Posts Tagged ‘ youth ’

Leelah Alcorn’s Suicide, Parents’ Rights… and Kids’ Rights.

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?

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Legislatively “Balancing” Human Rights

There is a simple, time-honoured rule about attempting to “balance” human rights classes in legislation so that it works out a particular way every time, and it goes like this:

You can’t.

That is a court’s role.  When two human rights classes are put into conflict in a way that creates hardships for both, a court becomes the arbiter, weighing the context of a given situation in order to determine which party has experienced the most undue hardship.

Legislating such a way that one party’s rights always supersedes the other creates a hierarchy of rights, and defeats the whole purpose of equal rights legislation.

Bill 10

That is what took place this week with Alberta’s Bill 10, which newly-crowned Premier Jim Prentice introduced to dump and replace Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s Bill 202.

The latter bill sought to do three things:

  • Give students the right to form Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) when and if they wanted to;
  • Remove a section (s.11.1) of the Alberta Human Rights Act which called for parents to be notified and either evacuate their children or opt them into anything that taught tolerance of LGBT people (interesting trivia: Alberta is the only jurisdiction in the world that has a “parental rights” clause like this, and it took several years to implement because no one was sure how it could work); and
  • Add a mention of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Alberta Human Rights Act to the Education Act.

Premier Prentice’s new Bill 10 does this:

  • Encourages school boards to allow GSAs;
  • Allow the students to sue the school boards if they don’t (presuming they can find enough legal help, information, support and funding to cover the legal expenses to do so, and ride out the years of delay tactics at boards’ disposal);
  • The bill also removes s.11.1 from the Alberta Human Rights Act, but makes changes to legislation which more or less negates the change, other than affecting the way complaints are addressed.

If at any point the Premier thought he had sliced through a Gordian Knot worthy of Alexander, he soon realized otherwise.  As the bill came up for Third Reading, several amendments were proposed by opposition MLAs, and Prentice is now said to also be considering some of his own.

There are two central conflicts within this debate, one that is discussed frequently during many debates on social issues, and another which has been barely remarked upon at all.

“LGBT Rights vs. Religious Freedom”

The first is the false equivalence between LGBT human rights and religious freedom.  The reason I call it a false equivalence is because what we’re really talking about is the complaint that the (“special,” as it’s sometimes called) right of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* people to have equal access to employment, housing, services and other forms of enfranchisement is trumping the (“perfectly ordinary everyday?”) right to deny LGBT people any or all of those things.  People retain the freedom to believe what they will, practice their faith, and speak their beliefs — all up to the point where doing so becomes harassing and disenfranchising to others.  In most of the situations that are framed as pitting LGBT rights against religious freedom, this sort of conflict can only be considered equally-matched if you believe that coexistence is a violation religious conscience.

But the “gay rights versus religious freedom” argument has been losing steam, partly because the public at large is starting to recognize it as a ruse, and partly because the cause of religious freedom opens the possibility that the proponents’ religion will be placed on an equal footing with other religions, such as Islam, Satanism, or even Atheism.  Hardline social conservatives like the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer have spoken out about this within religious circles, and more are starting to follow.

Consider this candid rant by Scott Lively, the pastor who is widely credited with having inspired Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act and Russia’s ban on “gay propaganda”:

“For about a year now I’ve been arguing against the use of “religious liberty” as a theme of Christian public advocacy. We retreated to that theme after SCOTUS Justice Hugo Black’s abandonment of the Bible’s authority in favor of a new “religious pluralism” standard in the 1940s-60s, starting with Everson v Board of Education (1947). That was the case that adopted Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” metaphor as a justification for declaring all religions to be equal with Christianity in America, and equally subservient to Secular Humanist authority…

“But God always provides a way of escape. (We’re only trapped if we accept the limitation of staying on their chessboard.) That narrow and difficult but God-honoring way is to stop arguing for “religious liberty” and resume our proclamation of the superiority of Christ and His Word over all opposing faiths (along with tolerance for people of other faiths — that‘s how it worked before Black). It’s goal must be nothing less than an official reaffirmation of the Bible as our legal and cultural foundation, which would require overturning Everson and its juridical progeny…”

It was never really about religious freedom.

“Parental Rights”

The other conflict that has been almost completely missed is the one between youth and parents.  The argument made for parental rights clauses is that parents should have (using the language of Bill 10) the right “to make informed decisions respecting the education of their children.”

No one was ever stopping parents from teaching their children what they believe and encouraging their kids to follow their lead.  What parental rights are actually about is the right to deny their children any information to the contrary.

And that only sounds like a good idea until you remember that the kids should have rights too.  But by enshrining parental rights in legislation, the Province of Alberta is essentially prioritizing the right of parents to deny their kids knowledge (and emotional support, if their kid happens to be gay or trans*) over the right of children and youth to know.  In some cases, it means that the attitudes of the narrowest-minded parents determine what everyone’s kids are allowed to know.

And when you say it for what it is, it doesn’t really sound like that brilliant a compromise.

Facts about trans youth

[Updated to add this absolutely excellent TED Talk by Norman Spack:]

(Previously published in March 2012, and archived here for when it might be needed as reference)

Several in the Canadian media and the general public have become interested in trans youth.  It’s probably inevitable that many opinions and emotions have circulated as a result.  I’m concerned that some of the attention surrounding trans youth and kids is distorted by the (perhaps unintentional) omission of some important distinctions.

The medical profession has long recognized that gender dysphoria often first occurs in youth and childhood, and formalized this in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III) in 1980 with a specific diagnosis for adolescents.  Treatment at that time often took the form of aversion-type therapies, but because these seemed to result in increased distress and self-harm (and not unusually transition in adulthood, anyway) it became necessary for that treatment to be rethought.  As years passed, it became increasingly obvious that when there is a strong gender identity issue, undergoing puberty to become a sex that one does not feel is appropriate to them can have a tremendous negative toll on a youth’s emotional well-being.  That puberty is also accompanied by major body changes, some of which could be impossible to overcome in adulthood, if that person inevitably transitions.

It’s important to recognize that the process for trans youth that I’m speaking of is not “sex change” and surgery.  This is often the conclusion that people jump to, but the reality is that newer treatments merely delay puberty until it is certain whether further changes like hormone therapy must be undertaken… typically after age 14.  German singer Kim Petras is thought to be the first youth to have undergone surgery at the age of 16, in 2009.  Since then, a youth in the U.K. has done so as well, and there was an unconfirmed rumour that someone in Europe had full GRS at age 14, but surgery at this age is very rare, if it occurs.    By the time this decision is made, a teen has typically had several years of living as their identified gender to determine if the decision is right for them.

Youth transition does not start simply because a child wants to crossdress on occasion or because they like dolls or trucks.  It happens when there is a strong and persistent identification that clearly indicates that there is something deeper than the usual experimentation phase which most kids go through.   If a child or youth exhibits a clear and persistent identification to express themselves as a gender contrary to their birth sex, in an obvious 24/7 manner, then arrangements are made to allow the child to live accordingly.  Although this social transition and accommodation in schools is gleaning much of the attention, the fact is that accommodation is really not a new phenomenon.

What is new is the use of puberty-delaying drugs, which is credited as having been pioneered by Dr. Norman Spack, at the Children’s Hospital Gender Management Services Clinic in Boston, in 2007.  If accommodation proves to be an appropriate way to alleviate emotional distress, parents and doctors might then consider pharmacologically delaying the effects of testosterone or estrogen which would otherwise typically trigger puberty.  Even at this stage, everything is reversible, in the event that a youth changes their mind.  It isn’t until hormone therapies are started that changes occur, and that generally happens after there has been much time to consider the consequences, and the youth is able to make a mature and informed decision.

This process is undertaken carefully, with a desire to approach things in a balanced way that neither encourages someone to follow a path if they don’t need to, nor waits until a self-destructive event occurs to prove necessity.  Even so, Dr. Spack states that nearly a quarter of his patients have already engaged in serious self-harm before coming to him.

As these stories break, it is sometimes alleged that parents and medical professionals are participating some kind of agenda which might influence youth to become trans.  Yet the objective of transition is to do what is necessary in order for a person to be at peace with themselves — sometimes that doesn’t include surgery, and doesn’t necessarily follow a specific formula, but is for the individual to determine.  Likewise, trans-inclusive equality and anti-bullying education does not “encourage” someone to become trans (unless they’ve already been experiencing a gender identity conflict in a persistent way).  Instead, it acknowledges in an age-appropriate way that trans people do exist, and are deserving of the same respect afforded to anyone else.  This is for the benefit of those trans youth who do exist — either openly or in hiding — and who need to know that they are not alone, nor are they “freaks” of some kind.

The same is typically true of parents and medical professionals, who usually don’t come to a decision to assist a child to transition very easily.  Parents and doctors who form a transitioning youth’s support network ARE very much thinking about the needs of the child when they make that wracking of a decision.

National Public Radio (NPR, a semi-public broadcaster in the U.S.) previously compared aversion and affirming practices.  People wanting to know more should read the contrasting accounts told in this piece.

(Crossposted to Rabble.ca)