In The Press
Articles by and about Matthew
LETTER TO THE EDITOR, BY MATTHEW FRANCIS
I am being sent to Washington, D.C., from June 9 through 12 by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to advocate suicide awareness and prevention.I am a transgender man and a trauma survivor. I have struggled with suicide off and on since I was 12. The last time I struggled I had been hospitalized for three months. Fortunately, I received good mental health treatment and am flourishing.I understand this is an uncomfortable topic, but we must dismantle its secrecy and shame to talk about it. Make quality mental health treatment accessible to everyone so we can strive to have a world without suicide.
AN OP-ED BY MATTHEW FRANCIS
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Thankfully, there is more awareness and acceptance these days, but there remains a category of people we aren’t talking about, the people who get the brunt of stigma: those with severe and persistent mental illness, who are expected to live with debilitating symptoms the rest of their lives. For most of them, a meaningful life is still out of reach.I was one of those people. I’ve struggled with mental illness my entire life. I was first diagnosed as a baby with failure to thrive and infantile autism, and then with emotional disturbance and various learning disabilities. I spent time at the Augusta Mental Health Institute (AMHI) as an adolescent. I would later go in and out of psychiatric facilities many times, sometimes staying for weeks or months. I could manage my illness for months or even years, but inevitably I would regress and battle severe symptoms. I struggle with C-PTSD, dissociation, major depression, and learning disabilities. I used to have crippling anxiety and many trauma symptoms, and was plagued by emotional flashbacks.Ten years ago, I was considered “high functioning.” It was during this time that I discovered work could be helpful, and I took it to the extreme, working 60-plus hours a week. I did that for three years to try to avoid my emotional pain. Then I crashed hard. I was hospitalized for three months out-of-state. I almost immediately regressed when I returned home, as there were no supports set up for me.I found an apartment. It was in a basement. I had what I now call a basement mentality. I lived without much sunlight and no joy. My days were mainly spent eating, smoking, and watching Netflix. Most of the personal interactions I had were with my providers. I was, however, “stable.” A typical conversation with one of my providers went something like this:“John, I don’t like my life. It’s pointless and boring. I want to do more.”“Do you keep a clean house?”“Yes.” He knew I did, as I often bragged about that.“Do you pay your bills and grocery shop?”“Yup,” I’d pipe up, sitting a little taller, hoping this was leading to something more substantial.“Well,” the provider would say, “What more is there?”I remember how dejected I felt. My life was being summed up by the activities of daily living. Nothing more was expected of me. I had no expectations for myself, either. That hit me hard, and I knew I wanted to grow. I really wanted to know my full potential, what I was truly capable of. So I joined a gym and quit smoking (for the 9,233rd time!). I stopped binge-watching trash TV and starting watching documentaries and reading. I lost 30 pounds and was starting to feel really good. I was reconnecting with old friends and made a new one.It was during a prayer/meditation ritual with a friend that I noticed a lump. It turned out to be a very aggressive cancer: triple negative, invasive, ductal carcinoma. I was stunned. I’d been doing the right things and thought I was finally healthy. I had a tough decision to make: Was I going to comply with treatment or let the cancer overtake me? Initially, I opted for the latter. My life had been so hard. I had struggled with suicide in the past, and here was a way to die of natural causes.Eventually I chose treatment and I’m glad I did. I found a paradigm that worked — I was courageous. Everyone rallied for me: friends, providers, strangers. Cards, gifts, flowers and meals arrived nonstop. I responded well to all this nurturing. I began to believe the encouraging messages and that improved my mental health. As hard as the cancer treatment was — nine months of infections, intravenous chemotherapy, and radiation — dealing with debilitating mental illness had been harder.Once the cancer treatments finished, the support dwindled, but I saw myself in a new light. I was empowered and again felt the urge to stretch and know myself. My ability to handle social interactions had improved due to all the support I received. I started attending two support groups. I took adult-education classes and some improv classes taught by the late David LaGraffe. I was finally flourishing.A big step was owning my gender. I transitioned from female to male. This greatly relieved my body dysphoria, my depression began to lift and my anxiety decreased. In 2016, I wrote and published My Resurrected Spirit: Triumph Over Tragedy & Transgender Dignity. I now teach adult-ed classes on transitioning and speak at hospitals, nonprofits and faith settings. I recently got involved with “This Is My Brave,” a stage show that gives folks like me the opportunity to share their stories of struggling with and overcoming mental illness.I hope we can become a society that recognizes everyone has gifts and every life has infinite value. I still struggle. I still have symptoms. But now some of my symptoms include gratitude, hope and joy.
I did a brief stint in the Coast Guard Reserve and received an honorable discharge for my service. I am a transgender man, and I’m devastated that openly transgender people are no longer allowed to serve.This policy is a massive step backward. It is by serving side by side that barriers break down. Placing your life in the hands of another will challenge your deepest prejudice. It is impossible to hate someone who saved your life or died in your place. It is why people of color and women had to serve.In order to be equal, one must demonstrate one’s willingness to die for the protections and freedoms of this country. To bar any groups from doing that is to force a vulnerable and dependent status on us and relegate us to a child’s status. That will mean we are never going to be equal. It is imperative that transgender people serve in our military and every facet of life.
In August 2013, after surviving a cancer diagnosis, I finally found the courage to stand up and be who I really am. I am a Christian, and I am transgender. I was elated until I got home and a neighbor who’d been kind to me began to harass me. I moved.The bathroom bills had just happened in North Carolina, and the fight was gaining momentum. Can we be allowed to use a bathroom that corresponds to our identified gender? Donald Trump’s administration has just made it harder to do so by repealing Title IX protections against trans students.The bathroom bills are a distraction from much larger issues. Let’s look objectively at some evidence. Seventy-eight percent of trans folks will make a serious suicide attempt, according to the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute.The statistics of violence against us are grueling. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported in 2013 that 72 percent of victims of anti-LGBT homicide were trans folks, of whom 67 percent were trans women of color. Already in 2017, seven trans folks have been murdered.Ninety percent of trans folks experience job discrimination. In dozens of states, it is still legal to discriminate against people who are trans. Many criminal defendants still can legally use fear as a defense to hurt and even kill a trans person.We don’t even talk about transgender men in regard to bathrooms or violence. The statistics are kept on the down low. Our suicide rates are 7 percent higher than those of transgender women – must be our “privilege.”Can I change safely in a changing room? Do the women want me in their bathroom? If the issue is one of safety, then let’s address that and make trauma-free bathrooms and changing rooms. No discrimination, period, and not in the name of a God who loves us all.
BY JASON PAFUNDI
AUGUSTA—As he read the names of some of the transgender people slain worldwide this year, Matthew Francis had a chilling thought.“It could be me,” he said Friday during a Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine in Augusta.Though most of the reported cases happened in Central and South America, Francis said he feels no place is safe.“I came out in 2013 and thought I would be safe in Falmouth, but I have been assaulted, spit on and cornered in a bathroom and have faced discrimination in housing and in the workplace,” Francis said.One by one, the names of transgender men, women and teenagers were read aloud by representatives of the transgender community. Their ages and causes of death, including gunshots, stabbings, decapitations and stonings, were shared as a candle burned in their memory.In the U.S., there have been 21 reported slayings of transgender people so far this year, but Quinn Gormley, a member of the board of directors of the Maine Transgender Network, said those numbers are lower than the actual number of cases. By contrast, Brazil has had more than 50 reported slayings. Gormley said that is partly because of the way those cases are classified.Davida Ammerman, a member of the Maine Transgender Lobby, read the names of transgender people killed in Brazil, which had the majority of reported cases.“It hits home because even though I don’t know these people personally, I have known people who have disappeared over the years,” Ammerman said. “The murder of transgender women, and mostly transgender women of color, is at the intersection of a lot of hate in this world. It is the intersection of racism, misogyny, the idea of masculine domination and homophobia. This is just the very ugly tip of it.”Gormley said that while having a day of remembrance is important, the transgender community needs more support “during the other 364 days of the year.”“It is frustrating to see your allies show up in force and recognize you after you’ve died,” Gormley said. “We are never going to be a large enough force to make changes on our own.”Gormley and Ammerman both work with the Maine People’s Alliance, a Portland-based group that advocates for equality by involving and educating citizens.Ammerman said there are similarities in the type of hatred directed at different groups, so the coming presidential election is important. “The hate we feel is the same that people feel from the other side of the aisle about immigration and the dehumanizing of people living in poverty,” he said. “(They) are the same people that tend to dehumanize us.”Activist and transgender woman Gwendolyn Ann Smith founded the Transgender Day of Remembrance in 1999 as a Web-based project to memorialize the slaying of transgender woman Rita Hester in Allston, Massachusetts, a year earlier. It is now observed in more than 200 cities around the globe. On Friday, in addition to the Augusta remembrance, there were recognition ceremonies in Portland, Bangor, Farmington, Lewiston, Damariscotta and Machias.While Caitlyn Jenner, a high profile transgender person, has brought media attention, Gormley said there is still a lot of work to be done.“(The media attention) is limited to certain parts of the trans community that gets represented,” she said. “But that doesn’t really translate down to the average day-to-day life of trans folk. The only way to improve our lives is to have the support of a strong network of allies.”