ARUN RATH, HOST:
A 17-year-old committing suicide is heartbreaking enough, but the death of transgender teen, Leelah Alcorn, has become a national tragedy and a point of debate because of the suicide note she left behind. She writes of her parent's refusal to accept her identity and says that the only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren't treated the way I was - they're treated like humans with valid feelings and human rights. A recent study from UCLA found that 41 percent of transgender people had attempted suicide - nearly nine times the national average. That's why Greta Martela founded Trans Lifeline, a suicide hotline for transgender people run by transgender volunteers.
As a transgender woman herself, Martela knew how badly it was needed.
GRETA MARTELA: When I came out, I kind of assumed that something like Trans Lifeline would be there for me, and I was shocked to learn that there was just really not much.
RATH: Trans Lifeline launched in September, and it's already getting around 60 calls a day. Greta Martela says she wishes she could have had the chance to counsel Leelah Alcorn.
MARTELA: For all of the trans women I know, the first thought is, you know, this could be me. This is - this is so much like my experience. You know, we're just finishing up the holidays, and that's a time of year when it's really clear, if you're a trans person, and, like me, most of your friends are trans people, you know, nobody is going home for the holidays. Most trans people end up kind of orphaned from their families and have to build new families. So to hear about the way that her family was rejecting her and working to isolate her, I think every trans person I know was crying about it the day that it came out, so...
RATH: Based on what Leelah wrote, how would you have counseled her?
MARTELA: We do get a lot of teens calling Trans Lifeline, and their situations are frequently really similar to what Leelah describes in her letter. I just came out to my parents, and they're rejecting me - that scenario. So the things that I do when I have a kid like that on the line with me is I try to find one adult in their community who's a safe person, who is going to listen to them about what's going on with them and not question their identity. So I try to hook them up with one adult.
And I try to emphasize that - let's say you've got two years left in high school - that that seems like forever, but it's not that long. The important thing for teenagers to do in that situation is to make plans to help them get through however long it is. Because the truth is some people's parents in this country are never going to respect their identity or accept them as trans.
RATH: Forgive me for asking this, but have you been suicidal yourself? I mean, you talked about how you could relate to what she wrote about.
MARTELA: Oh, it's fine to ask that. Yes, before I transitioned I had many instances of being suicidal. I was hospitalized for being suicidal I think five times before I transitioned. My experience that led me to start this was calling a big national suicide hotline, and the operator didn't know what transgender meant. So I had to explain that to him. And once he did understand what I was talking about, he got really uncomfortable.
But I went to the ER - and this was in Berkeley, California - I had to explain again what transgender was. And I had to push-back against the nurses to get them to use my right pronouns and my preferred name. And so it's really clear to me that we have such a long way to go on this issue. It's not just trans kids in Ohio whose religious parents are overly-strict with them. It's - it's a common experience. It's something that all trans people are going through on a daily basis.
RATH: Greta Martela is the founder of Trans Lifeline. She joined us from San Francisco. Greta, thanks so much.
MARTELA: Oh, you're welcome.
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