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On transphobia, and the causes of PTSD

PTSDPTSD can’t necessarily be explained by a singular event. Being trans in a transphobic society means depression, anxiety, panic are overlapping and interwoven with one another, and with your identity, and the particular circumstances of your life, writes Sadie Ryanne.

15 May 2011

As someone who is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I sometimes feel like there is an expectation that my “symptoms” can be easily traced to one cause.

Unlike some “mental illnesses”, where biologically deterministic theories reign supreme PTSD is most closely associated with particular experiences. PTSD is what happens after a car bomb blows up part of your convoy, or an earthquake shatters your windows.

I’ve felt this pressure – from friends, psychiatrists, and myself – to explain my PTSD as something caused by a singular event. Most commonly, I point to the time I was jumped just outside of my house.

That was not the first extremely violent situation that ever happened to me; the first time I was queer bashed was when I was 13. But usually, it’s this one time that I feel most often in flashbacks.

However, I don’t think this is a very helpful way of looking at PTSD, at least not for me. It’s really impossible for me to isolate one event from the entire context of my life and say “this is what caused it.”

After I got jumped, a reporter I knew from my local activism heard about what happened to me. He asked if I wanted him to write a story about it. I said no, but I wonder, if he had written a story about it, what people would have read into the story.

A lot of people, including friends, assumed I had been jumped for being trans or queer. There is obvious reason for them to make this assumption: When a queer trans woman gets assaulted by a stranger in public, it often is an act of transphobic violence. It’s happened to me, more than once, and it’s happened to most trans women I know.

The truth is, I have no idea what motivated my attacker in this particular instance to pick me. I seriously doubt he knew I was trans, unless he had seen me around the neighborhood before. (I started hormones while I lived there, but by that time I was mostly passing as cis, and it was dark out anyway.)

It probably had more to do with the fact that I’m a small woman alone at night. He took my purse, so I just figured he was desperate for money – not out to find trannies.

But regardless, the fact that I am trans still permeates the way I experienced the attack.

By this time, I had already been queer bashed previously. I had been openly mocked and laughed out in public more times than I could ever recall. I had been threatened and told to die by strangers. I had known trans women who were murdered.

Long before I was jumped, got PTSD, or had my first panic attack, I already lived in constant anxiety. And pretty much all of that came from being trans in a cis supremacist culture that constantly threatened me with violence for being different.

So when I finally was jumped, regardless of the motive of the person who attacked me, it was still in the context of my marginalized trans identity. I still had to walk around every day after that feeling like a target, like it was going to happen again at any moment.

And so the anxiety just got worse. And worse. And the worrying never went away.

I can’t untangle one aspect of me (being trans, living in a transphobic society) from another (having PTSD, being touched by panic). I think all of the different ways I experience mental illness – depression, anxiety, panic – are overlapping and interwoven with one another, and with my identity, and the particular circumstances of my life.

I also think this is a point that is crucial to remember as we think about what causes mental illness and how to treat it.

It’s not as simple as just “your chemicals are unbalanced, so you’re depressed” or “you got hit in the head, so you have an exaggerated startle response.” (Although both may be true.)

Everyone’s life history is unique, and for me, even if my attacker in that one case didn’t chose me because I’m trans, transphobia still had a lot to do with the anxiety and panic that I still have to this day.

Sadie Ryanne dreams of a world where police, bosses, teachers, pimps, doctors, social workers, immigration agents and schoolyard bullies don’t have the power to keep us from being the strong and beautiful people we know we are, and she believes it takes our collective strength and action to move toward that world. She is a member of the DC Trans Coalition, a volunteer, grassroots organization dedicated to fighting for human rights, dignity, and liberation for all trans people in the District.

Sadie has also worked with HIPS, a peer support agency for sex workers, the National Center for Transgender Equality and is a founding Steering Committee member of the Trans Advocacy Network. While not pestering the government or giving workshops, she can be found talking to herself and her cats.

She maintains a personal blog at The Distant Panic, where this article first appeared.

 

 

Comments   

0 #1 Ind! Edwards 2011-05-31 19:12
I still play out my transphobic attack before I go to sleep and when I wake up in the morning.

details of attack here

http://www.thescavenger.net/isgd/historic-rally-hears-stories-of-violence-and-discrimination-from-isgd-people-712.html
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