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An in-depth look at how trans individuals in Hamilton, especially students, deal with harassment in their daily lives and how it affects their mental health.

Bekett Noble was a student and a trans rights activist at Hamilton’s Redeemer University, working hard to improve the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals in their community. On Nov. 23, 2022, they took their own life at the university shortly after sending out an email detailing their struggle and their experiences in fighting for LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion.

“Bekett pursued faculty channels, they pursued community channels,” Rebecca Banky, a trans rights activist in Hamilton, said. “Basically any way they could reach out to include people and make the lives of trans folks easier, they tried.”

The local LGBTQ+ community felt the loss of Noble, who had founded the Genesis Club, a group focused on inclusion and compassion, at Redeemer University.

“The community is outraged but unsurprised,” Banky said. “Advocacy is a part of our lives and a part of our survival.”

While there are laws to ensure that LGBTQ+ and other minority groups have access to safe places and inclusion, such rules are not always followed and can lead to transphobia, homophobia, and exclusion.

“There are policies put in place to protect trans people in Hamilton,” Banky said. “Redeemer is not following those policies, and a council was made to re-evaluate the city’s relationship with the University. The council was genuinely concerned and stirred up about it.”

A report done in 2021 found that nearly 80 per cent of trans students who had been the victims of physical harassment had said that teachers and staff had done little to address the issue, and that these protective policies can fail to produce meaningful change in school environments.

Noble’s suicide is just the latest tragedy in the downward trend of mental health among trans individuals, especially trans youth, who are at a higher risk of suicide than their peers.

“Compared with cisgender, heterosexual adolescents, transgender adolescents showed five times the risk of suicidal ideation and 7.6 times the risk of suicide attempt,” Dr. Mila Kingsbury, a senior research associate at the University of Ottawa, said. “The excess risk of ideation and attempts among trans youth are likely due to something called minority stress, basically when people are part of a group with a lot of historical and recent stigma towards them, which is a very stressful experience and can lead to poor mental health.”

These stresses from stigma only increase when an LGBTQ+ individual also belongs to another marginalized group within their community, especially around race.

The issue of stigma and transphobia has been a problem for several years and shows little sign of change. A report written in 2011 titled “In Every Class In Every School” found that the majority of youth disliked using homophobic and transphobic terms but continued to use it, and a follow-up report in 2021 saw the same trend continue.

“One of the things we identified in the first report was homophobic language,” Tracey Peter, a professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba, said. “The vast majority of kids used it but 58 per cent of them were distressed by it. We can see why they’re using it, because it’s hard to resist school culture.

“And then you fast track all these years later, and the number increased to 59 per cent. We didn’t see a lot of change in the decreased use of homophobic and transphobic language, and we didn’t see any change in the amount of distress.”

Despite the heightened risk of suicidal ideation and the ever-present use of homophobic and transphobic language in schools, some experts believe that there could be ways to make a change.

“I think to truly address this issue we would need to see some pretty big systemic changes that target reduction of victimization and discrimination against trans youth,” Dr. Kingsbury said. “We would like a program to target not just trans adolescents, but all adolescents to try to make school and other social settings more inclusive for trans youth. We also think it’s critically important to include trans and non-binary folks in the development of suicide prevention programs for trans youth to make sure their voices are represented.”

Poor mental health among trans individuals is an ongoing issue, especially with trans youth. Harassment and exclusion can create hostile environments that are severely damaging to the mental well-being of the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, and data shows that these issues are widespread and constant.

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