Comedian's death underscores high suicide rate among transgender people

Approximately 40 percent of transgender adults reported attempting suicide in their lifetime, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. 
Image: Daphne Dorman
Daphne Dorman.Daphne Dorman via Facebook
By Gwen Aviles

The death of a comedian who was recently referenced in Dave Chapelle’s Netflix special “Sticks and Stones” has underscored the disproportionately high suicidality rate among transgender people.

“I love you all. I'm sorry,” trans comedian Daphne Dorman wrote on Facebook on Oct. 11. “Please help my daughter, Naia, understand that none of this is her fault. Please remind her that I loved her with every fiber of my being.”

Her sister Becky Kugler confirmed Dorman’s death in the comment section of the post. “I so wish we could all have helped you through your darkness,” Kugler wrote. “We'll always love you, fly high sweet angel.”

Clair Farley, who is a senior adviser to San Francisco Mayor London Breed and who leads the city’s Office of Transgender Initiatives, said that Daphne was a fixture in the city’s LGBTQ community and taught coding classes through the office’s Trans Code program.

“Daphne was one of the kindest and funniest people in the world. She never let anything get to her and she was always giving back,” Farley wrote in an emailed statement. “She was also an incredible mom to her daughter, she will be missed by many.”

The U.S. suicide rate increased 33 percent between 1999 and 2017, despite falling in many other developed countries, including most of Western Europe, according to CDC data. And while this national trend is worrisome, the suicide rates for transgender and gender-nonconforming people are much higher than the national averages. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 40 percent of adult respondents reported having attempted suicide in their lifetime — almost nine times the attempted suicide rate in the general U.S. population.

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A 2018 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that the risks are equally as fraught for trans youth. More than half of transgender male teens who participated in the survey reported attempting suicide in their lifetime, while almost 30 percent of transgender female teens said they attempted suicide. Among nonbinary youth, more than 40 percent stated that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.

“We have to make sure Daphne’s story is told with the broader context of how trans people are at a greater risk of dying by suicide,” Bri Barnett, the director of development and communications at Trans Lifeline, a hotline and nonprofit organization offering support to trans people in crisis, told NBC News. “At the same time, her experience is unique, too, and her own experiences in the world contributed to this.”

Barnett added that trans suicide is “not a personal failing,” but rather “the product of a transphobic society that isolates trans people from support and resources and surrounds them with constant messages in the news, movies and sometimes comedy that they are freakish, wrong and unlovable.”

Gillian Branstetter, the media relations manager for the National Center for Transgender Equality, concurred, stating that while the risks of suicide are “complex and varied,” there are common experiences that can amplify the risk for trans people. She said these include alienation and marginalization, lack of systems of support, lack of access to adequate and affirming mental health care and the inaccessibility of information about what it’s like to be trans.

Both Branstetter and Barnett noted there are a number of misconceptions surrounding the disproportionately high transgender suicide rate.

“A lot of the focus has rightfully been on family acceptance, but acceptance at school, extracurricular activities and work also make a difference,” Branstetter said. “Research has shown that doing something as simple as referring to trans people by their chosen name can lower the risks of them attempting suicide. Constantly being misgendered takes a toll on people.”

Barnett said that’s there’s a “failure” to contextualize the material conditions that affect trans people’s mental health, including the fact that trans individuals are more susceptible to experiencing homelessness, harassment and violence.

Approximately 30 percent of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey respondents reported that they had experienced homelessness at some point in their lifetime, and almost half of respondents reported having been verbally harassed or physically attacked in the year prior to the survey.

The current political environment has also negatively impacted trans people’s mental health, according to Barnett. She said calls to Trans Lifeline have increased by 20 to 30 percent every year for the last five years. She attributes this increase both to trans people feeling more comfortable with coming out and trans rights being viewed as a “wedge issue.” The day after a leaked memo from President Donald Trump’s administration announced it would push to define gender solely as male or female, Barnett said the hotline received four times the amount of calls it usually does.

Maceo Persson, the civic engagement and operations manager for the Office of Transgender Initiatives, said the trans community in San Francisco was paying close attention to the Supreme Court as it heard oral arguments last week regarding whether “sex” discrimination includes anti-LGBTQ bias under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“It’s difficult to watch people discuss whether we’re entitled to our rights and humanity,” Persson said. “It’s a difficult time right now in the community and can trigger a lot of responses in folks, so we want to emphasize that there are resources and support for those who need it.”

Some of those resources include the Office of Transgender Initiatives, which launched the first city-funded program in the United States to find trans people work in 2007. Others include Trans Lifeline and The Trevor Project.

“Suicide is the most commonly shared experience in the trans community, and we continue to work to reduce the cost that any one person should have to pay for being themselves,” Branstetter said. “There are no easy solutions, but the complexity is not an excuse for inaction.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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