With rolling hills and close-knit community, Berkshire County is known as nurturing — for artists and musicians, and for relationships that last for years.
Bear McHugh, project coordinator for Berkshire Area Health Education Center (Berkshire AHEC), grew up in Great Barrington and still regularly speaks to people he knew as a student at Monument Mountain Regional High School, and some of them now work at the high school. These time-tested friendships have withstood almost anything, even being known by a different name after graduation. McHugh has always been himself, but during high school he was known by a different name.
McHugh is a transgender man. A transman, also called female-to-male transgender (FTM), is a person who was assigned the sex “female” at birth, but who later in life, typically after deep soul searching and self-reflection, identifies as male. This is not an uncommon realization now, he said, but that doesn’t make it easy. Most often, trans* people are met with ignorance on the subject.
McHugh began to question his gender identity as a student at Ithaca College in upstate New York. He remembers that as a difficult time, coming after his Roman Catholic upbringing. He also remembers the love and support of his parents, who sought out the correct information to help him. He thinks the transition would have been smooth if it had happened in high school.
“I really think that, if I were still at Monument when all of this was going down, my friends would have still loved me and accepted me,” he said.
Familial understanding, or at least willingness to adapt, can be the most influential factor in the life of any youth. While a person’s gender identity is deeply personal, some chose to share their experiences in the hopes that they will benefit others, he said.
Many people facing this transformation have a difficult time. According to national statistics, McHugh said, 30 percent of LGBTQ youth will have reported a suicide attempt in the past year. Fifty percent of transgender youth will have attempted suicide before the age of 20.
One of the common contributors to depression and suicide is a feeling of being alone and being misunderstood, McHugh said. Mix loneliness with a lack of information about an important section of identity, and those high numbers are understandable.
People who do not encounter outright discrimination often encounter microaggressions, he said. Microaggressions are the little things people say, usually without malice, that alienate groups of people or belittle a group’s experience. That alienation is extremely dangerous to the health and safety of youth, he said. That is why sharing his story is so important: The more he shares the information, the more likely he is to save a life.
“You never know exactly how the information will impact someone,” he said.
Now, McHugh tells stories and gives information that saves lives by running the Youth Suicide Prevention Project. The project hopes to build resiliency among all youth, not just LGBTQ youth, he said. Resiliency means giving youth the ability to bounce back from depression, bullying and other causes of suicide. For those not at risk, it also can give insight and the tools to see when someone is showing signs of depression, anxiety and suicide.
Spreading this information can also be crucial to developing acceptance, he said: “A little bit of education can go a long way.”
He came to this work gradually. After college, he worked as a landlord in Albany for a while, he said. He was working at Berkshire AHEC when the high local suicide rate prompted action. In 2004, Berkshire County had the highest rate of youth suicide in the state. Berkshire AHEC created the Youth Suicide Prevention Project and put McHugh in charge. In 2011, Berkshire County had no youth suicides, which indicated strong progress.
“I didn’t go out looking for the work. It sort of just found me,” he said, and he has become passionate about his work.
McHugh lives in New Lebanon, N.Y., but spends most of his time in Berkshire County. Living up to the “Class Clown” superlative he earned in high school, he has a smile on his face most days. Despite the heavy topics he deals with day to day, he rarely gets discouraged. The Berkshires have a long way to go, but he can see a future that looks brighter.
On The Bridge
This profile is a collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages. To learn more: berkshireeagle.com/onthebridge