Family Acceptance Can Save Black Trans Kids’ Mental Health
Family support can make a significant difference for Black trans youth as they face mounting stress and discrimination, according to a new report from the Trevor Project. Even if parents are unsure of where to start or how to talk to their kids about gender identity, longtime advocates and mental health providers suggest that simple ways to show acceptance can have a profound impact.
The Trevor Project report provides a crucial look into the experiences of Black transgender and nonbinary youth at a time when the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth as a whole continues to deteriorate and Black students in particular lack adequate mental health support in schools. State bills targeting trans youth proliferating across the country are further negatively affecting the mental health of trans youth, especially in states where they become law.
The analysis highlights the differences in experiences between Black cisgender queer youth, compared to Black transgender and nonbinary youth. Black trans youth are facing greater discrimination — plus grappling with more anxiety and depression — than cis Black queer youth, according to data collected by the Trevor Project as part of its annual national survey.
Twenty-five percent of the 1,717 Black trans and nonbinary young people polled by the LGBTQ+ youth crisis organization in late 2021 said they had attempted suicide in the past year — compared to 12 percent of Black cisgender queer youth. Trans and nonbinary Black youth were more likely to experience anxiety, depression, or to have seriously considered suicide.
Research shows over and over again that trans youth have higher rates of mental health distress and suicidality than queer cisgender youth — which is probably shared across most racial groups, said Bianca D.M. Wilson, senior scholar of public policy at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
However, Wilson said that the Trevor Project’s analysis is a significant reminder that Black youth — particularly trans and queer Black youth — are experiencing psychological distress, and adults need to pay attention.
Compared with Black cisgender queer youth, Black trans youth were more likely to report discrimination or physical threats based on their LGBTQ+ identity, as well as attempts by others to change their LGBTQ+ identity. More than one-third of Black trans youth reported experiencing homelessness, being kicked out or running away from home compared with 24 percent of Black cisgender queer youth.
The Trevor Project found that Black trans and nonbinary youth with high family support were about half as likely to attempt suicide in the past year than youths who had only moderate or little support. Those with a lot of support from friends — which significantly more youth said they experienced than family support — had a 39 percent lower chance of a suicide attempt.
Only 13 percent of the Black trans and nonbinary youth, all aged from 13 to 24, said they had significant family support.
Trevor Project’s analysis, based on the organization’s online survey of over 30,000 LGBTQ+ youth from September to December 2021, includes the experiences of just over 3,000 Black LGBTQ+ youth and 1,717 Black trans and nonbinary youth.
Victoria Kirby York, director of public policy and programs at the National Black Justice Coalition, said that it’s important for parents to signal early and often that they support their kid regardless of how they dress or who they love — in order to lower their child’s anxiety about the potential of not being accepted. Dropping positive comments about out Black trans celebrities and activists, like Laverne Cox, can be one way to signal to children acceptance of their identity — before they come out.
“If all you’ve heard is your parents badmouth LGBTQ+ people, you do live with the anxiety that, ‘Once I invite them in, they’re not going to have my back. They’re not going to support me.’ And that causes a tremendous amount of anxiety,” she said.
To Kirby York and other Black public figures, Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union-Wade’s ongoing support for their 15-year-old transgender daughter Zaya is a powerful example of what that support should look like.
“You taught me that communication with my mouth isn’t enough. I have to also communicate with my two ears and my two eyes. As your father, my job isn’t to create a version of myself or direct your future. My role is to be a facilitator to your hopes, your wishes, and your dreams,” the three-time NBA championship winner said.
Gabrielle Union-Wade, accepting the award with her husband, called the current moment a “new era of activism” that demands fighting for everyone in the community, especially as the rights of Black, LGBTQIA, trans, and gender nonconforming people continue to be endangered.
“Even as we demand equality at the top of our lungs, we consistently fail to extend our advocacy to protect some of our most vulnerable,” she said. “Black trans people are being targeted, terrorized, and hunted in this country every day, everywhere, and there’s rarely a whisper about it.”
The speech was praised by Michelle Obama, as well as others.
“Sometimes I think about how much more joyful my childhood, my teen years, and my twenties would have been if my family loved ALL of me with this kind of vigor. I’m so happy to know Zaya has her parents,” Jonathan Higgins, a prominent writer, and social justice researcher, said on Twitter.
Advocates need to provide more culturally competent and specific resources to support Black parents as they talk to their children about gender and as they support their trans kids, Kirby York said. The Human Rights Campaign has a resource page for Black parents and family members of Black transgender youth — and there are directories to find queer and trans therapists of color.
Abigail Skinner, a psychotherapist based in Buffalo, N.Y., who virtually sees adult and youth clients in New York City, said that her queer clients frequently discuss how racism impacts them day-to-day — and that they feel isolated. Some of her younger clients want to connect with their families but feel misunderstood.
“A lot of my clients struggle because they don’t feel like they have support. And if you don’t feel like you have support in the foundation, that gives you the schema that the world is not going to support you if you’ve never had it at home,” they said.
In Skinner’s experience, some clients have support systems — but being disconnected from family still overshadows what friends and other networks can offer.
“I do have clients now that are Black and nonbinary, who do not have good relationships with their family, and a lot of the work is just trying to keep them alive and present,” they said.
Black trans youth are experiencing a public health crisis, said Myeshia Price, director of research science at the Trevor Project and lead researcher for the organization’s new report. Their mental health needs to be prioritized in advocacy work, she said. And as parents consider what tools they have at their disposal to support their children, Price noted that Black families already have a blueprint for discussing systemic inequality with their kids through childhood discussions of how systemic racism will impact their lives — often known as “the talk.”
That conversation, which so many Black parents have with their children, can easily be translated into another conversation, Price said: into one that expresses support and love for their trans and nonbinary child and that can provide protection by preparing kids for the additional bias of being LGBTQ+.
Skinner, who is queer and nonbinary and has their own experiences gradually working towards acceptance in their family, advises parents to challenge their own discomfort, in addition to listening to their child’s experiences.
“I always tell parents, look inward first. Assess what your discomfort is. Try to reconcile it, try to work through it. Try to gain a level of support with other adults. Look at other resources. And then try to align yourself with what your child is saying,” they said. If parents can admit when they don’t know what to do or that they feel uncomfortable, they can move past the fear of being seen as a “bad parent” and towards acceptance, Skinner said.