Saturday, August 8, 2015

Connections Between Loneliness and Suicidal Tendencies of Trans Women

Note1: I have added a  Preprint of this article at research-gate. 
Note 2: Updated version with input from Brenda.

It is well known that a large percentage of trans women experience social exclusion, isolation, loneliness and suicidal tendencies at various stages of their life. An alarmingly large percentage actually attempt suicide at some stage of their life. For details of the situation in the US and EU, one can refer to the surveys indicated in the references [1,2,3]. Since loneliness is a subjective internal experience, all of these surveys and much of activism has been centred around social exclusion, isolation and discrimination. In this article the nature and existence of connections between loneliness and suicidal tendencies is explored. 

Social Isolation and Concepts of Loneliness

Loneliness (or 'real loneliness') is best seen as an interior, subjective experience that is influenced by external objective conditions in different ways [4,7,10]. Two different individuals do not in general generate identical degrees of response in similar loneliness inducing objective contexts.  It is not the same thing as being alone and one may feel severe loneliness in the company of others.

Loneliness can have a number of negative consequences on humans that include: reduced lifespan, heath problems, lowered level of trust levels in others, feelings of social incompetence, victim mentality and self consciousness [4,5,6,9].

Stokes and Levin'1986 [8] in a couple of studies on social networks found that men may use more group oriented criteria in evaluating loneliness, whereas women focus more on the qualities of dyadic relationships. Other studies confirm similar phenomena [10], but the nature of loneliness in trans people and coping mechanisms that they may adopt is not well understood. 

Research on connections between gender differences and loneliness should be reviewed in feminist perspectives for useful conclusions to be drawn, as the focus used in many studies seem to be unsuitable for application. There are many studies on loneliness in the literature (do have a look at the references [4--10] if you want to explore more) and some of the conclusions are used in this article. 

On Suicidal Tendencies of Trans Women

People can, in general, plan their suicides in many different ways and they do kill themselves in many ways, but I will not be concerned with the suicide act as such. Here my concerns will be about the maturity level and nature of suicide plans of transsexual women during their pre-transition days or during transition. The exercise should be useful for formulating/defining concepts of reasonable social transition process and in accessing extent of damage due to social isolation and loneliness.

Of the various patterns in trans women suicides in their pre/post-transition state or transition the following are fairly prominent:

  •  Those who have killed themselves at a relatively young age (< 25), have done so due to social oppression, persecution and inability to find the means to escape from them. The number of women in this category who actually commit suicide for reasons of wrong self-diagnosis is comparatively small. The number of people who kill themselves for their own inability to come to terms with their state may seem to be large - but blame should be put on social conditions for precipitating such a state of affairs through intersectional feminist perspectives (at least).
  • All of the above also apply to the class of people who kill themselves at relatively older ages (> 30), but there are important differences - studies of which are still insufficient. For this class the reasons also  tend to center around problems of body transformations and insurmountable defensive adaptations of pre-transition period.

The insufficiency mentioned above is in choice of paradigms for empirical studies that pervade across age groups. It is known that problems like depression, social isolation and poor quality of life are common among "late bloomers". These have been confirmed in recent duplication studies. It is also possible to collect large sets of data from people, but the problem of predicting failure or success is not easy because the coupling that matters may not be available for expression at all times and may also be consciously hidden by the subject of study in question. A relevant but limited study that attempts to answer some of questions is [17].  


I am also working on the problem from a vagueness related mathematical perspective. Essentially it is about problem representation and finding multi-stage reducts (or removing the chaff). Simplified schematics  have the following form:

So let us call our subject X.

X is a trans women of chronological age > 30

X wants feature sets F and maybe G as part of her transition process.
This F may be graded in various ways.

X has developed a set of adaptations S in response to loneliness (or 'real loneliness' if you like) connected with gender dysphoria. It should be mentioned that not all trans women feel that way.

Typically X is likely to commit suicide on realizing that critical parts of F would not be possible. In ideal situations, this and connections with S suffice to predict a "mature suicide". But other social factors do matter and related prediction models are bound to get more complex.

Knowledge of feminism with all its intersectionality is an important life saving skill that is sometimes omitted by some trans women with terrible consequences because for them 'feminism' is a bad word. For people in the scope of 'mature suicide', there may often be no further sources of suicide mitigation.

Loneliness of the Dead

Examples for these patterns are not difficult to find, but ones with volumes of additional records are less common as in case of late Jess Shipps [11] (/u/lumberchick at Reddit). Jess Shipps produced many popular you tube videos, was a moderator of few trans related subreddits, had plenty of social connections, was often vocal, expressive, positive and rarely seemed to lack empathy - all that is from her online expression and views of her friends. Yet, she was experiencing real loneliness (without social isolation), unemployment (and mentioned these as the primary reasons for her suicide) and was not really passing by her own standards (the last part is deducible from her posts in reddit). She needed wigs and make-up to pass and also believed that the "idea of a woman is distorted by mainstream media and nobody is perfect". Maybe her suicide note was influenced by her position in trans advocacy... maybe not, but her suicide was the result of coupling of multiple factors and not just one of them.  

Eventually it was the lack of material and emotional support that killed her. But it is surprising that she was actually looking forward to getting emotional support - that amounts to a tactical mistake.

Loneliness in the Living:


Personal Experience:

Though I realized that I am a woman in my pre-teen years, my transition was well after my 30th year. I had to manage extremely high degree of loneliness in my pre-transition times - that was despite being fairly active in many academic and geek groups. The methods of adaptation included workaholism (through multiple careers), extreme degree of involvement in studies and research in solitude (but that is more about being a genius!), cutting off people and bigots for a variety of reasons and restricting all interaction to bare essentials.

The nature of my suicidal tendencies during my pre-transition period was so mature that I had a definite plan that can be summarized in "suicide is admissible if no transition option becomes available and body has been sufficiently poisoned by testosterone".

Physical part of my transition was very easy for me as I was already good looking, femme, healthy, athletic, response to hormones was excellent (that stabilized at estrogen levels of ~360+ pg/ml (very high female range)), had no complications, a partial class advantage and an Asian advantage. Details of some aspects of my transition can be found in my blog. Suicidal tendencies vanished completely on commencement of HRT itself, but am yet to fully come out of the grips of loneliness related adaptations of pre-transition period. Apparently this relates to a lack of open lesbian culture, prevalent transphobia and lesbophobia (am in Kolkata, India) among substantial sections of the older generation and a subhuman society. Hitting it off with women interested in women is easy for me, but not all lesbians are bold enough to break free of the patriarchy. A related aspect is that a generation of more Internet savvy urban upper class lesbians tend to be more confident in deviating from patriarchal norms in comparison to the women with far too limited opportunities to even explore themselves.

The wikipedia articles on sex, gender and sexuality would be rated as pornography by majority of the populations stuck in religion and/or conservative heterosexist norms. No wonder the default goal of most of the whole LBT spectrum is to "emigrate".


Experiences of Other Indian Trans Women

The only trans woman that I know of personally is myself. But I have communicated with few others by email and through forums. That is after two years of my coming out. 

Brenda is a scientist who completed her doctorate from IMSC, Chennai before moving to Germany. Some of the issues that she faced are documented in [15]. This is what she has to say on the matter :

"1. Growing up it's easy to assume (for myself) a hetero-normative appearance but once puberty hits, randomness + self questioning begins.
2. No matter how much I tried to hit this part, it doesn't stay buried, if I hang out with male friends all those random comments about women bothers. (not exactly misogynistic just to be clear)
3. At some point you are unable to express and process your own feelings especially sexual. (pansexuality in my case was more than fun , just for the record)
4. Also with lack of proper sex education + information on sexual `and` gender diversity, it was hard for me to process my sexuality from gender identity.
5. Plus most of the common example of trans identity (pertaining to India) comes from media and what I see on the streets, which incidentally was almost never positive.
6. The only two positive instances of media portrayal of trans I remember in my childhood were (pardon me if my memory is not right) - I think the movie was sadaak and sadashiv amravpurkar played transperson who is in charge of a brothel (not a positive trans character but not one which was made a caricature of just for fun, which is what usually happens in Indian media)
    - the second one was I think was once in which a female infant is abandoned  but adopted by a trans woman and the story revolves for the first part about their a daughter and her parental relationship.
7. I enjoyed the above two movies but rarely spoke about it with friend or family for fear of being ridiculed.
8. With dissonance in relating with real life friends, video games were easy to relate.
9. In fact this is my common observation , in here if I meet another younger trans person, I would say with 70% certainty that video games are a safe topic to discuss and bond with.
10. sadly I have also seen a fraction of trans people take refugee in alcohol or weed. (I am grateful I neither of them are on my list).
11.Luckily my transition to Germany was a boon since the LGBT group is a bit wide and I never felt loneliness.
12. In fact in the 4 years I made like 5x the times of friends I have in all through my 28 years in India (and bear in mind, Germans are known to be a conservative lot, in terms of personal space).

Anamika, a student of IIT Kharagpur (as of this writing) experienced dysphoria since her early childhood. She suppressed all desired gender expression and behaviour, and tried to act normal in the sense of the decadent patriarchy for much of her life. Not surprisingly she remained as lonely as ever at the institute. When she did try to explore herself, this was the result in her own words [16]:
Amidst these feelings, changing my body to match my gender for the better seemed a far fetched reality at least in the near future and having dealt with the emotional pain and self-abuse for a decade, I didn’t see any further hope. So at the start of my 3rd semester, I cut off all my contacts and was about to attempt suicide, when a senior (who later became one of my closest friends) contacted me. I didn’t tell him anything about myself then, yet he suggested that I consider visiting the Counselling Center as an option before taking any such step (I could always go back if it didn’t help) and it seemed a reasonable bargain to me. That small decision turned out to be a life changing event. I always had a very low self-esteem with almost negligible self-worth and self-love, so accepting myself as a transgender girl wasa bitter experience. It took me almost 2 years of therapy to accept myself and become comfortable to open-up to others.”  


Trans Women in Developed World

Sub-optimal conditions prevail for trans women in the so-called developed world and some attempts at quantification has been attempted through surveys. To really understand we need to look at personal writings and blogs.

Being openly trans matters a lot. Natalie Yeh agrees [12] with this. She is an Asian American trans woman living in Los Angeles. She transitioned after 30 and her musings on her post transition loneliness suggest that she is tired of explaining herself to others to the point that
" “Maybe I’ll just live out a simple, solitary life…it’s not so bad, many people do it,” I’ve been finding myself muttering as of late."

Naomi Ceder did not have suicidal tendencies despite being closeted all through her long pre-transition years in a hostile environment. In one of her blog posts [13] she says “For a trans kid in this environment self hatred was inevitable. There was literally no one I knew who was like me, no one I could dare talk to, for fear of exposure and humiliation and worse.

Rebecca Williams has this to say on loneliness [14]:

I think one of the things that can trigger acute feelings of loneliness is being "different". Being different could mean anything, in this world. .... I think people internalize this difference as sense of wrongness early on in their lives. They learn to be ashamed of their difference, of themselves. In a sense, they learn to hide that part of themselves away. It is that part, that sense of self that feels lonely. I think people are in the most part resilient, especially as children, and they learn to cope and adapt around this sense of difference. Sometimes these coping mechanisms work OK, other times they don't.....

But to foster a culture of tolerance and kindness can only be a positive thing for everyone, so everyone can learn to be more themselves, a little more different, a little bit more individual.

Here “learn to be ashamed ” necessarily requires propaganda by bigots of various grades to happen.

Research Problems

It is clear that when we read 'gender' as a plural concept, then loneliness is related to it. But the concept of 'gender identity' is unrelated or 'less related'. Two problems that seem to be some interest are:

* How can we define usable concepts of 'gendered loneliness'?

* What is the relationship of gender dysphoria to such possible concepts of 'gendered loneliness'?



[1]. Injustice at Every Turn - National Transgender Discrimination Survey: Full Report Sept'2012, NCTE Download Link.

[2]. EU LGBT Survey' December'2014: Results at a Glance
EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, Dec'2014, Download Link.

[3]. Labia Collective: Labia Collective Survey

April'2013, Download Link.


[4]. Russell, D.
UCLA Loneliness Scale (Version 3): Reliability, validity, and factor structure.
Journal of Personality Assessment, 66, 1996, 20--40.

[5]. AIPC Article Library:
Symptoms, Causes and Effects of Loneliness,
July'2012, Link to Article
(accessed on 15th June'2015)

[6]. AIPC Article Library:
Counselling Strategies for Dealing with the Lonely Client,
July'2012, Link to Article 
(accessed on 15th June'2015)

[7]. Aspel, Melaine, Ann.
Let’s talk about feeling lonely.
New York; Rosen Publishing, 2001.

[8]. Hackney, H., Cormier, S.,
The professional counsellor – a process guide to helping.
Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2005.

[9]. Stokes J, Levin I.
Gender differences in predicting loneliness from social network characteristics.
J Pers Soc Psychol. 1986 Nov.51(5).1069--74.

[10]. Yang, J.
Relationship between gender traits amd loneliness: the role of self-esteem.
Master's Thesis' Brandeis University Feb 2009, 41pp.

Blog and Social Networking Links:

[11].  Jessie Shipps:  Suicide Note, Discussion
         Jessie Shipps: Reddit Userpage

[12]. Natalie Yeh: The Lonely Journey of a Transsexual Woman

2013,  Blog Post

[13]. Naomi Ceder: Thoughts on a Trans Teen Suicide,
2015,  Blog Post

[14]. Rebecca Williams: Loneliness

2013, Blog Post

[15]. Brenda Jacksh:  Acceptance and Denial, 2012, Blog Post

[16]. Anamika: Fear Can Hold You Prisoner, But Hope Can Set You Free,
2015, Blog Post


[17]. Moody, C., Smith, N. G. Suicide Protective Factors Among Trans Adults
Arch. Sex. Behav. (2013) 42:739–752


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1 comment:

Michelle Kopp said...

Wow, I've been looking for some more attempts to understand trans issues on a broader psychological and philosophical level for a while now, and I think your paper here brings up some decent points.

On the point of a quantifiable loneliness - I think the learned shame might be the most important bit. I wonder if you find that same "othering" in people from more socially accepting areas like Scandinavia. I would be curious how research into Scandinavian trans people looks, and if they seem to experience the same extreme lonely feelings.