Saturday, August 30, 2014

He/She/We: The struggle to understand gender identity

Posted: Monday, August 25, 2014

In his last Instagram post, Riley Matthew Moscatel tried to explain what it was like to live in a body that he felt belonged to someone else.
Riley Moscatel
“My mirror reflected Jessica, my heart and mind say Riley ... I am a prisoner.”
In the long, and at times poetic post, the 17-year-old, who was born a girl and given the name Jessica, expressed frustration with his female body and feelings of hopelessness for the future.
“I am not as strong or influential as everyone thinks. I’ve had enough,” the message read. “Enough of being a walking lie. Being told what gender I am from the outside.”
Not long after posting the message Aug. 18 afternoon, Riley stepped onto the train tracks that can be seen from his family’s Second Avenue home in Croydon and in front of a passing Amtrak train. Riley died instantly, the death ruled a suicide.
The final Instagram post wasn’t the first that Riley left on the social media outlet expressing his gender identity struggle.
“It kills me that I am so alone in this feeling and that my surgical options are poor ... If I could choose if I was born a girl or a guy, I would’ve chosen a guy,” Riley wrote in an earlier post. “The emotions are too much some days. Most TFMs (Transgender Female-to-Male) wouldn’t agree because they’re (sic) journey made them stronger but it really takes a toll on me.”
Riley’s suicide has shaken to the core his friends at Bucks County Technical High School, where he would have been a senior this coming school year and where other openly gay, lesbian and transgender kids attend, according to an administrator.
He came out as a male in English class last year, friends said. Riley’s mom called him “JR,” which stood for Jessica-Riley, they added.
Riley’s struggle with gender identity alone was most likely not the catalyst for his suicide, according to psychology and behavior experts. Suicide is rarely triggered by a single factor, but rather an accumulation of factors the individual perceives as insurmountable, according to Dan Romer, a psychologist at University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Individuals who attempt suicide frequently also have at least one diagnosable psychiatric illness, most commonly major depression, a highly treatable disease, Romer and other behavior experts added.
“That is really your smoking gun,” said Jonathan Singer, a professor of social work at Temple University, whose research has included suicide among adults and youth including gay, lesbian and transgender.
Available statistics suggest gay, lesbian and transgender teens and adults are at a higher risk for suicidal behavior and thoughts. The Youth Suicide Prevention Program estimates that more than 50 percent of them attempt suicide at least once by their 20th birthday.
A nationally representative study of adolescents in grades seven through 12 found that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers, according the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. But the CDC noted that more studies are needed to better understand the risks for suicide among transgender youth.
But Singer pointed out the lack of reliable sources for statistics on suicides or attempted suicides among transgender youth. While death certificates will list suicide, they do not list sexual orientation or gender identity, he said.
“There are so few youth suicides relative to the population, it would be almost impossible to measure,” he said.
The closest anyone has come to reliable statistics is a study released earlier this year by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute. It looked at suicidal behavior among adult transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, Singer said.
The study suggests that several minority stressors, such as negative experiences may contribute to elevated prevalence of suicide attempts among transgender people, such as experiences of harassment and family rejection.
Ten years ago Beverly’s son, then in his early 20s, told her that he was living in the wrong body, which was quite a shock for the Bucks County woman.
Riley
“I thought, he will grow out of it. I never even told my husband. It is very difficult. People treat it worse than being gay 30 years ago,” said Beverly, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her child. “I was hoping I’d be long dead and gone if she ever came out.”
For the next decade, her son continued to live as a male trying to fit in, until two years ago when she started the physical transition to female, Beverly said. Recently she decided to change her gender on her driver’s license from male to female.
The journey has been difficult for her new daughter. She has faced discrimination and harassment in the workplace and public when people learned she was born male.
“I talked her off a ledge many a day,” Beverly added. “But she is a wonderful person with a good heart. It is who she is that’s important.”
Riley’s parents have said that their child struggled for years with depression and gender identity, but displayed no outward signs recently of a growing sense of desperation.
“Things were just building up and building up and she just couldn’t take it anymore,” Riley’s mom Kristine Moscatel said Tuesday. “She hid behind her mask. She had a mask for me, my husband, my son, my parents ... Everyone she had a different face for, but they were all happy (faces).”
Friends say Riley — then known as Jessica — came out in ninth grade as bisexual, then a lesbian in 10th grade, but realized he was transgender his junior year.
Riley appeared happy and was popular at school, where staff and students called him Riley Matthew at his request after the transgender announcement, friends said.
Christina Gavagin said her friend was looking forward to senior year: the annual Powder Puff Football game, prom (he picked out a tuxedo) and the senior class trip.
“The only thing he wanted was to graduate and go away to California for college,” said Christina, who is going into her senior year at the tech school.
“I knew Riley when he had down times. I’d go over his house. A lot of times he’d try to make me feel better,” she added.
They are sentiments another close friend Carley Foss repeated. She, like Christina, met Riley in seventh grade. They talked every day, she said. Riley, though increasingly frustrated with his female body, seemed fine when she last saw him last Saturday.
Riley
“He was so nice. So caring. Even if he didn’t really know you or like you much, he’d try to make you happy,” Carley said. “(That’s) just the way he impacted people’s lives. He put a smile on everybody’s face.”
Riley also appeared to be taking steps toward transitioning from female to male, visiting a Philadelphia health clinic that specializes in transgender youth to inquire about hormone treatments and surgery to remove his female breasts, friends said. He wore a binder to flatten his breasts and attended Pennsbury High School’s gay-straight alliance.
Temple’s Singer pointed out that adolescence is all about coming to terms with your identity. But when biological sex isn’t consistent with gender identity — combined with depression and a brain where emotional and cognitive reasoning hasn’t fully matured — it can become overwhelming.
While he applauded the school and others who accepted Riley as a male, Singer said that unconditional social acceptance can also have the opposite effect on an individual.
“This kid was clearly suffering so much inside,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for kids who are depressed to put on a happy face, especially if they feel like they don’t have any reason to feel as bad as they do.”
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: jciavaglia@calkins.com; Twitter: @jociavaglia

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