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Nina Chaubal Helps Build Community, Save Lives with Trans Lifeline

Nina Chaubal didn't know the word "transgender" until she was 13. Now she helps run a trans crisis hotline.
Nina Chaubal and her life partner, Greta Martela.
Nina Chaubal and her life partner, Greta Martela.Courtesy of Nina Chaubal

Nina Chaubal knew at an early age that she was a girl in a boy’s body, but it was something she suppressed for years. It wasn’t until she was 13 years old growing up in Mumbai, India, that she discovered the word — transgender — that described her. Through the internet, she was able to connect with other transgender people, but in Mumbai, she didn’t have resources available to guide her along the way.

“One of the things with trans resources is that it doesn’t matter where you are, they are not that easy to come by,” Chaubal, 25, told NBC News.

“If our biological families are going to reject us, then we have to surround ourselves with people who love us.”

Several years after learning the word transgender, Chaubal immigrated to the United States in 2009 to attend college. Moving across the globe allowed her to gain independence from her parents. Her family, which remains in Mumbai, has not been open to or supportive of her being transgender, Chaubal said. As a result, she is no longer in contact with them.

In 2014, a year after Chaubal decided to come out, she and her then-partner and now wife Greta Martela, co-founded Trans Lifeline, a crisis hotline based in California that aims to prevent suicide in the transgender community.

Suicide is an issue both Chaubal and Martela are personally familiar with: Chaubal said she has dealt with having suicidal thoughts, while Marcela has been hospitalized for being suicidal.

In a survey conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality’s the U.S. National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 41 percent of more than 7,000 respondents reported they had attempted suicide.

“Before I transitioned, I knew one person who attempted suicide,” Chaubal said. “After transitioning, almost everyone I knew had attempted suicide.”

The creation of Trans Lifeline stemmed from observations Martela made while she volunteered at Transgender San Francisco, a support group for the transgender community. Chaubal said her wife noticed that calls from the community to the organization — many of which were crisis calls across the country — typically went straight to voicemail.

The couple concluded that calls like that should be answered immediately, and they subsequently explored ideas on how they could create a similar resource that could be better scaled to serve the community.

One of the questions Chaubal asked was, “How do we get trans people in remote places who might not have trans people near them to be connected to community and have someone to talk to?”

Nina Chaubal and Greta Martela wearing Trans Lifeline shirts.
Nina Chaubal and Greta Martela wearing Trans Lifeline shirts.Courtesy of Nina Chaubal

While Trans Lifeline is focused on suicide prevention, the hotline is also available for any transgender person who needs someone to talk to. The bulk of calls to the hotline are received by 100 volunteer operators, all of whom are transgender or do not identify with a binary gender. This allows callers to speak to someone who can relate to what they are going through.

“Some who call are just coming out,” Chaubal said. “For a lot of people, the operator is the first trans they’re talking to that’s not themselves.”

Since November, Chaubal said Trans Lifeline has been receiving about 4,000 calls per month. She added that there was an increase in calls after North Carolina passed a bill prohibiting transgender individuals from using public bathrooms for the sex they identify with as well as immediately following the presidential election.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in our community about things like, can we still get ID changes? Are we going to have health care? And we know that a lot of people who are in the new administration are openly hostile to LGBT and trans people in particular,” Chaubal said. “In the last eight years our community hasn’t been doing very well, but at least we’ve started to make some progress. This is a time when all of that could go away the next time I wake up.”

“If you really think about it, what is it that makes a trans person in India decide they’re going to pay international rates to call a crisis hotline in the U.S.? It’s the lack of resources."

Since Trans Lifeline was established, Chaubal said there have been a number of occasions where callers have said that connecting with other trans people made them change their mind about hurting themselves. During a 2015 LGBTQ activist conference where Chaubal was representing Trans Lifeline, she was approached by someone she had never met who said talking to someone on the hotline saved their life, she said.

“It’s these people who I had never actually met in person, telling me that the work my organization is doing, that people who are volunteering for my organization were saving their lives, that’s when I said, ‘This is what I need to be doing’,” Chaubal said.

Most of the calls Trans Lifeline receives are from the United States and Canada. The organization also receives calls from people across the globe, including countries like Australia, England, Germany, Mexico, and her home country of India, Chaubal said.

The hotline’s toll free number applies only to callers in the United States and Canada, while international callers have to pay a fee.

“If you really think about it, what is it that makes a trans person in India decide they’re going to pay international rates to call a crisis hotline in the U.S.? It’s the lack of resources. It’s lack of anything else that’s out there,” Chaubal said.

She added that people in other countries have inquired about how they may be able to create something like Trans Lifeline where they live, and that she’s been sharing what her organization has and does in hopes of seeing similar resources abroad.

Throughout the last couple of years, Chaubal and Martela have been driving across the country to attend conferences and meet with foundations for Trans Lifeline. Late last year, while the couple was driving back to their home in Chicago from San Diego, Chaubal was detained in Arizona by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) because of her legal status.

Prior to committing full time to Trans Lifeline, Chaubal worked as a software engineer at Google. Leaving her job to focus on the organization invalidated her work permit and left her undocumented.

Despite being married to Martela, who is a U.S. citizen, the couple is still organizing paperwork that would allow Chaubal to apply for a green card. In December, she said she showed ICE her marriage certificate, but was arrested and detained at the Eloy Detention Center from Dec. 28, 2016 through Jan. 3, 2017.

Word got out about Chaubal’s situation, and the community she developed through Trans Lifeline helped raise money to pay her bond and emailed ICE officials to tell them about what she does for the transgender for the community.

While Chaubal was in ICE custody, she was held with other women being detained, something that is rarely done for trans women by ICE, Sharita Gruberg, associate director of the LGBT research and communications project at the Center for American Progress, told NBC News.

Gruberg, who has been monitoring confinement and treatment for transgender individuals since 2013, added that the Eloy Detention Center has a history of trans women being sexually assaulted, and that it was a good sign that officials respected Chaubal’s safety and preference.

“Before I transitioned, I knew one person who attempted suicide. After transitioning, almost everyone I knew had attempted suicide.”

An ICE spokesperson referred NBC News to a memorandum issued in 2015 that states that ICE will provide a “respectful, safe, and secure environment for all detainees, including those individuals who identify as transgender.”

It further states that ICE personnel should place transgender detainees in facilities that ensure their safety, including those staffed by people who have received LGBTI Sensitivity and Awareness Training, and medical personnel who have experience in caring for and treating transgenders.

“The fact I was … treated fairly is because of my community,” Chaubal said. “ICE knew that so many people were looking at them and what they were doing. I’m just really glad that I have that level of support from my community, that they were able to get ICE to do [what they did].”

For transgender individuals, Chaubal said it is crucial to connect with one another, and it’s something the hotline she and Martela created allow people to do. In the trans community, she said there’s a culture of taking care of one another, which is helpful for those who are experiencing family or other types of rejection.

“It’s sometimes all we can do,” she said. “If our biological families are going to reject us, then we have to surround ourselves with people who love us.”

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