Those who internalize societal prejudice, particularly if they are not receiving support from their family and friends in their village, they will become consumed by self-doubt, self-loathing, shame, fear and confusion; which is then manifested by high rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, risky sexual behavior, and substance abuse, all of which has tremendous implications for their short term and long term health outcomes.”
The conference was a one stop shop where participants listened to panel discussions, followed by a time of questions and answers, on topics including Stigma and Public Health, Medical Care of the Trans Patient, an HIV update and a conversation about the life of a transgender individual from a therapist’s perspective.
Perhaps the most shocking portion of the day came when Dr. Sidhbh Gallagher, who works as an IU Health plastic surgeon, and who specializes in reconstructive surgery, showed photos of what is involved in changing the genitalia from male to female, and from female to male.
This is not a process for the faint of heart. But as Dr. Gallagher pointed out, it is perhaps the most gratifying work she has ever done.
Co-leader Jacqueline Patterson spoke briefly about the perils of being quick to judge.
“I had an experience in a department store, where I was looking at blouses, and an older woman approached me. I thought, ‘Oh Lord! What is she going to say?’ Then she surprised me by saying, ‘You know what, honey? I think the color on the other rack is better for you.’”
On the flip side, Mrs. Patterson has had her share of problems as well, when she would overhear other people – sometimes children – laughing at her. “I’ve gotten to the point where I will stop them and ask: What would possess you to laugh at another human being?”
As Barb Reeves pointed out when she got up to speak about her daughter Kristen, “Everybody is just human. It doesn’t matter what clothes we wear!”
Xavier Sayeed is a Muslim-American transgender man, who recently graduated with honors from Perry Meridian High School. For him, it “got to the point where the desire to transition, and the need to transition, occupied every aspect of my life… I couldn’t even stand the thought to die as a woman.”
At the lowest point of Sayeed’s life, he suffered from dysphoria, and had a 2.9 grade point average. After he transitioned as a Junior in high school, he started to excel in every way, and his grade point average for the semester jumped to 4.5. He was finally the person he was meant to be.
“My mom sacrificed a lot to make my surgeries possible, and I am grateful for that,” said Sayeed.
There was a point where Sayeed didn’t think he would graduate, that he might end up like Kristen Arnold, and so many others before her. But now, he has not only graduated with honors – he’s now getting ready to attend one of the best universities in the country.
For Angela Knari, teaching others how to apply make up was the key to becoming her authentic self. Knari is a makeup artist, and uses make up as a way of helping people feel comfortable with themselves.
“I discovered through makeup that the gift that I have is I help facilitate healing and growth. Make up is just the tool that I use to help women feel better; but often, sometimes, to allow them to see themselves in a way that they did not see before,” said Knari. “I mean, it’s fun to get pretty, but it’s also even better to teach someone to give themselves the tools to love themselves more. It can be a pretty transformative experience.”
Prior to her transition, Kristen Arnold was a photographer and IT employee at NUVO. She then went on to work in IT and take photos for the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Children’s Museum, before moving to Texas where she started her transition at the age of 33.
“When she came out to tell me, it was on Halloween,” said Reeves. “And she actually came out – she was still living as a man, with her big long beard – and she came out with a dress on, and I thought, ‘That is so freaking awesome! She’s the bearded lady!’”
Reeves shared the story of her daughter’s coming out to her over lunch. “So I plastered it all over Facebook. I was so excited! It was the most awesome costume! And she was very mad at me. For her, it wasn’t a Halloween costume. It was her first time going out in public, dressed as a woman, to see if she could do it and feel ok… even though she still had her beard, and was living as a man, she just wanted to see what it was like to walk down the street with a dress and hose on. And so, that is how our conversation came to be.”
As a cisgender male, Dr. Buffie is hoping the participants left Saturday’s conference with a call to action.
“When people understand the problem, it’s pretty hard to justify sitting by idly and allowing this Minority Stress Phenomenon process to play out. People are dying every day. Trans individuals have the same issues to deal with as all the rest of us. They would just assume fly under the radar, and not be the center of attention,” said Buffie.
“Yet we seem to live in a world where there are a lot of bullies. It seems like everybody needs to have somebody to pick on. There has got to be some weak link that somebody can feel superior to. And now I can see that happening with our legislators. They lost the battle on gays and lesbians and marriage equality, so who’s the easy target? Who’s misunderstood? Who can you spin stereotyping and stigmatize? The transgender community is front and center right now. And it’s wrong, and it’s people in this room: It’s heterosexual, cisgender allies that shouldn’t be able to sleep at night if they don’t do their part.”