The Effects of the Ostracization of Transgender Youth

There is a roughly estimated one million individuals in the United States who identify as transgender. Often these individuals begin to feel some form of disparity between their gender identity and their biological sex at a very early age, frequently before puberty, and sometimes at as early as only a few years old. Unfortunately, within our society, there is a very large amount of stigma associated with transgenderism and people frequently react poorly to it, even when it is being experienced by children and family members.

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This means that children who begin to identify as transgender often end up being ostracized from their families and peer groups, resulting in bullying, abuse, homelessness, and a complete lack of a support system as they attempt to understand their identity. Transgender youth often express major concerns about the absence or lack of safe environments, lack of access to health care, minimal resources for mental health concerns, and a lack of continued caregiving by their families and communities. (Grossman, & D’augelli, 2006). Additionally, as gender nonconforming behaviors are less accepted when seen in boys than in girls, biological males who are transgender are most often the targets of verbal and physical abuse. (Grossman, & D’augelli, 2006). This paper is intended to investigate the effects of this severe ostracization on the lives of transgender youth.

School-Based Victimization

Participation in school serves many purposes, some more apparent than others, that can range from learning, career preparation, socialization, developing an understanding of social norms and citizenship in a particular place, literacy development, and cultural inclusion, among others. Regardless of stated purpose, school participation is an incredibly formative institution within our society and is, more often than not, a staple in our transformation from children into adults. Unfortunately, due to its importance in childhood and adolescence, negative experiences in school can be extremely detrimental. This effect is often felt strongly by transgender youth and can transform their experiences within the school system into something terrifying and dangerous. Transgender youth report higher levels of truancy and absenteeism, sexual orientation and gender-based bullying, general victimization, and have more negative perceptions of the climates of their schools when compared to their cisgender peers. (Day, Perez-Brumer, & Russell, 2018). A 2015 study found that 75% of transgender youth feel unsafe at school, and that those who remain enrolled have significantly lower GPAs, are more likely to miss school out of concern for their safety and are less likely to plan on continuing their education (Kosciw, Greytak, Giga, Vilenas, & Danischewski, 2016). As transgendered youth begin moving into adulthood, this homophobic bullying becomes related to fears of relationship intimacy, a perceived lack of a positive future, feelings of being an outsider in social situations, difficulty with expressing emotions to others, irritability, poor concentration, anxiety and fears about meeting people or facing new situations (Rivers, 2011).

Unfortunately, the school based ostracization experienced by transgender youth doesn’t always remain limited to peer group interaction. One study found that 72.5% of teacher preparation programs surveyed ranked sexual orientation and gender identity as either their lowest or an entirely absent priority when addressing diversity (Sherwin & Jennings, 2006). This lack of integration in educator preparation can lead to a sense of fear and anxiety in teachers with transgender students, who may then withhold support for transgender students, so they don’t appear to be encouraging gender non-conformity (Payne & Smith 2014). This fear is related to the perceived perceptions among the parents of other students and faculty and related strongly to the idea that appearing over supportive of gender nonconformity could cost them their jobs. A 2015 study also found that 50% of transgendered students have been prevented by school faculty from using the name or pronouns matching their gender identity, and 28% have been banned from wearing clothing matching their gender identity (Kosciw, Greytak, Giga, Villenas, & Danischewski, 2015).

In addition, policies are also put into place, both within school districts and politically, that put the comfort of cisgender individuals above the safety of transgendered youth. In just August of this year, an Oklahoma school district had to be shut down when a 12 year old transgendered student was outed online for having used the girl’s bathroom once and adults both within and outside of the community began issuing threats of violence towards the student and leaving harassing messages meant to be dehumanizing and cruel while refusing to acknowledge her chosen identity (Wong 2018). These dangers, as well as the lack of institutional support, are often enough to cause transgender youth to forego their education out of concerns for their safety and wellbeing.

Familial Rejection and Homelessness

Family ties and interactions form the base of how children learn to interact with the world and the other people they encounter, and they allow for personal exploration into young adulthood. When this base is stable and supportive it can act as a buffer to negative outside interactions, provide encouragement, and act as a safety net as people grow into adults. However, the strength of the stigma within our society that surrounds gender nonconformity is often enough to break family bonds and remove even the most basic of support systems from the lives of transgender youth, causing these relationships to become abusive, disparaging, unsupportive, and can sometimes lead to the complete rejection of the transgender individual by their family unit.

A disproportionate number of LGBT people experience homelessness each year in the United States and, although the exact number is unknown, there is thought to be approximately 320,000 to 400,000 LGBT youth effected by homelessness (Quintana, Rosenthal, & Kehely, 2010). Without resources and support, these youth often drop out of school, run away, and end up on the streets, where they may engage in survival sex and become at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (Klein, 1999). Among LGBT youth, the mean age of becoming homeless for the first time is 14 years old (Rosario, Schrimshaw, & Hunter, 2012). It has been shown that LGBT youth comprise 3045% of clients served by homeless youth agencies, drop-in centers, outreach, and housing programs (Durso & Gates, 2012), and among homeless LGBT youth, 35% of females and 65% of males report a history of violence (Marsiglia, Nieri, Valdez, Gurrola, & Mars, 2009). A 2012 study found that the most common reason among LGBT youth for becoming homeless is running away from families who reject them because of sexual orientation or gender identity and the second most common reason is being forced out by their family, despite preferring to stay at home, after disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity. (Durso & Gates, 2012). While these numbers represent all LGBT youth, as research on transgendered youth specifically is still scarce in some areas, estimates for transgendered youth are thought to be even more severe than what is seen among LGB identifying youth.

Once transgender youth find themselves away from their family, they are often faced with further complications such as lack of support, proper mental and physical healthcare and further abuse within shelters and agencies meant to assist homeless youth. Programs intended to help homeless youth are ill suited for dealing with the unique needs of transgender youth, making those that seek help feel even more stigmatized as they experience structural barriers that limit the services that they have access to (Shelton 2015). Another common reason for transgender youth becoming homeless is aging out of, or running away from, the foster care system, where harassment and violence against LGBT youth frequently occurs (Durso & Gates, 2012). Issues for homeless transgender youth include the humiliation and physical or sexual victimization that occur at shelters, where transgender clients are regularly made to stay in quarters and use bathrooms or showers based on biological sex among people of a sex with which they do not identify (Mottet & Ohle, 2003). Often, they are not welcomed into shelters to begin with (Quintana, Rosenthal, & Kehely, 2010).

Suicide, Mental Illness, & Drug Use

With all these things happening, and the general lack of support experienced by many transgender youths, they are left exceptionally vulnerable to the same dangers other youths experience, but without the benefits of having trusted role models and organizational support that are meant to buffer against those dangers. Additionally, the increased presence of abuse, neglect, rejection and victimization transgender youth often experience leave them with little in the way of combating common mental health disorders. Transgender youth experience high levels of suicide ideation and attempts at suicide that are related to parental abuse, poor peer evaluation, and low self-esteem, (Grossman, & D’Augelli, 2006). Suicide ideation is linked to depression and school-based victimization in transgender youth and prevalence of past 12-month self-reported suicidal ideation was nearly twice as high for transgender compared with non-transgender youth (33.73% versus 18.85%) (Perez-Brumer, Russell, & Hatzenbuehler, 2017). Transgender youth have a higher risk of reporting psychological distress, self-harm, major depressive episodes, and suicide (Veale, Watson, Peter, &. Saewyc, 2016), and over 40% of people who are transgender attempt suicide during their lifetime. (Haas, Rodgers, & Herman, 2014). Recent studies have also shown that there is an increased likelihood of transgender individuals also being diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, it is theorized that this increase in ASD symptomology is actually a result of extreme social deprivation as opposed to true ASD, and that those symptoms could be reversed by positive socialization (Turban, 2018).

Transgender youth will often turn to the use of illicit drugs, both recreationally as a means of coping with high levels of social stress, and to obtain hormones that could otherwise be prescribed by doctor and are intended to either block the development of secondary sex characteristics associated with puberty or to encourage the development of those relating to their gender identity. Both options present a great deal of associated risk to the physical health and safety of those youth. A 2017 study found that transgender students were about 2-1/2 times more likely than cisgender students to use cocaine and/or methamphetamine in their lifetime and about 2.8 times as likely to report past 30-day inhalant use. Transgender students were more than twice as likely to report past 30-day prescription pain medication use and more than 3 times as likely to use cigarettes in school. In addition, among lifetime substance use models, transgender students had a 78%increased likelihood of inhalants use and an 89% increased likelihood of ecstasy use, they also had a 93% increased likelihood of reporting Ritalin or Adderall use (De Pedro, Gilreath, Jackson, & Esqueda, 2016).

Discussion

Perhaps the question that must be addressed first about these effects is whether or not they somehow come about because a person is transgender, or whether some other aspect of the subculture leads to an increased likelihood of drug use, mental illness, homelessness, or poor academic performance. Recently there have been quite a few studies that attempt to answer this question and increasingly they seem to point towards the ostracization of these youth being the majority of the cause of these ill effects. Often these studies indicate a lessening of the observed disparities or a complete lack of them when transgender youth are given positive social interaction, acceptance of their gender identity and a support system either through school, family, or outside organization, though, the best results are seen when they are accepted and supported among all these settings. A 2010 study found that half as many transgender youths from highly accepting families reported suicidal thoughts in the past 6 months when compared with those who reported low family acceptance (18.5% versus 38.3%). It also found that transgender young adults who reported high levels of family acceptance scored higher on all three measures of positive adjustment and health (selfesteem, social support, and general health). In the way of negative health outcomes, it found that transgender young adults who reported low levels of family acceptance had scores that were significantly worse for substance abuse, depression, suicidal ideation and attempted suicide. Additionally, the prevalence of suicide attempts among those who reported high levels of family acceptance was nearly half (30.9% versus 56.8%) the rate of those who reported low family acceptance. (Ryan, Russell, Huebner, Diaz, & Sanchez 2010) A 2018 study used the use of a transgender individual’s chosen name as a measure of their overall acceptance within different portions of their communities and found that chosen name use in more contexts was associated with lower depression, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior. Depression, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior were lowest when the chosen names could be used in all four contexts that were measured, (at work, at school, at home, with friends) and represented a 29% decrease in suicidal ideation, and a 56% decrease in suicidal behavior (Russell, Pollitt, Gu Li, & Grossman, 2018). In addition, transgender youth in schools where school faculty intervened during occurrences of homophobic bullying reported lower rates of victimization. Youth also recounted feeling greater school connection and safety when school faculty actively attempted to prevent bullying situations and implemented policies inclusive of LGBT youth (McGuire, Anderson, Toomey, & Russell, (2010).

Of further note, there are some definite limitations to these studies and there is a general lack of research present on transgender youth in some contexts. Many of these studies cover LGBT individuals as a singular group even though gender identity and sexual orientation are incredibly different and not always related. Additionally, the articles specifically studying transgender individuals still most commonly chose to use the term to cover MTF, FTM, non-binary, and gender fluid identifying individuals. This is important both because MTF individuals tend to experience instances of abuse and bullying at a higher rate than FTM individuals and because there doesn’t seem to be enough research on this grouping as a whole to ensure that the experiences of MTF and FTM individuals are what would be expected to also be experienced by non-binary and gender fluid individuals. Furthermore, many of the school-based studies were conducted in areas like California and New York, as many school-based surveys in other states fail to include questions relating to gender identity, and these are areas that are already more likely to be accepting of transgender individuals than would be expected in other parts of the country. The school-based studies also only include individuals who were in school and may fail to account for those who have dropped out for related issues, such as safety concerns and family instability. However, despite these limitations, differences caused by these things would represent a greater disparity in the numbers presented so the overall results would likely still be the same. In conclusion, while there are some limitations to this research, taken together these studies represent a consensus of information that is able to show a rather bleak set of circumstances caused by the stigmatization and ostracization of an incredibly vulnerable group of our population, and more importantly, could be avoidable if they were instead given support and acceptance.

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