Emma Todd, then a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Tulsa, found herself seriously contemplating suicide, again. This time, the Springfield native had made her way to the top of a building.
She wanted to jump, but someone stopped her.
“I have been extremely lucky,” Todd said. “A lot of people aren’t; a lot of people kill themselves.”
Todd struggles with depression, and for much of her young life, body dysmorphic disorder has been a part of that. It’s a mental disorder in which an individual sees his or her body as defective, and at times some people dissociate from their bodies completely.
Todd is transgender, and she’s not alone in her feelings.
In 2011, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality published a first-of-its-kind report on discrimination and challenges faced by transgender people. It found that 41 percent of respondents had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.
Discrimination is seen in nearly every facet of life — from education to health care to work and relationships. The same study found that of the respondents who had come out as trans in K-12 school, 78 percent reported having been harassed.
Respondents dealt with extreme poverty — the sample was four times more likely to live on $10,000 or less per year than the overall population, and they faced double the rate of unemployment. Transgender people face higher risk of physical and sexual abuse. Nineteen percent of respondents reported domestic violence as a direct result of their gender identity. Respondents were more likely to turn to drugs and prostitution than the overall population.
For trans people of minority races, the situation is even grimmer.
In Illinois, transgender individuals have more protections than many other states. According to the Transgender Law & Policy Institute, Illinois is one of 19 states, plus Washington, D.C., that have laws prohibiting discrimination based on someone’s gender identity or expression. But there’s still a push by activists and legislators to enact policies they say would better the quality of life for transgender people.
“I was uncomfortable since about the time I was probably 4 or 5 or so,” Todd, now 20, said. “I suppose that’s the earliest I remember it at least … I had felt extremely uncomfortable with my body.”
By the time she was 15, Todd knew there was a word for what she was feeling. She had found a forum online for transgender people to share experiences.
“For the first time, I felt like there was someone who understood what I was going through.”
Todd came out to her mother when she was 15 and began seeing a psychiatrist in Springfield who wanted Todd to be put on hormone blockers. That way, when she ultimately chose to transition to female, she would have avoided her voice deepening, shoulders broadening and other effects of male puberty.
But there was no doctor in central Illinois who would see her for that.
After travelling two hours to St. Louis to see a doctor, Todd realized the amount of treatment she was getting was ineffective, and her depression worsened.
“I felt like nothing would ever change with my body,” Todd said. “I felt this is the best thing that hormones will do to me, and they were doing nothing. So I’ll just have to deal with hating my body for the rest of my life. And I don’t think that there can be really a scarier feeling than that, than knowing that you’re always going to essentially hate yourself.”
After two years, Todd learned of a clinic that specialized in treating LGBT people in Chicago and began going there instead. Her situation improved, though she still grapples with depression.
“I think that what I’ve learned through this process is the importance of caring for myself and helping others,” Todd said.
Todd was attending the Catholic high school in Springfield, Sacred Heart-Griffin, when she decided she wanted to live life as a female. As a result, Todd, then a junior, was told she could no longer attend. As Todd recounts it, the principal told her and her mother that, “She could not guarantee my safety at the school and that she could not accept my transition.”
The principal, Sr. Margaret Joanne Grueter, says the school has no policy regarding transgender students, and she can’t speak to specific cases, but that she treats each individual case with “compassion.” Todd transferred to a public school.
In Illinois, state law prohibits discrimination of students in public schools based on gender identity. When it comes to creating policies for issues like bathroom and locker room usage, districts can develop their own.
Todd has become an activist for transgender people. Her latest work is with the Trans Lifeline, a newly formed hotline that exists for transgender individuals struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.
“I wanted to do anything I could to help out other transgender people,” Todd said.
For many, the word transgender probably brings to mind celebrity Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner. The person who was once regarded as the best athlete in the world said in an interview with CBS’s 20/20 earlier this year that even during his decathlon days, he struggled with gender identity.
Jenner told Diane Sawyer that during the time of the interview he still considered himself a man, but there was another, more authentic side to his personality he was homing in on and making peace with. And when he is ready, he said, he will come out as “her.”
Jenner recently did so by appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair as Caitlyn, now she has made the transition and wishes to be addressed by female pronouns.
The history of transgenderism goes back further than many media accounts might have us believe. One of the first people in the United States to get widespread attention for having sexual reassignment surgery was Christine Jorgenson. As a man, she served in the U.S. Army in the 1940s. She received sexual reassignment surgery while in Germany and upon arrival back to the states became a celebrity.
In some other countries, like India, alternate genders outside of the male/female binary have been recognized for centuries. In more recent history, a singer for the punk group Against Me! came out as trans and began to transition from male to female, changing her name from Thomas James Gabel to Laura Jane Grace.
Laverne Cox, a transgender actor playing a transgender character in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, has used her celebrity status to advocate for trans rights and educate the public. And the list continues.
Last December, a transgender 17-year-old from Ohio named Leelah Alcorn killed herself by jumping in front of a truck on the freeway. Her suicide note was posted on the Internet, and in it she scorned her parents for not accepting her because of their religious convictions.
Alcorn wrote that after coming out to her mother she was told she “would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong.” She made a plea to other parents: “Please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.”
It is said that instead of receiving treatment to help her transition, Alcorn was taken to conversion therapy, where she was urged to live life as a male. Alcorn’s suicide led to vigils across the country, and in her widely read suicide note, she urged for society to become more accepting of trans people.
In Illinois, Chicago Democratic Rep. Kelly Cassidy has pushed to make conversion therapy illegal for people under the age of 18.
“Obviously we’ve had some pretty high-profile cases of transgender youth going through some pretty horrific experiences,” says Cassidy, who is a lesbian. “Ultimately, the most vulnerable kids need the most protection. Coming out as a young woman was hard enough, coming out as trans would be amazingly challenging as a teenager.”
Cassidy says as a mother of teens, she realizes raising kids that age can be a challenge, and most parents are doing their best. But trying to change a child who comes out as gay or transgender into being straight or gender-normative can do irreversible damage.
“So many parents end up in this situation not out of malice, but out of ignorance,” Cassidy said. “They think they’re seeking help, but they end up doing more harm.”
Christopher Doyle is a counselor and director of the International Healing Foundation, a non-profit that provides therapy for families and people affected by “sexual orientation issues.” He says legislation that would ban such therapy threatens the type of work he does and “threatens the rights of individuals, families and minors, who have sexual confusion.”
Doyle also works with transgender people, and says, “I think it’s important that we offer licensed high-quality mental health care to children who are seeking it, and this bill is threatening to take this right away.”
Doyle says he was once homosexual but through therapy has become a straight husband and father. He says minors who are gay or trans and wish not to be should be allowed to partake in therapy where that goal is honored.
Not being allowed to do so is “unAmerican,” he says. However, medical professionals have testified that focusing on changing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity through therapy can exacerbate the symptoms of depression and body dysmorphic disorder.
Equality Illinois has lobbied legislators to support the proposed ban on conversion therapy in the state. The group is also supporting a recent measure that would ensure memorial services and funerals for transgender people represent them as they wished to be identified in life, regardless of the name or gender on their birth and death certificates.
Mike Ziri is public policy director for the group. He says Illinois already has protections for transgender people in place because of the Human Rights Act, which became effective in 2006.
“Many states do not have that; they may have the protection for sexual orientation, but not gender identity. … I’m happy to say we are in the position where both categories are protected,” Ziri said.
But, he adds, there is more to be done.
“There has been violence nationally, especially against transgender people of color. … There’s been cases in Chicago, in Illinois. And I think that brings the issue to the forefront that discrimination is not over, that violence against people of different sexual orientation and gender identity is not gone. Just because we passed the Human Rights Act does not mean the work is over,” Ziri said.
Hate crimes and violence have long plagued transgender people at especially high rates. At least seven transgender people have already been murdered in 2015 in the United States, according to an issue brief by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the Trans People of Color Coalition.
It also noted that in 2014, at least 13 transgender people were murdered, and most were black or Latina trans women. A report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that “72 percent of the victims of LGBTQ or HIV-motivated hate violence homicides in 2013 were transgender women, and 67 percent were transgender women of color.” The same report found that trans people of color have an increased risk of experiencing physical violence from the police, violence in shelters and sexual violence.
Other areas where advocates are pushing for change in the state and country include treatment in prisons, personal identification, employment, housing and medical treatment. In Illinois, some advocates want to make changing the gender on birth certificates not reliant on sexual reassignment surgery.
Many believe there should be non-discrimination acts that include protections for transgender people in every state.
John Knight is director of the LGBT and AIDS Project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
“The percentage of transgender people facing employment discrimination these days is significantly higher than what we are seeing in regards to lesbians, gays and bisexuals,” Knight said.
A recent change in Illinois law prohibits insurance companies linked with the state from discriminating against trans people.
“If an insurance company covers hormone therapy for a post-menopausal woman, but they refuse to provide hormone therapy for a transgender person, that’s discrimination.” Knight said.
Like Ziri, Knight says there are many battles still being fought federally and in the state to limit the discrimination and violence transgender people face.
Mehr Tumulty is an artist who works for the Illinois Secretary of State in Chicago. He was born as Mary and has only recently begun to transition from female to male.
The 29-year-old is a single parent with a seven-year-old son. He’s on state insurance and says while that covers his trips to a clinic specializing in treating trans people, he has to pay for hormone replacements out of pocket.
Like Todd, he has long struggled with depression and body dysmorphic disorder.
“When I was very young, I assumed when I grew up I would be a man, that I would look more like my dad,” Tumulty said. “I remember sneaking into the bathroom and pretending to shave my face when I was 4 or 5 years old.”
As for if he still goes by “mom” to his son?
“My maternal instincts surpass any gender or lack thereof,” Tumulty said. “I can’t imagine being anything but Elliott’s mother. He knows I like to look like a boy and he says that he likes it. He says he can tell I feel happier.”
For the first time, Tumulty says he is beginning to feel free from the negative thoughts that consumed him. Feelings that his body was wrong, that having to be female from day to day was all an exhausting act.
Meanwhile, most of his friends, family and colleagues have been supportive.
“I feel like I have finally crawled out from inside my head for the first time in my entire life,” Tumulty said.