Trans Suicide Hotline Founder Heeds the Call

It is uncommon for someone to wake up for work each morning and immediately set about looking for ways to terminate her own employment. But that is exactly what Greta Gustava Martela does — every day — passionately.

Martela, 46, is the executive director of Trans Lifeline, the nation's first suicide hotline exclusively for transgender people. Since its inception in San Francisco last November, the average number of daily callers has climbed from around eight to more than 60. A clutch of 20 volunteers ballooned to 300 — with 1,000 more on a waiting list. These operators have answered more than 7,000 calls from across the United States — many clustered in red states like Florida, South Carolina, and Texas.

There are few signs of slowing. Thus, Martela yearns for unemployment as her workload snowballs. “I would love to put myself out of a job on this,” she says. “I don't think this problem will ever be solved, but it will be really nice to see the attempt rate go down from where it is.”

The suicide attempt rate for transgender people is staggering. Forty-one percent of respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey in 2011 — believed to be the most comprehensive study of its kind — reported that they'd attempted suicide at least once in their lives. That's compared with around two percent of the general population, and 10 to 20 percent among gay, lesbian and bisexual people. A 2014 study by UCLA's Williams Institute and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found a prevalence of increased suicide attempts among those who had experienced some form of mistreatment in their lives: 57 percent of those rejected by their families had made an attempt, as had 60 percent of those assaulted by police officers and 78 percent of those who'd experienced a sexual assault in college.

These numbers resonate on a personal level with Martela, whose transition from male to female a little less than three years ago was not an easy one.

“I would say in the last year before I transitioned, I had three hospitalizations for being suicidal,” she says. Crisis hotlines were little help; she'd felt misunderstood, hurried along, insulted. During one “really negative experience,” she spoke with a male operator at a national hotline she'd rather not name. “I asked him — I was coming out to myself as transgender. Did he know what that was? He said something like, 'Isn't that where someone thinks he's a woman but they're really a man?'”

The breaking point, though, came in mid-2014, when Martela found herself struggling for work. As a freelance software engineer, she'd hopscotched from contract to contract in San Francisco's gilded tech market. But when the name on her résumé changed, so, too, did reactions from prospective employers. “People assumed my competence before,” she says. “And after that change, they assumed my incompetence.” The contracts dried up.

She filled her jobless days volunteering at TGSF, a support and social group for transgender people in the Bay Area. What began as a stint manning the office phone soon became a passion, then an obsession. By July of 2014, she and her now-wife Nina Chaubal (also a software engineer) were researching open-source hotline software and courting a pro bono lawyer to help with the 501(c)3 paperwork.

Finding enough money to get Trans Lifeline going and keep it going was a big question mark — but, as it turned out, the easy part. In the first couple days, Martela and Chaubal raised more than $1,000 in donations; after the first few weeks, they'd pulled in close to $11,000. Martela at that point decided to dedicate herself to Trans Lifeline full-time, and Chaubal quit her job at Google.

In April 2015, seeking cheaper rent, they moved from San Francisco to Chicago.

A year in, Martela still manages operators but has taken a step back from the direct-services aspect of the job. “If you were to put a camera on me, it's a lot of me sitting in my really cluttered office in front of my computer,” she says by way of explaining her day-to-day. She travels often to speak or fundraise; most recently she visited Missoula, Mont. and Lawrence, Kan. — “two places that didn't even have a gay bar in the town.” Engaging with these smaller communities is essential: Trans Lifeline has received nearly as many calls from Pennsylvania as it has from California, which has more than three times its population.

Martela believes she's helped hundreds — maybe thousands — of troubled transgender people. But she remains haunted by those she couldn't. In January 2015, she found herself poring over the Facebook feed of a 22-year-old transwoman named Aubrey Mariko Shine. The pictures are scorched into her memory: a train station. A bus. A landmark not far from the Golden Gate Bridge. Mutual friends had alerted Martela that Shine was on her way to jump.

Martela reached out online and made contact. She was desperately trying to keep a conversation going, when, suddenly — radio silence.

“I made the kind of difficult call to say, 'She's probably serious and you need to intervene,'” Martela says. “I called the Golden Gate Bridge — the Highway Patrol that handles the Golden Gate Bridge, and we managed to get somebody to intercept her and keep her from jumping.”

Shine thanked Martela. But a month later, she returned to the same place and jumped. One of her last Facebook photos shows the bridge's international orange guardrail and the choppy gray Pacific below. The caption reads, “Being trans sucks!”

“Once in awhile, my workday is interrupted — or my work evening is interrupted — by trying to care for a suicidal trans person,” Martela says. When she attended Shine's funeral, in their shared hometown of Modesto, she was further discouraged. “Her family had completely erased her trans identity and was burying her under her birth name and had put her in boy clothes that were from before.”

Martela describes her goals for the coming year as nebulous. She'd like better support for her operators and more attention on callers. Above all else, she wants to be able to field every call that comes in. The work keeps rolling, and she keeps doing it — even as she hopes, fervently, that there's no more to be done.

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