A Bigot Who Has Felt Bigotry Themselves Is Still A Bigot
There is a common idea in psychological analysis of abuse, violence, and similar antisocial behaviors that the targets of such experiences present an elevated risk of inflicting those same experiences on others, known as the cycle of abuse. While the validity of how much the experiences influence the target’s future behavior is debated, that specific is irrelevant for the purposes of this post; all that I’m referencing it for is to provide a starting point for saying that someone having been a target of antisocial behavior doesn’t mean they can’t go on to express antisocial behaviors themselves.
Stated more plainly, someone having been targeted by racism, sexism, transphobia, etc. doesn’t mean they should get a free pass for any future bigoted behavior.
On the surface, this feels like it should be obvious and uncontroversial. In reality, however, it isn’t that simple, because it’s common for such bigots to use their target status (intentionally or not) as a sympathetic shield against criticism and critical examination.
One of the best examples of this in current times is J. K. Rowling, as a prominent supporter of the gender critical feminist (GCF)/trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) movement. As Jessie Gender talks about in this article covering some of GCF’s notable history, Rowling was abused by her ex-husband, and she is known to juxtapose that tragic fact with her transphobic comments. Rowling did not deserve to be target of domestic abuse, in case it needs to be said, because nobody deserves that. However, in no way does that lessen the criticism that she does deserve for her bigotry towards transgender people. Having been harmed by her ex-husband is no excuse for inflicting harm on other people.
I had a similar experience recently, with a Black person using their personal experiences of racism as a shield to express transphobic and ableist sentiments, which spurred me to do some research after ending that interaction.
There are many ways in which targets of antisocial experiences may manifest the resulting trauma. Since I’m not an expert in the field and didn’t want to try sifting through too much data to sort out what was or was not relevant, my mind went straight to one possible extreme response: suicide. This is not the only response, of course, and not every suicide is necessarily a result of experiencing bigotry or other such abuses, but it serves well enough for my curiosity here since it typically takes a lot of mental/emotional trauma for a person to reach the point of deciding that ending their own life is a better option than continuing to live, and bigotry is a significant source of such trauma for marginalized people.
Courtesy of the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), suicide rates for the United States are available with some degree of control over various filters. Doing what I could with public access, I looked at the rates (per 100,000) of suicide, distributed by race, from 2019 to 2020. The resulting table is shown below:
For the purposes of comparison to another study cited below, the table below shows the rates for only the age group 15-19 (which was the closest I could set the filter to “high school students”):
Now, I’m not going to read much into why the rates worked out the way that they did, since I wouldn’t be surprised if there were systemic factors influencing the exact statistics, such as what gets recorded as an official suicide compared to what might be reasonably interpreted as a suicide from a personal case-by-case review. I’ll merely point out that the general suicide rate for Black people was substantially below the national average for the time period in question, to such a degree that it seems reasonable to say that (independent of all other factors) being Black doesn’t seem to increase a random person’s chances of committing suicide. The results for ages 15-19 only are murkier, so I’ll try to err on the side of caution by saying that a firm conclusion can’t be reached based on the NVDRS alone as to whether Black high school-aged people are at an elevated risk of committing suicide.
On the other hand, there is ample evidence supporting the conclusion that LGBTQ+ people in the United States are at substantially increased risk of committing suicide. Unfortunately, this filtering is not available through public access to the NVDRS, so I can’t do a direct comparison, but there is no shortage of other studies and analyses on the subject.
(Aside: I apologize in advance to any pansexual, asexual, demisexual, or otherwise non-heterosexual people reading this post who are not lesbian, gay, or bisexual, because I was not able to find any studies that included consideration or differentiation for your orientations. I recognize that you exist and do not deserve to be ignored or erased; sadly, the people who conducted these studies did not. All I can offer is that I won’t sweep your identities aside by referring to the demographics called out in the studies as non-heterosexual.)
Per one study by the National Institute of Mental Health in 2021, lesbian, gay, and bisexual respondents were collectively at three to six times higher risk of suicide than heterosexual respondents, measured across all age and racial categories, with bisexual people being at higher risks than either gay or lesbian people (which is not surprising to me, personally, given that bisexual erasure remains a significant problem that I try to call out whenever I notice it). Interestingly, while men did not show any significant deviation in risks when broken up by race, while Black women did seem to show lower risks compared to white women, which seems to line up with the general trends when distributed by race (as shown above).
Focusing specifically on suicide attempts by high school students, a 2020 study by the CDC found a nearly-four times increase in the rate of suicide attempts by lesbian, gay, and bisexual respondents compared to heterosexual respondents. This one did find Black students to have a higher attempt rate than the general average (11.8% compared to 8.9%), interestingly, so there is some possibility that the rates mentioned in the NVDRS are suppressing the results for Black people as part of the influencing systemic factors. However, the rate for Black students remains roughly half the rate for lesbian, gay, and bisexual students (23.4%). Thus, while Black students are at an elevated risk of attempting suicide, students who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual are by far the most vulnerable demographic that the study identified.
Sadly, when matters come to transgender people, the numbers get worse.
Per one study of transgender people archived in the National Library of Medicine in 2016, 41% of transgender respondents reported having attempted suicide at some point in their lives. For contrast, the general public average was roughly 0.4% in 2020, as cited on the CDC’s suicide facts page; while the numbers can’t be compared directly since the latter figure was for only one year while the former was for the respondent’s entire life, the fact that it would take roughly 130 years of 0.4% of the population making a suicide attempt per year to reach 41% of the overall population having attempted suicide certainly suggests a significantly increased risk for transgender people.
This is supported by a collection of studies from 2011 to 2017 used for reference by the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Canada, which concluded that transgender people are at roughly twice the risk of both contemplating and attempting suicide as compared to lesbian, gay, and bisexual cisgender people. Taken together with the results of the abovementioned studies that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are at roughly four times higher risk of suicide than heterosexual people, and it seems fair to say that, as a quick estimate, transgender people are at roughly eight times higher risk of suicide than cisgender heterosexual people.
Now, let me be clear: none of this is to diminish the bigotry faced by Black people in the United States, nor am I in any way attempting to imply that it is less worthy of attention than the bigotry faced by LGBTQ+ people. Suicide is only one form of potential response to bigotry, and while race is social construct, racism is very much real. All bigotry is wrong, regardless of which axis of identity it is based on. The fact that this has to be stated explicitly saddens me, but unfortunately, it seems necessary.
That said, by the same token, all bigotry is wrong, regardless of who it is coming from. A Black person espousing transphobic and ableist sentiments is being bigoted and deserves to be called out for it, just as a transgender person espousing racist sentiments does, or just as a target of domestic abuse espousing transphobic sentiments does. Everyone should be held to the same standards, and past targeting is no excuse for inflicting new harm.