TRIGGER WARNINGS: depression, suicide, discrimination, reparative/conversion therapy.
“My death needs to mean something.”
– Leelah Alcorn
It’s taken me a while to come to terms with the death of Leelah Alcorn, a transgirl who got national attention after her suicide note autopublished to her tumblr account. There are many emotions to sort through, and I’ve spent the last few days ineffectively drowning in sadness and rage. I truly understand those who want to respond to this tragedy with violence. Leelah’s life was priceless, many more precious lives besides hers are destroyed every year, and even if the whole world burned down there’d be no justice.
There’s a lot on my mind.
More importantly, I’m a survivor of what Leelah went through. If it wasn’t for the grace of God, I’d be another unknown transgender fatality. Like Leelah, my parents didn’t take my coming out well. Like Leelah, they tried to control me. Like Leelah, I was sent to a reparative therapist to “fix” me. And like Leelah, I was suicidal.
The difference between Leelah and I is that she had the courage to come out to herself sooner. My one saving grace was that I spent 20 years instead of 14 hating myself and trying to please everyone else. If I had the courage to come out when she did, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d be dead right now. It’s sobering for me to realize how fragile my life is; how the only difference between Leelah and I is her bravery, and for that she’s dead and I’m alive.
I was lucky: when I came out, I was old enough to be legally independent of my parents, and their control was only through my finances and education. My hell lasted a mere year, but during that year I contemplated suicide weekly. Like Leelah, my method of choice would have been stepping out in front of a car. One day in particular, the only reason I survived was I told God I’d kill myself unless someone intervened. Soon after that prayer, my friend Theophilia called me up out of the blue and said she had a spiritual sense I was in trouble! I have no doubt she saved my life. (Thank you, Theophilia <3)
Now I was inches from death after only a few months of reparative therapy during a fluke blackout in my social life, and Leelah had to endure years of it while having a social blackout enforced by her parents! It’s a wonder she survived as long as she did. What a strong girl.
What makes Leelah special is she wanted to change the world even as she left it behind. If I’d left this world when I wanted to, I’d be just another invisible victim of the transgender holocaust. In Leelah we have a name, a face, a person to mourn for. She’s more than a person who’s become a symbol; she’s a story that’s become incarnate in a person.
With that heavy background, here are some thoughts on Leelah’s death, and how we might respond:
1. It’s time to mourn Leelah’s death.
First and foremost, we need to remember Leelah on her own terms before her story is appropriated by a larger agenda. Leelah Alcorn was a beautiful, unrepeatable individual, and even though few of us knew her personally, her life has affected us nonetheless. We need to pray for her, honor her, and remember her as HER. There are so many transgender people who die similar deaths for similar reasons, but before we remember them we need to remember her.
2. It’s time for awareness.
Now that being said, Leelah is one of many lives snuffed out by a Christian culture that regards social normalcy more highly than love. I have no doubt that the statistics of transgender deaths and suicides don’t do any justice to the facts, since the majority of transgender people are repressed/suppressed and not available for a census. More than half of trans* people who are available for surveys (so only those who are out of the closet enough to be questioned) report attempting suicide at some point, almost always due to discrimination (Injustice at Every Turn, 2011). Every trans* person – Christian trans* especially – is the survivor of a spiritual genocide.
Christians need to wake up and realize how transgender people are being affected by this persecution. Leelah’s story, and others like hers, need to be at the forefront of the national conversation for this upcoming year. This isn’t an issue that needs to be debated or talked about, but one that needs to be seen and addressed NOW. No more deaths, period. Every life is precious, and no more girls like Leelah can die. Leelah’s death is bad enough, and every year countless others like her are added to the mass grave.
3. Christians cannot hold Leelah culpable for her own death.
From my own past, I know that my own escape from death isn’t a matter of moral choice, but pure grace and luck. Suicide isn’t necessarily a sign of mental illness; it’s often a human response to having what looks like no other option. When your family persecutes you, when your friends don’t know you, when psychologists and clergymen tell you you’re inherently evil, when you are robbed of health, hope in the future, identity, and self-expression; in short, when you have nothing, suicide seems like the reasonable next step. In cases like this, the finger that pulls the “suicidal” trigger is none other than society itself.
In my case, I was lucky enough to have a deeply personal relationship with Christ, and I believe this saved me on many occasions because when I truly had nothing, I at least had Christ. More specifically, what saved me was that I knew Christ not only through Christianity, but on His own terms as Christ the Person. If my relationship with Christ had been solely through the trappings of Christianity, I’d be dead, because Christians would have robbed me of God. When Christians hijack God’s word to justify their own hatred, then even God is taken from the oppressed. Left with nothing, not even God, it’s a miracle that so many transgender persons are still alive.
4. Reparative therapy needs to STOP.
Reparative therapy is like the ovens of Auschwitz, and like Auschwitz its real evil is the destruction of human souls. The mutilation of someone’s identity and dignity is the worst possible sin.
I don’t say this as an ideologue; I say it as a survivor. Granted, my reparative therapy was very tame compared to some, but even just the act of sitting across from a therapist every week, being invalidated and knowing this is where your parents want you to be, is incredibly traumatic.
There is to date NO evidence that reparative therapy works on transgender people. Even proponents of the autogynephilia theory of transsexuality, a theory that many Christian reparative therapists rely on, admit that a transgender identity does not change (citation coming soon).
Defenders of reparative therapy often cite the need for “free choice,” and that people have the right to seek out reparative therapy if they want to. The problem is that kids like Leelah don’t have a choice since these decisions are being made by their guardians. Since all evidence points to reparative therapy being inherently damaging (or at the very least potentially damaging, if you want to water down the truth), then at the very least it should be a commodity like smoking – only allowed by consenting legal adults at their own risk. Subjecting children to involuntary therapy constitutes torture.
5. Her parents need time and compassion.
I understand the anger at her parents, I really do, and it seems impossible to know how to react to their blockheadedness. On one hand they bear blame for their child’s death, but on the other hand they just lost a child!
Part of what has formed my opinion is my own relationship with my parents. My parents are similarly unaccepting, and I have no doubt that if I died tomorrow, they would hold a funeral under my masculine name and would mourn me as a son. And if people everywhere else called me “Anna,” I’m sure they would insist that these transgender activists didn’t really know their son. And the truth is, I would WANT people to protest my funeral if I was being remembered as the wrong person, and as sad as it is, I’d tell my parents that anyone who knows me as a girl named Anna, even if they’ve never met me, knows me better than they. Given what Leelah wrote in her letter, I believe she’d feel the same way.
On the other hand, knowing my own parents, I’m sure Mr. and Mrs. Alcorn are drowning in bewilderment and grief over this whole situation, and its hard to not feel compassion for them. I’ve no doubt that they thought their reaction to Leelah was out of love. Sure, unconsciously they probably acted out of fear of what the neighbors will think, and the desire to have a “perfect little Christian boy,” and these are undeniably selfish motives. But while true love doesn’t beget death, at the same time the Mr. and Mrs. Alcorns of my own life really tried (and are still trying) their absolute best to do the right thing. In all likelihood my parents will eventually come around to calling me Anna, but it might take decades. Similarly, Leelah’s parents are incapable of remembering their child as Leelah, a child they never knew, when they’re still mourning the loss of their son. Processing the death of the son they thought they knew, the daughter they never knew, and the child they raised is a lot to bear. So please, let’s show them some compassion.
This brings me to my next point.
6. Violence only begets violence.
Recently it was reported that Leelah’s funeral was cancelled due to unspecified threats against her parents. While I share in the same feelings of outrage as the blackmailers, I hold firm that the only proper response is peace. “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” Yes, we are fighting for our lives, but we’re also fighting for all transgender lives everywhere and into the future.
This war is won one heart at a time. The only way to change the world is to be the change. These sayings may be cliches, but they’re true. I’ve observed different kinds of protest here in St. Louis where people of color share our cry of “stop killing us!”, and I’ve gotten a peek at what works and what doesn’t. A looted 7-11 causes no change except that a minority 7-11 owner now doesn’t have a job. A peaceful protest that draws together people from every walk of life – that’s powerful. It brought down the British Empire in India, it brought down Communism in Poland, and it began the civil rights movements in America. Just practically speaking, the winning side is going to be the loving side.
Each and every transgender person is an ambassador to the world. We may be considered lepers, but even lepers can have the dignity of kings. As a therapist of mine once told me: “when you are faced with indignity, the only way to win is to respond with dignity.”
7. Spread our stories!
How, then, do we respond?
The powerful thing about Leelah’s story is the clarity with which she lays out her reasons for dying. Finally we have in writing the truth that every depressed transgender person already knows: that society pulls the trigger. As of yet the would-be detractors have been silent. Why? Because you can’t argue with the witness of a person’s life and death. Leelah’s death has stopped people in their tracks enough to want to listen and understand. If the world is willing to listen – a rare thing indeed – then we need to be willing to talk. And how do we do that? Let’s share the beauty
First, we need to share the loss of beauty: the shattered lives of wonderful people who’ve been done in by persecution. We need to spread stories like Leelahs and keep them in conversation so that the price of these battles – human lives – is kept in view. This isn’t a battle for cosmetic surgeries – it’s a battle for human souls.
Second, we need to share the triumphs of transgender people. For too long the world has thought of us as a bunch of decadent, dirty, promiscuous, crazy, ugly clowns. Dispelling these lies is as easy as showing the truth, but the truth still needs to be shown! The greatest argument for giving transgender people dignity is each and every transgender person who radiates their own dignity in the midst of adversity.
As we start a fresh new year, let’s resolve to make 2015 a year of dignity for trans* people, and let’s keep the dignity of Leelah Alcorn alive by not letting her be forgotten.
Leelah Alcorn, we love you! Rest in peace, dear sister, and may God wrap you in the embrace you were denied on Earth.