Self-injury and self-acceptance from a gender-nonconforming perspective
Reprinted from "Young People: Self-Injury" issue of Visions Journal, 2017, 13 (2), p. 14
I have been fascinated by pain for as long as I can remember. As a young child, I secretly relished the sting I felt when I stubbed a toe or skinned a knee. When my playground wounds healed over, I would rip the scabs off to watch the blood ooze out. In hindsight, I understand that the pain was a sort of distraction from the nagging overstimulation I have always felt.
At five years old, I was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD). With SPD, sensory information that doesn’t bother most people—such as textures, lights, smells and sounds—can feel exaggerated and unbearably uncomfortable. As I grew older, the intensity of my SPD symptoms faded. But as a young child, I was unable to wear certain fabrics because they felt like sandpaper on my skin. I couldn’t go to concerts or places with large crowds because the noise made me feel as though my head was going to explode. When I got overstimulated by, say, a loud noise or an intense smell, often the only way to make the discomfort go away was for me to physically remove myself from the source of the discomfort.
As I got older, it became less acceptable to have the sort of loud, often public, meltdowns I would experience as a result of my sensory overstimulation. Looking back, I believe part of the reason I began hurting myself was that self-injury acted as a sort of replacement for the physical release of a meltdown. Since it was shameful to outwardly break down, I began to direct my negative energy inward.
The first time I cut myself, I was 13 years old. At that point, I had been dealing with depression and anxiety along with my SPD for quite a while. And as I entered my teenage years, I began to realize that I wasn’t straight. There wasn’t a particular event or trauma that caused me to run a pair of scissors across my wrist that day. I was feeling overwhelmed, and it just seemed natural, like the right thing to do at the time.
I remember feeling guilty afterward. I covered the thin red cuts on my wrist with a sweatshirt, cursed myself and swore to never do it again. But I would go on to repeat the behaviour a few more times over the next few months. Eventually, cutting myself became a daily ritual.
When I started self-harming, I knew only a couple of other people my age who did so. I didn’t think of myself as anything like them, nor did I come to see myself as a “self-harmer” or “cutter” until years later. Interestingly, though, there was a very significant similarity between us: we were all LGBTQ. Specifically, we were all transgender.
Self-harm, like suicide, is over-represented in the LGBTQ community, particularly with LGBTQ youth, yet it is rarely talked about. On average, about 15% of young people in the general population report engaging in some type of self-injury.1 In contrast, around 35% of LGBTQ youth report having self-harmed.2 While there is virtually no data specifically on transgender youth and self-harm, I suspect the number of transgender youth who self-harm may be higher.
Practically all transgender and gender-nonconforming people I know have engaged in self-harm at one point or another. We don’t talk about it, but we exchange knowing glances of solidarity when we see the scars on each other’s bodies. It’s no secret—being trans isn’t often easy. Trans people face bullying, discrimination and non-acceptance, which (as I know from personal experience) can lead to depression, isolation and feelings of self-hatred, all of which increase the likelihood of self-harm.
I realized I was non-binary in Grade 10. I don’t fit within the gender binary of male or female, despite having been assigned female at birth. I have always felt this way, though while I was growing up I didn’t have a way to verbally express my discomfort. I didn’t realize it was possible to “not identify” as a particular gender until I came out as bisexual at 14 and started learning about—and getting involved in—the LGBTQ community.
At some point, I half-heartedly came out as gender-nonconforming to my friends and the Gender-Sexuality Alliance (a club at my high school composed of other LGBTQ youth and allies, and a sponsor teacher). I requested that people call me by a different name and use neutral “they/them” pronouns for me, but people were generally confused and rarely used my preferred name or pronouns. Outside of close friends and other trans people, few accepted my nonconforming gender identity.
At about the same time, my brother came out to our family as a transgender guy. He and I had discussed our gender identity before, so it wasn’t a surprise to me. But our immediate family was taken aback. Although they claimed to accept his statement of identity, they didn’t make an effort to use his new name and pronouns. They seemed to think his “new” gender identity was just a “phase.” While the family has since become more accepting, I didn’t exactly feel encouraged to come out officially given my brother’s experience.
At school and at home, I continued to present as a girl. My self-harm increased, as did my anxiety and loneliness. There were very few other out trans and gender-nonconforming kids at school, and all of them were dealing with their own issues—which often included mental illness and addiction along with self-harm.
Self-harm thrives under conditions of secrecy and shame, and those were the conditions I lived in. I was too ashamed and embarrassed to be who I actually was, and the other trans people I knew in my life were equally miserable, if not more so.
Luckily, as my high school years drew to a close, things began to get easier. With the encouragement of my school counsellor, I began seeing a therapist and receiving cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) for depression and anxiety. I was skeptical at first, but I began to apply my newly learned coping skills in my everyday life and found they actually helped. I’ve continued being an advocate for LGBTQ and social justice issues, which in turn has made me feel better about myself. My new work environment is accepting of gender variance. And at my university, there is a fairly large transgender/gender-nonconforming population.
I am more forthcoming about my identity now, and I present in the way I want to. I am still receiving CBT and starting to understand more about my self-harm process and the triggers that cause it. I haven’t stopped self-harming completely, but I see recovery in my near future. Every day I feel more comfortable with myself and my gender, and I look forward to what the future holds.
About the author
Elliot is a visual arts student currently living in Vancouver, BC. They** enjoy gardening, volunteering and playing music in their free time, and hope to pursue a career working with LGBT youth
** Visions supports the use of personal pronouns that contributors feel best reflect their gender identity, including the gender-neutral singular “they/them.”
Kerr, P.L., Muehlenkamp, J.J. & Turner, J.M. (2010). Nonsuicidal self-injury: A review of current research for family medicine and primary care physicians. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 23(2), 240-259. www.jabfm.org/content/23/2/240.full. doi:10.3122/jabfm.2010.02.090110.
Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN). (2015). LGBT self-harm and suicidality: An overview of national and international research findings. Dublin: GLEN. www.glen.ie/attachments/LGBT_Self-Harm_%26_Suicidality_-_an_overview_of_national_and_international_research_findings.pdf.