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Anti-Trans Ballot Measures Are Eroding Mental Health

In the fall of 2017, Australia conducted a voter survey to gauge support for legalizing same-sex marriage. During that time, mental health providers saw a dramatic jump in the number of LGBTQ people needing help.

ReachOut, an internet mental health service for young people, reported a 40 percent spike in young people seeking LGBTQ services from the site.

And it’s no wonder. The Coalition for Marriage, which was battling marriage equality, released a widely-condemned transphobic and homophobic ad that fall.

“School told my son he could wear a dress next year if he felt like it,” a woman lamented in the ad.

Justice McPherson, a transgender woman living in Alaska is bracing for similar ads coming out of Anchorage, where an anti-trans bathroom bill is up for a vote by mail later this month. McPherson doesn’t live in the city, so she can’t vote against Prop. 1, but its passage would impact her.

“My job has me driving elders in to medical appointments,” she tells INTO. “If they need a specialist, they have to go to Anchorage to get it. That means that I have to deal with the proposed restrictions.”

McPherson has an updated birth certificate that reflects her transition, but under Prop. 1, that wouldn’t matter. The measure rolls back the city’s anti-discrimination law and mandates that people use public restrooms according the gender on their original birth certificate.

Jay Wu, communications manager for the National Center for Transgender Equality, has noted that the bill goes even further than North Carolina’s infamous HB 2, which was repealed.

“But the outcome is similar: it means that many transgender people simply won’t be able to use the restroom, and for many people not having safe access to the restroom means you can’t go to school, go to work or participate in public life,” Wu says.

McPherson says that many trans people living outside of Anchorage are forced to go to the city for essential services and business. Anchorage has the airport, the Costco and most of the healthcare services.

“Last year, we drove hundreds and hundreds of miles on a trip out to Valdez,” she says. “The whole trip, we were listening to the radio and it was playing Anchorage news. So here shortly, we are going to be hit with a Australia style hate campaign on news and radio, and we can do nothing.”

Mental health professionals treating trans patients say anti-trans ballot measures not only undermine trans rights. Even if they fail, they can devastate people’s sense of self. Discrimination against queer has been linked to suicidality, substance abuse and psychiatric disorders.

Randi Ettner, a clinical and forensic psychologist and expert on transgender mental health, says she has seen those symptoms surface time and again when trans people were denied bathroom access.

“We know that there is a direct relationship, it’s been documented, between access to bathrooms and suicidality over the lifetime,” Ettner says. “Discrimination is a path to disease. Stigma leads to sickness. This is the blueprint for future physical and mental health issues. When people are marginalized, stigmatized, discriminated against, they develop symptoms and we see this over and over.”

Roni Lanier, a licensed professional counselor in Anchorage, treats a large number of trans people. She says the ballot measure has had a noticeable impact on their mental health.

“I have definitely seen an increase in anxiety symptoms with current patients, specifically because of the bill,” Lanier says. “I see a lot of people who are in different stages of transitioning and are different ages. And for some of my younger people, they’re not really able to say, this is what’s going on, this is why I’m so anxious now. It’s just of this underlying additional cultural stressor to what’s already there. It’s not good.”

Anchorage is not the only place facing an anti-trans ballot measure. Opponents in Montana are gathering signatures for a bathroom measure expected to make it on the ballot this summer. And progressive Massachusetts will vote in November on a measure over repealing its public accommodations protections for transgender people.

SK Rossi, director of advocacy and policy with the ACLU of Montana, says these ballot measures not only hit LGBTQ individuals but take a toll on the systems that were set up to support them.

“Anytime something like this pops up, it’s worrisome,” Rossi tells INTO. “It has a negative impact on the trans and LGBT community. It’s bad for people’s mental and emotional health. It sucks a lot of resources out of all sorts of organizations and makes local government take their attention away from providing services to their community members in order to fight this kind of thing.”


Kate Sosin Oeser

Kate Sosin Oeser is a an award-winning trans reporter and former associate editor of Chicago's Windy City Times.