I read a beautiful piece by Kai Cheng Thom over at XO Jane where the author starts by stating:
When I was 19, I read an article in Guernica magazine stating that the average life span of a transgender person is 23 years old. The article confirmed what I had already known for about a decade: I was doomed to a nasty, short, and miserable life. I was going to be poor, maybe homeless, definitely unemployable. I was going to be subjected to emotional and sexual violence (and in fact, I already had been), and then I was going to die, probably brutally murdered. They would print the wrong name on my grave. You know, the good old transgender story.
Kai Cheng Thom is right. It has become too much of the standard narrative of transness, and, as I pointed out years go, the focus on death in this community – especially as an outreach tool directed at cisgender people – has always bothered me. When I saw this piece, I realized this is too important not to mention.
We’re Scaring Ourselves to Death, by Loree Cook Daniels
In 1994, anti-gay crusader Paul Cameron published a paper claiming that the average life expectancy of gay men was 43, a full 30 years less than the national average life expectancy of U.S. men. He argued the life expectancy disparity was evidence of how unhealthy the gay lifestyle is. (A much-less quoted statistic from the same paper found that lesbians were 487 times more likely to die of murder, suicide, or accidents than straight women.) The statistic spread like wildfire, and was even repeated publicly by top government officials. It very well may have slowed progress toward LGBT equality.
I think of that history and cringe every time my Facebook newsfeed repeats the new “statistic” that the average lifespan for trans women of color (or Black transwomen, depending on the source) is 35. Not only is the statistic false, but it can be fatally dangerous. The difference is, this time we’re doing the damage to ourselves.
There is not and never has been a comprehensive list of people in the U.S. who are gay and/or trans. As far as I know, there are not and never have been any nationally representative studies following all gay men and/or all trans people from birth to death to determine the timing and cause of every death. Given those facts, where are these “statistics” on life expectancy coming from?
In Cameron’s case, the stats came from gay community newspapers’ obituaries. These obituaries – particularly in 1994, at the height of the AIDS epidemic – were of known/out LGBT people who some other (usually) LGBT person had reported to the newspaper. Given the ageism of the LGBT community – younger activists often have little or no contact with old LGBT people – and the fact that older generations are still less likely to be out, very few of these obituaries mentioned the deaths of old people. So the deaths that were listed tended to be of young and middle-aged people, resulting in a very low average life expectancy.
When I first heard the 35 years old life expectancy figure, I asked the person who offered it where it came from. She told me she had heard it at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. When I inquired further, she said it came from someone who had averaged all the ages of everyone listed on the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) website. This site lists people who are believed to have been murdered. Although any murder is horrible, the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of us – including transwomen of color — die of something other than murder: heart disease, cancer, dementia, accidents, etc. Scientists who have done long-term follow-up of known transgender people have not found that we are more likely to die young.
Murder, on the other hand, is mostly a young people’s phenomena. In the U.S., the average age at which all murders take place is in the 30s, exactly in line with the average age of trans people who are murdered.
Why does this matter? Because we are scaring ourselves to death. I can’t count how many times my Facebook feed has included responses like, “I feel hopeless” or “I feel suicidal” from someone reacting to the 35-year “statistic” or the seemingly endless repetition of the details of every single trans death that has been identified this year. Again, the murders are horrible. But scaring each other into feeling hopeless is not helpful. Most of us will live a long time, and we need to have hope to heal our past traumas, invest in our future, and have enough energy to help each other through the rough spots. We can ask for our allies’ help without using tactics that harm the very people we’re trying to help?