On 2014's annual day of remembrance for transgender victims of violence, a new hotline is ready to field calls
On Nov. 20, people are gathering at events around the nation to read names of transgender people who have died in the past year in violent crimes. The descriptions on the website for the occasion, the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, are chilling: “massive trauma, found dead in an alley,” “murdered and burned,” “gunshot to the back.” Transgender people, particularly transgender women, are subject to high rates of violence and harassment. A 2013 report found that 72% of homicide victims in LGBT-related hate crimes were transgender women of color.
On this somber day, an organization based in the Bay Area is trying to get the word out that there’s a new resource available to fight what may be an even deadlier problem among transgender people: suicide.
According to the most definitive report on transgender issues in recent years, 41% of transgender people attempt to commit suicide, a statistic that doesn’t necessarily factor in successful attempts. That’s a number that the people behind Trans Lifeline (877-565-8860), a crisis hotline staffed entirely by transgender people, want to see decreased.
“There are a ton of suicide hotlines. There’s no shortage of them,” says Greta Martela, a software engineer and president of the organization that went live this month. “But it’s really difficult to get a person who isn’t trans to understand what it’s like to be trans.”
Empathy is a powerful emotion for people attempting to come to terms with being transgender. Many transgender people say they only had the courage to come out once they met someone else who was living a happy life as an openly transgender person, people Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox calls “possibility models.”
Martela came out last year, as a 44-year-old parent. Before she did, she was plagued by anxiety and debilitating panic attacks. In the process of coming out, she called a suicide hotline. A man answered the phone, she says, and when she explained the trouble she was having, he just went quiet and told her to go to the hospital. “They had no idea how to deal with a trans woman,” she says. And when she got to the hospital seeking help, she had to explain what being transgender was to the hospital staff.
Her aim is to get people in crisis—whether that person is a suicidal, closeted teenager or the confused parent of a six-year-old—access to volunteers who can understand what they’re going through right away and direct them to more help wherever they are. “Those are the people I want to call the most,” Martela says of parents who are trying to understand what a child is going through. “Getting them good resources could spare their child a lifetime of pain.”
Right now, the corporation—which has applied for status as a non-profit—is a shoestring operation, fueled by open source software that allows Trans Lifeline to funnel calls to on-duty volunteers wherever they are. They’re raising funds for advertising to get their number out there, to people like Martela who couldn’t find anything like the hotline when she needed it. “There’s a body count associated with people not accepting trans people,” Martela told TIME in a previous interview for a cover story on transgender issues. “It’s costing lives.”