Last Thursday, the news broke to the public that a 15-year-old transgender boy had committed suicide in England after his school had refused to change his name to Leo in its records. The student, Leo Etherington, passed away in May of this year, but news outlets are only now hearing of the story.
Leo Etherington’s story is not unique for a transgender teen; after coming out to his family and school as male, his teachers continued to misgender him and refer to him by his birth name. The school reportedly told Etherington that he had to be at least 16 years old before they would officially change his name to Leo.
However, the narrative that children are too young to know if they are transgender is as flawed as it is dangerous. Often those who use this argument claim that if we believe children when they say they are transgender, then it will lead to permanent changes in these children’s lives and bodies that they aren’t ready for. But, what is permanent about a name change at school? What is permanent about requesting that teachers refer to a child by different pronouns? These are simple changes that assure transgender students that their feelings are being taken seriously.
Transgender teens usually struggle with gender dysphoria, something that can get much worse with puberty as the body changes. Because most countries don’t allow transgender people to pursue hormone replacement therapy or transition-related surgeries until they are at least 17 or 18 years old, many transgender teens view changing their name and pronouns as one of the few freedoms they have in their transition. When even that is taken from them, it can make teens feel powerless, helpless, and out of control of their own lives; these feelings can easily manifest into suicidal thoughts and destructive behavior.
The tragic passing of Leo Etherington is yet another testament to how we are failing our transgender youth, by ignoring their most basic wishes. The US National Transgender Survey reported in 2015 that 40% of transgender adults had attempted suicide in their lifetime, and of this group, 74% of these adults’ first attempt occurred before the age of 18. This also puts transgender youth at severe risk of self-harm. Even more troubling, the Trevor Project estimates that for every event of discrimination an LGBT person faces, their likelihood of self-harming more than doubles.
This is why we must hold schools with discriminatory policies accountable. We must hold families who reject their children’s identities accountable. We must call the misgendering and deadnaming of transgender children exactly what it is–an act of violence. But most importantly, we must support, listen to, and respect the wishes of every transgender child and teen, before it’s too late.