Suicide occurs four times more than the average in the LHBT community, making Movember a very important topic for this community. We spoke about suicide in the LHBT community and prostate and testicular cancer with Anne Levah Russchen, LHBT project coordinator for the municipality of Alkmaar, and herself a transgender person.
As LHBT project coordinator Anne visits many different institutions. She speaks at schools, visits refugee and health care clinics, where she speaks about important LHBT topics and helps people to be who they want to be. Since August she’s officially a civil servant; previously she served the community as a Rainbow ambassador for 2 years. “I’m trying to break the culture of putting people in silos,” she explains. “These silos are visible for many people, especially for young adults, and they don’t function anymore. I’m not just talking about gay or transgender youths; even heterosexual youths don’t feel the need to be labelled any longer.”
Breaking the silos
So what about the term ‘transgender’ - isn’t that just another silo? “Yes, it is, one we have been using for quite a while as an umbrella term for anyone who feels that their gender identity doesn’t correspond with their physical gender features. It’s a way to explain that gender isn’t a binary principle; there’s a spectrum of possibilities between the extremes of male and female.
First of all, the biological gender is a lot more complicated than people have always thought it to be. There are many variations to the classic chromosome pairs. Did you ever consider that a baby is always female for the first few months of a pregnancy?
Secondly, there’s gender identity. This is how you experience yourself, how you think and feel. That’s again somewhere in the spectrum between male and female.
consider that a baby is always female for the first few months of a pregnancy?
Thirdly, gender expression defines how you present yourself to the outside world, so also how you dress, your behaviour, your appearance.
Finally, there’s sexual and romantic orientation; what attracts us to the other, which is built up by the same three components: physical gender, gender identity and gender expression.
“What I’m trying to say is that emancipation doesn’t just apply to transgender people; it belongs to all of us. In Great Britain 55 percent of young adults indicated that they couldn’t conform to the traditional male-female model. That’s a discussion that goes much deeper than only the transgender community.”
Movember and testicular and prostate cancer
What does Movember mean to the LHBT community? “Testicular and prostate cancer are just as important topics for the LHBT community as for anyone else. In my view, it’s similar to suicide in that it’s something that men don’t like to talk about. Testicular and prostate cancer are scary because they are located in an area that men typically identify themselves by. For transgender people there’s additional complexity. Someone who was born biologically male, but who identifies as a woman, or as gender-fluid, can also get testicular or prostate cancer.
Is that really a problem? Would that person not feel addressed by the Movember message? “That differs from person to person. A transgender woman identifies as a woman, even if she’s born biologically male. So yes, that can be very painful.”
So what you’re saying is, that in the future we’ll see more women with testicular and prostate cancer, and that this is something we should be aware of now? “Exactly. In fact, transgender women are already being diagnosed with these forms of cancer, so this is already happening now.”
“We still need to be much more accepting of diversity. Just look at the discussion about gender-neutral toilets. People immediately feel intimidated, because something they were used to, something they considered to be normal, is suddenly being changed. However, our democracy is based on listening to everyone and ensuring that our society is inclusive for everyone; that’s what we call progress. I don’t think it’s necessary for people to feel intimidated by these changes. If we make space for someone, it doesn’t mean someone else will get less space. There’s space enough for all of us.”
Could you project that discussion to Movember? In other words, do you think there will be people who think that transgender people are ‘taking away Movember from men’? “That could be, but it would be nice if people don’t see it that way. It’s great that we have something for men, and it’s good that those important topics are being discussed. But I truly think that the more inclusive you are, the more you achieve. It won’t give you any disadvantages. The transgender community can make a big contribution to Movember.”
Suicide in the LHBT community
Why does suicide occur more often in the LHBT community? “During puberty a young adult develops their sexuality and (gender) identity. This can be a very traumatic experience, because many of them feel insecure and can’t be who they want to be. At a secondary school we showed a video of two men kissing, and all the boys in the audience were trying to look away. Imagine that you are the one boy who feels attracted to this. Someone like that can be badly bullied for having those feelings.”
“Don’t think that this is only a problem for young adults, either. Even people in their fifties are suffering from the taboos around homosexuality. Research shows that thirty percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in their fifties are still in the closet and don’t dare to speak about their true sexuality. In nursing homes LHBT people are being bullied and excluded. It often happens that people who do come out of the closet, and move in to nursing homes, are advised to go back into the closet.”
Do you feel hopeful? Do you think we will see an increase in acceptance and thus a decrease in the number of suicides? “Some time ago I shared a beautiful quote on my Facebook wall from someone in the US. In short it’s something like this: I am not a liberal snowflake, but if my belief in equity, empathy, goodness, and love indeed makes me or people like me snowflakes, then you should know...Winter is coming!
I belief in this. The sexual revolution started in the ‘40s when the NVSH was founded. They believed in sex before marriage, prevention, abortion, legalisation of pornography and giving people space to be who they wanted to be. That movement was knocked back by the ‘80s, since feminists believed that porn was female-unfriendly. Now we are ming forward progress again, even though there’s a lot of opposing activity. It would surprise you to know how many ordinary heterosexual couples have open relationships and experiment with other couples (while being under the influence). Boys are surfing the internet at the age of fifteen and see a world of pornography with a variety of preferences; because of this, a boy can discover that he feels attracted to transgender girls at a very young age. I think this new generation will be a lot more imaginative than the generations before it, because slowly, more and more is moving out of the sphere of the taboo. Young adults are breaking free from the conservative Christian culture in which their parents and grandparents were raised.
Nowadays we shouldn’t feel trapped to speak about these topics; we should try to break free, go back to being the free people we used to be. We can define our norms and values together, and we don’t need a church or bible anymore to help us with that.”
The Future of Movember
“The group of men who present a heterosexual identity to the outside world, but also have experiences with other men or transgender people, is growing. This group doesn’t need to be defined by another term; they are just straight men, because that’s what they feel they are. However, it’s this group that is not reached by our communication channels. Because where do you go after you’ve had an experience with someone from your own sex, when you’re already in a heterosexual relationship? Who could you talk to? This also goes for sexually transmitted diseases. Homosexual men will know where to find the STD clinics, and they know that they can use it for free. Heterosexual men, even those who have had homosexual experiences, often don’t know this. If the relevant institutions include these people in their communication, we can take some big steps forward.”
“People should have the opportunity to speak about their problems and we need to break down taboos. Sexual education should cover all topics. I would advocate a situation in which young adults in puberty would be educated on gender and sexuality on a monthly basis, including difficult topics like fetishes and BDSM. That would allow them to feel free to speak about those topics more openly.”
What could Movember do to help with that? “I would love it if Movember could evolve into an awareness month, in which we all break down taboos. We can let people speak about their own secrets, which will make it a month of confessions. That will keep the current Movember topics relevant, but it will also reach a much bigger group, and will help Movember have an even bigger impact on a major social shift.”