It’s been a little over two weeks since Caitlyn Jenner introduced herself to the world on the cover of Vanity Fair. Clad in a white bustier with features softened by feminization surgery, framed by long, wavy blonde hair, and highlighted by a shade of pink on her lips, the man the world had known as Bruce Jenner for almost 30 years was finally living her truth as a woman. And while Caitlyn has been touted for her brazen decision and subsequent announcement, I’m left to wonder what implications her presence has (if any) on the community of black transgender women.
Admittedly, my knowledge of the transgender community—regardless of race—has been limited. In recent years, it’s been developed by the public figures Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono and Janet Mock. However, as someone whose curiosity is sparked by the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, and health (the topic of sexuality I will leave out for now), Caitlyn’s debut reminds me of how important it is to examine mental health as it relates to black transgender women.
A quick Google search will show you how little research has been done on the topic. Examining a bit more broadly, research shows depression disproportionately affects the transgender women community as a whole at an alarmingly rate. According to an article published in 2014 by the journal, Depression Research and Treatment, “Transgender women experience depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts at rates much higher than in the general population: estimates of the lifetime prevalence of depression in transgender women have been reported as high as 62%, while the lifetime depression rate for the general United States population is 16.6%.” The article further goes on to explore the factors that promote the prevalence of depression in this community, including: lack of social support, violence, sex work, and gender identity.
While these statistics may be telling of a large number of transgender women, it’s hard to see them and not want to especially consider those who are black, as they must contend with issues of institutionalized and societal racism. In response to this query, the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) in conjunction with the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force examined the answers of black respondents who had completed a 2008 survey launched by NCTE and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force focusing on anti-gender discrimination. In regards to mental health, the survey found “almost half (49%) of Black respondents reported having attempted suicide, compared to 41% of all study respondents and 1.6% of the general U.S. population.”
While the aforementioned statistics paint a dismal picture, it is important to note how important support is in combating issues of depression within the transgender community. Although black transgender people report higher rates of suicide ideation than non-black transgender people, the previously mentioned survey found that those who were accepted by their families reported lower rates of suicidal thoughts. Similar findings are also supported by the earlier mentioned journal article, which finds social support (family and peer) reduces the risk of depression in transgender women.
Which brings me back to Caitlyn Jenner and her potential impact. Of course, Caitlyn’s story does not echo the experiences of many black transgender women (or transgender women in general). We must acknowledge the privilege she had prior to becoming Caitlyn and as Caitlyn, including whiteness, notoriety, money, and access to support (she speaks of seeking therapy). However, my hope is that the attention she has garnered begins to shed light on the myriad of issues transgender women face daily, including issues of mental illness, and brings forth inclusive discussions when discussing black girls and mental health.