On Sunday, December 28th, 17-year-old trans* Ohio teenager committed suicide by stepping in front of a tractor-trailer on the interstate. She was killed instantly.
Her tragedy says something profound which has been almost completely missed in the discussion about LGBT-inclusive education and Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) currently wafting across Canada.
Before Leelah Alcorn’s death, she posted a suicide note online. Some of the links to it are no longer working, but the text is archived at Slate. In it, she relates a heartbreaking story of a kid who learned what “transgender” meant at the age of 14, despite having always known in her heart that she needed to live as a young woman. [This I can strongly relate to, having not heard anything about trans* people until I was about the same age or slightly older. It was an age before Internet. I wept for days at the realization that there was actually a word for it — until then, I thought I was the only one, and that it was a character fault.] On telling her parents, they called it a phase, said it was impossible (that “God doesn’t make mistakes”), and taking her to Christian therapists, who told her that she “was selfish and wrong and… should look to God for help.” The situation grew worse:
“So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness…”
She felt like everything was closing in on her: her social isolation, the hopelessness of having to afford a mass of expenses (college, moving away from home and transition costs including surgery), what she perceived to be an insurmountable challenge of being too masculinized by hormones by the time she can start transition at 18 (a tragic misconception, as transition outlooks are still usually extremely good when transitioning that young), the fear of living a loveless life, and more.
Since her suicide, her parents have received a wave of anger from trans* people, and responded by claiming to have loved their child “unconditionally,” while still adamantly invalidating her and misgendering her:
“We don’t support that, religiously … But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.”
The media coverage has turned into a circus, with various publications conflicting and editorializing over whether Leelah should be acknowledged as the person she understood herself to be or deliberately invalidated as per the family’s wishes. Meanwhile, the religious right response has been unsurprisingly vicious and negative, blaming trans* people for Leelah’s suicide, and that the real solution should have been more antagonism, reparative therapy, and invalidation until it somehow eventually overwhelmed her and somehow (inexplicably) made her feel better:
“The attitude that says we should be able to be what we want, no matter what, is dangerous. This Abby is complicit in her friend’s death. She encouraged wrong behavior. This wrong behavior created bad feelings or depression. This furthered Joshua’s depression and desire to make himself happy.
“Rather than saying gently and calmly that his problem was not that he was a girl trapped in a boy’s body, they should have said. “You’re a boy, in a boy’s body.” The confusion is that you are trying to be something that you are not meant to be, you’re not a girl…”
Others are calling for all trans* people to go “truck” themselves (i.e. commit suicide in the same fashion that Leelah did).
Since her suicide, vigils for Leelah have taken place across North America, including one in Winnipeg. Trans* activists are calling for a change in the discussion about the well-being of trans* youth.
With the extensive (and puzzling) debate over LGBT-inclusive education and Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in several provinces across Canada, there has been a considerable amount of ink spilled over a parent’s rights to deny their children information about sexual orientation and gender identity, and to deny the acceptance, validation and support of gay, bi- or trans* kids in schools as a matter of religious freedom of conscience.
And yet no one is talking about LGBT teens’ rights to acceptance, enfranchisement, freedom from harassment, and to learn about who they are. Or the right of non-queer teens to learn what society now largely knows to be truth about their peers.
In Alberta, the debate has even gone as far as enfranchising parents’ rights in a way that supersedes the rights of children and teens, in law.
Canadian school boards have begun recognizing the need to enfranchise lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* kids. But will politicians and media do the same before Leelah Alcorn’s tragedy is repeated north of the 49th parallel?