How often do LGBT kids commit suicide? The answer to this question is driving policy everywhere. Earlier this week, the House of Representatives in the Australian Parliament heard a passionate speech from the Labor Member for Wollongong, Stephen Jones.
Last week, my family said farewell to my nephew Ollie. He was just 15 when he took his own life. No mother or father should have to endure this sight. No brother should have to clean up afterwards. He was a beautiful, creative, courageous young man. He was loved and accepted by his parents, by his family, by his friends and by his community. His mum and dad are in anguish. We all are. He was gay. He was uncertain about his gender, and he struggled with his mental health. But now he’s gone, and we are no longer going to be able to love and support him on his journey through life.
For Mr Jones, who also has a transgender 14-year-old child whom he loves to bits, Ollie’s suicide was reason enough to reserve judgement on the current draft of the Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill. “There have been too many funerals, too many grieving families,” he said.
The belief that stigma and discrimination are responsible for a tsunami of LGBT youth suicides is widespread. It’s a powerful answer to any criticism: “So you’re OK with kids killing themselves because of your transphobia?”
But is there watertight evidence that suicides are higher amongst gay and trans youths?
A recent paper in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour by Oxford sociologist Michael Biggs questions the conventional wisdom.
The conventional wisdom is indeed frightening. Stonewall, the British LGBT lobby group says that “More than one in five LGB young people and more than two in five trans young people have attempted to take their own life.”
“I know there are high rates of suicide and suicide attempts with transgender youth. Some 50 percent will try to take their lives before they’re 21,” stated the mother of the most famous transgender youth in the English-speaking world, Jazz Jennings.
However, these alarming figures are generally based on self-reporting of whether the LGBT kids have attempted suicide. But there is a huge gap between reports of attempted suicide and completed suicides. According to Biggs, the doctor who set up the first US clinic for transgender children stated that “the majority of self-harmful actions that I see in my clinic are not real suicide attempts and are not usually life threatening”. Suicide threats or attempts may be a way of trying to communicate the distress that LGBT people feel.
Astonishingly, Biggs notes that before his publication, there was “only one published study [which] has reported suicide fatalities among transgender adolescents.”
What did he find?
Biggs calculated the suicide rate amongst 15,032 patients at the world’s largest paediatric gender clinic, the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), in London, from 2010 to 2020. As far as he could determine, there were 4 suicides, or 0.03%. This translates into an annual suicide rate of 13 per 100,000.
What do these figures mean? Biggs writes: “Adjusting for sex, the GIDS patients were 5.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the overall population of adolescents aged 14 to 17.”
So it is true that transgender youths commit suicide at a higher rate, although it is orders of magnitude less than the alarming reports in the media – and in Parliament.
But is this to be attributed to the fact that they identify as trans? In commenting on Biggs’s article, the Society for Gender-Based Medicine (SEGM) pointed out that trans kids often have other mental health conditions as well. “Adolescents referred to the GIDS differ in many other ways from their peers of the same age: they are more likely to suffer from depression and to be on the autism spectrum, for example. These conditions increase the risk of suicide,” it says.
Could this have been the case with Stephen Jones’s nephew? The MP highlighted the fact that Ollie was gay and wrestling with gender-identity issues, but he added that “he struggled with his mental health”.
The take-away from the Biggs’s study, according to SEGM, is that the stark choice between transition or suicide, a live daughter or a dead son, is wrong. “The fact that deaths by suicide are rare should provide some reassurance to gender dysphoric youth and their families, though of course this does not detract from the distress caused by self-harming behaviors.”
And it is wrong that if Australian schools refuse to accommodate transgender students, there will be an epidemic of teen suicides.
Biggs will not have the last word on the incendiary topic of LGBT youth suicides. The trans phenomenon is huge and puzzling. But extraordinary claims about suicide require extraordinary evidence. Show us the evidence.