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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Organization provides lifelines for trans individuals
Extended for the online edition of Windy City Times
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2015-11-18

This article shared 7000 times since Wed Nov 18, 2015
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On Oct. 14, 2015 Ashley Hallstrom—a 26-year-old transgender woman from a small town in Northern Utah—posted on her Facebook page.

"These are going to be my final words. I can't stand to live another day, so I'm committing suicide," she wrote. "I wanted so much to help those going [through] what I had to because nobody should ever have to feel that they hate their life so much that they want to end it all just so they won't have to experience another moment of this sadness. I'm not the first to feel this way and sadly I know I won't be the last. Please help make this change because trans people are everywhere. You may never know who you're hurting until it's too late. Please help fix society."

She then stepped in front of oncoming traffic and the life of a woman who loved music, singing and going out to eat with her friends was ended by a dump truck.

Hallstrom never wanted to be a statistic—one that the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce and the National Center for Transgender Equality estimated at 41 percent of attempts in transgender people compared to 4.6 percent of the general population. However, Hallstrom said that everywhere she turned she saw the hatred of society.

It did not have to be that way.

Greta Gustava Martela is the co-founder, president and executive director of Trans Lifeline—a Chicago-based nonprofit operated by transgender people to benefit transgender people.

If a trans individual feels completely isolated and just needs to talk to someone who can relate to their experiences, if they are being bullied to the point of utter helplessness or if they are standing on the edge of an abyss gouged by the attitudes of family, friends and a country that has cheapened their humanity to the point where they feel their lives have no value, each of Trans Lifeline's 300 trained operators around the country are there to offer an understanding ear and the voice of a friend who already knows everything they are going through.

Martela grew up in Modesto, Calif with a large Mormon family. Unable to deal with the restrictions placed on her life all the way down to her appearance, she left home at 15-years-old.

"I was sleeping in the crawl spaces of houses," she told Windy City Times. "There wasn't anywhere to go. It was the late-eighties and I was part of the punk and Goth scene. People dressed androgynously. So I didn't have to deal with my transition as an adolescent because I had a place to fit in."

"When I came out three-years-ago, I found out that there was someone else in my family who was older than me, trans and closeted," Martela added. "It made me realize that my parents were policing my gender so hard because they could tell I was trans. It's changed the entire perception of my life."

Martela described that life as one of a "classic, restless trans person."

"There were lots of different relationships, lots of moves from city-to-city, trying to come to terms with myself," she said. "As time went on, I was less patient with what was expected of me in my gender role. In the 15-years before my transition, I became increasingly anxious, I had really bad panic attacks. I was hospitalized five times for being suicidal."

Martela remembers the feeling as "having the joy sucked out of your life. The closest I came to making an actual attempt was in Vermont. I'm a very visual person. I took no joy from sunrises or sunsets. It was a numb sensation. You can only feel the parts of life that hurt. The same things are underlying suicide for trans people as they do for the rest of the population but we're experiencing these things at much higher rates. Your average trans person puts up with so much but there's a subtext in society that says 'oh but you're trans. You're asking for it'. It's victim blaming and we have to be punching bags for cisgender people to learn how to be compassionate."

Martela said that her own calls to national suicide hotlines were negative experiences. "I had to explain what it meant to be transgender," she recalled. "The guy on the phone got really uncomfortable and tried to get rid of me as soon as possible."

When she transitioned, Martela was working as a software engineer. She was divorced and raising a son on her own. "I was making a lot of money, but I was coming apart at the seams," she said. "My career imploded."

It was at a 2013 transgender meet-up in Oakland, Calif. that Martela met Nina Chaubal—a native of Mumbai, India who was, at the time, nurturing a successful career at Google. They moved in together and spent the next year in San Francisco.

Martela started volunteering as an outreach coordinator for TGSF—a support and social group for San Francisco's transgender community. "Their 800 number mailbox would fill up with crisis calls from around the country," she said. "I started returning those calls and it didn't take long for me to realize there was real value in that."

In August 2014, Martela and Chuabal came up with the idea for the Trans Lifeline. "We needed some open source software and found a project called Pocket Hotline," Martela said.

It took a week, Nina's considerable skills, some financial help from Facebook friends and Pocket Hotline's co-founder Chap Ambrose before Trans Lifeline was up and running.

Martela began searching the internet for volunteer phone operators whom she would meet and train online.

"We trained operators all through September and October," she said. "By November we had 15 operators but nothing was happening. I was about ready to give up on it."

During the 2014 Transgender Day of Remembrance, Martela was contacted by Time Magazine journalist Katy Steinmetz who authored that year's Transgender Tipping Point article.

"She wrote about the Trans Lifeline," Martela said. "Twenty minutes later, I started getting calls on my cellphone. For the next three days, I took calls all day from people in crisis."

Martela remembers her first call in detail. At the time, she was working at a contract job with very little to do. When her cell phone rang, Martela left the office and went into the hallway. "It was a transwoman," she said. "She was a little younger than me, stuck in the South with her life coming apart around her. She was in despair. I know what that sounds like. We talked for an hour-and-a-half. I just listened to her, validated how hard things were and gave her some practical suggestions. I calmed her down and she spent the next six months putting her life back together."

Martela was rounding up and training operators as fast as she could when Ohio teenager Leelah Alcorn ended her life on Dec. 28, 2014.

"When her suicide note went viral we had 147 calls that day," Martela said. "Twitter was lighting up with our number. Nina and I knew that this was something that the community needed. I suddenly realized the level of responsibility I had signed up for. When we set this up, we had no idea what the call volume would be. No one had tried it on this scale before."

Martela and Chuabal changed their lives to focus entirely on the project. Chaubal left Google and began to write new software. The couple realized that trying to maintain a nonprofit and keep up with the increasingly exorbitant cost of living in San Francisco was next to impossible so they relocated to Chicago and found a two-bedroom apartment in Edgewater. It now serves as Trans Lifeline's headquarters.

They were married in March 2015, shortly before they relocated.

Today, the Trans Lifeline is thriving. The organization is registered as a nonprofit, has formed a Board of Directors and Martela travels to every seminar she can find to both spread the word and educate not only herself on suicide prevention but national hotlines on how to handle calls from transgender people. Meanwhile. Chaubal serves as the Director of Operations and keeps the technical aspects of Trans Lifeline running smoothly.

"The challenges right now are staffing," Martela said. "We need more people to train those who want to volunteer. We want to expand training but we don't want to slow down the flow of people available on the other end of the line."

Martela noted that between March and April of this year, the volunteer list grew to over a thousand transgender people from across North America.

In 2015 alone, Trans Lifeline volunteers have fielded over 10,000 calls from over 7,700 individual people from across the United States and Canada many of whom call back more than once. Volunteers take 300 calls per week from a full range of ages and stages of transition.

According to Martela, 60 percent of the calls come in from 6 pm to 6 am, Monday through Wednesdays. A call will come into the Trans Lifeline 800 number and is then simultaneously redirected to the cell phones of operators who are on-call. The first person to pick up the call is connected.

"Sometimes we get someone who is just coming out and it's their first time talking to a trans person. Those calls are pretty beautiful" Martela said. "Some of the more heartbreaking calls are teenagers about to come out to their parents. Then they call back afterwards and they're pretty wrecked. Our philosophy is that if we are talking to people earlier in the process it's easier to get them help."

Training the operators involves a two-hour crash course via Google hangouts.

"We talk them through practical things like how to answer a call, asking an open-ended question as well as a few specific questions," Martela said. "We try to ascertain if a person is considering ending their life or in the middle of an attempt. It's a little easier because all our operators are trans-identified themselves so there's a level of trust at the beginning of the call. One important thing to know is that we do not call first responders without the consent of the person on the phone. If somebody says they are going to make an attempt, we are committed to talking to them but not to intervene."

Martela said that decision was made after a survey the organization ran with over 700 trans-identified people.

"Twenty present of respondents said they wouldn't call if they didn't have control [over first response]," she noted. "Our belief is that 20 percent are among the most vulnerable people. If you are an undocumented immigrant, you won't call unless you have control. We are most concerned about transwomen having interactions with the police."

Martela asserted that Trans Lifeline is for everyone. The politics of race and language within the community are therefore kept out of calls.

"In a lot of online communities, if you don't have a specific vocabulary around social justice issues, you are a pariah," she said. "We're committed to not making people feel that way. We don't correct people's language or beliefs about transness. There are people who have been closeted for a long time and they have beliefs that they took from the rest of society. It's something that's been done to them and we need to be sympathetic or get out of this line of work."

For Martela and Chuabal, the work has become their lives which have been downsized considerably in comparison to the salaries they were making in the corporate world.

"We are hoping to raise enough money this fall to hire two more part-time staff members," she said. "We got some great advice from [Transgender Oral History Project founder] Andre Perez."

The organization will be holding an anniversary party and fundraiser on November 24 called Message in a Bottle at The Empty Bottle bar in Ukrainian Village.

Meanwhile, the Trans Lifeline marches on with the mission to end the plague of trans suicide and empower trans people in the darkest moments of their lives.

For more information about the Trans Lifeline, visit: www.translifeline.org .

The Trans Lifeline number is (877) 565-8860

From Canada, the Trans Lifeline number is (877) 330-6366

See related coverage, SIDEBAR A Trans Lifeline operator's rewards and challenges, at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/SIDEBAR-A-Trans-Lifeline-operators-rewards-and-challenges/53463.html .


This article shared 7000 times since Wed Nov 18, 2015
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