How do we respond when a teenager kills herself because her family refused to accept the gender she identified as? The tragic story of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender girl who committed suicide after years of anguish over her family’s refusal to acknowledge her, can hopefully shed some light on this question. Rather than use religious faith as an excuse to suppress the instinctive longings and identities of young people, we should re-examine the rational grounds of those beliefs in the first place, because if we do not, we deny the fundamental truth of who these young people are, potentially driving them to take their own lives.

A Secret Life of Despair

trans womanLeelah was born a male and given the name of Joshua. In a blog she scheduled to be posted shortly after her suicide, she wrote that she knew she was a girl ever since the age of 4. She only told her mother how she felt once—the response was enough to shut her down and cause her to retreat into her own world until the denial of her existence as a girl drove her to fling herself in front of a tractor-trailer on a remote road near her home in a small Ohio town. Her mother still refuses to acknowledge her daughter’s gender identity, even in death, citing her own religious beliefs to legitimize her position: “[w]e don’t support that, religiously” but has said about Leelah, “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”.

Leelah’s teenage years were spent seeing therapists following her revelation to her parents. But those therapy sessions only reinforced the teachings and attitudes that caused her so much anguish. In her blog post, she wrote, “My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to [C]hristian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression”, point out that “I only got more Christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help”. Rather than seek therapists who would help them examine their own beliefs on the basis of compassionate reasoning and sound science, Leelah’s parents consulted those who would tell them what they wanted to hear.

The Danger as a Role Model

Despite our sympathy for Leelah, we must resist the urge to posthumously turn her into a spokesperson for transgender issues. She is, after all, ultimately responsible for her own death, though not solely responsible. The failures of the authority figures in Leelah’s life do not excuse the wrongness of her suicide.

Leelah wrote in her suicide note that she hoped her death would be meaningful; that it would inspire real change. We hope for the same change, yet disagree that Leelah should be seen as inspirational. The last thing other suicidal people need to hear is that there is a chance that if they end their lives, the world could be a better place. As is, about 43% of transgendered individuals attempt suicide at some point.

Re-examining Religious Texts

If people of faith truly care about the well-being of transgender youth, they will stop cherry-picking Biblical passages which reinforce their bias against gender nonconformity, and instead explore passages which teach them unconditional love. For such passages do indeed exist. “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”, says 1 Timothy 5:8, while 1 Samuel 16:7 states that “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”.

But is it really necessary to show how Christianity teaches acceptance of transgender identities in the first place? Even if it does not, this does not render such identities invalid; it only means some Christians have an enormous amount to learn about gender dysphoria, and of the subjective experiences of transgender people. The validity of transgender identity is not contingent upon religious teachings any more than homosexuality, gender equality, or anything else—it stands on its own merits, on the capacity of others to allow such individuals to flourish, and not on ancient beliefs about the natural order of things, which have sometimes proved scientifically unfounded and even detrimental to the well-being and happiness of people.

Our priority is not to soothe the sensibilities of religious fundamentalists who judge others as “wrong” because they do not conform to ancient notions of gender; it is to support those who have been cruelly maligned, neglected, and tormented for falling outside that script. It is to challenge the deep-seated beliefs of well-meaning but stubborn parents, and to embrace the self-professed identities of their children. It is to affirm and celebrate with abandon the beautiful people they already are. Some people will never change their minds because their beliefs hold complete sway over their entire mindset, but this is one, very big way we can remember Leelah Alcorn and help the many others like her who lead silent, secret lives of pain.

 

Sources:

CNN

The Daily Beast

Slate

21 comments

  1. Exploding Mary says:

    Who are you, who are we, to say suicide is wrong? How dare you?!!

    1. creativereverend says:

      It goes against the law of God and the law of man. You need to get serious help if you remotely think killing yourself is right.

  2. Shelby Clowers says:

    Very well said! Who are we to judge? (Judge not lest ye be judged) I am short-You may be tall-God in His wisdom-Created us all! He does NOT make mistakes! Do I understand why some people are transgender? No, because I am not transgender. I cannot fully understand what it is to be a man because I am not a man. To shun or denigrate these individuals in any way is just a form of racism. God loves His children. All of them. Who am I to not love what He loves?

    1. Sabrina M. says:

      I agree with you as well as the newsletter. God loves all. We need to teach love. God is Love.

  3. Rev. D.H.Zielinski says:

    As a parent of a transgender child I understand what children can go through, and the perils that they must face on the road to their transitions. It was not a surprise to me when my child came forward with the news. My first thoughts were of him and how difficult life must have been for him when he was younger. It explained a lot of past history for me as a parent.

    During the transition period, I had the opportunity to attend meetings with other parents in similar situations. There were times during those sessions when some parents asked the counselor “what had they done wrong”, “how could they “fix” this problem”, or the most heart rending comment from some of the parents was ” How can I love them anymore after what they have done to me!” These would be hurtful comments on the part of a total stranger, can you imagine what it’s like to hear these things from the parents whom you have spent your entire life with, and have loved as no one can? Life brings trials to each and everyone of us, all parents included. They should ask for patience, understanding and an abundance of love for their child so that they can grow together and get through the rough spots. Parents should not abandon their child in this situation.

    It breaks my heart to think of any child who is born not to be loved or wanted by their parents. My heart goes out to each and every trans – child who has had to suffer this loss of love and understanding. Just as each child born has the obligation to respect their parents and learn from them, each and every parent owes their child the opportunity and the support to grow into the person who they were born to be. Whatever that entails.

    You cannot “un-love” that baby you brought home from the hospital when they were born. As they get older you cannot reject them because they walk differently, speak differently or dress differently then what you expect them to. It is hard for some to grasp the notion that this is natural for them. But it is as natural for them as breathing.

    God puts each and every one of us here for a reason. Yes, everyone of us. Men and women. Straight, Gay, Lesbian, or Transgender. If you believe in a Higher Being, a Creator of all things then you must try to understand that there is a purpose for everyone and everything. I hope and pray that not one more trans – child has to suffer through life in silence. I hope that you will join me in prayer, that parents, siblings, friends and family will understand the needs of their child and give them the love and support that they need to be themselves, and live as their Creator intended.

  4. Ed Kendall says:

    I have enjoyed the discussion. Thanks.

  5. Cary Talbott says:

    As a transgender, I can say that I have done a lot of looking and searching for the answers to the fundamentalist hatred of anything they can’t neatly put into a box. All anyone has to do is look at the sects that are spreading terror across the middle east and Africa. The Koran does not say that anyone has the right to kill anyone else. The harsh desert religions denigrate women, unbelievers, and anyone they say are wrong. Jesus said seek ye the truth and the truth shall set you free. He never said that it was fine to drive anyone to suicide, or to kill. It seems to make as much sense as being for the death penalty but against abortion. That is killing no matter how you look at it.
    There has been a lot of attention placed on the “new” idea that to be gay, lesbian, transgender or anything else akin is a life style choice. Which of us would readily chose to be born this way? We are cast out, abandoned, ridiculed and in many places openly murdered for being born “not normal”. At one time we were regarded as the consorts of the gods. We were the priests and priestesses, companions of kings and, in many cases, reluctant rulers. We were the wise, the compassionate and the caretakers of knowledge. It has only been in these last two thousand years that we have become demonized, by the three harshest religions. While it is true that enlightenment has risen fresh throughout the modern faiths, there is still hatred and small minded bigotry. As a Wiccan, I could have once been tortured and burned for my faith, and now, in a very real sense, I face the same thing for being transgender.

  6. Ben says:

    I chose gender reassignment 27.5 years ago. Although I am relatively happy with my presentation and life now, I do realize, in retrospect, that my decision was wrong.

    Yes, I too said (and believed wholeheartedly) that I’d known I was meant to be male since my toddler years, but now I realize that I was sexually abused as a small child and that abuse led me to ‘need’ the gender change.

    After many years of study and discussions with hundreds of other transpeople, I note that every single trans person I have ever spoken to was sexually abused as a child. Given all of this and my studies, I now believe that pre-transition transpeople should be loved, respected, and cared for fully – and yet taken to therapy to see what went wrong and how he or she can regain a healthy sense of self.

    G-d doesn’t make mistakes. We were ‘meant’ to have the bodies we were born with. If a person cannot live with his or her ‘birth gender’, then he or she has experienced a personal trauma that needs to be dealt with in therapy.

    Please listen: Gender reassignment, while exciting and a balm in-the-moment, does NOT resolve past trauma. Even if you go through with the reassignment and are remarkably happy with the results, you will still have to face your traumatic past in therapy, at some point, in order to find peace.

    1. Tatiacha says:

      You can’t go through gender change surgery without 5 years of therapy so I can only guess you are a troll making this stuff up to support the religious BS.

      1. Cary Talbott says:

        Actually, it depends on your age. I am 60, and came out 4 months ago. I am about to start HRT, and will continue therapy while I transition. After that I have to live openly as the woman I was born to be for two years before I can undergo surgery. Therapy will have to continue through the whole process. They recommend more for those younger but I know of a 5 year old who has started therapy a short time ago.

  7. Rev, Colin says:

    Her being born transgender was an gift from God, a gift that her parents failed to see. Unlike like most of us she was giving the gift of choosing what gender she wanted to be and that should have been her decision alone. Her suicide was a great and terrible tragedy. However through all her suffering and God’s mercy and love, i truly believe that she is with him in Heaven, at peace for eternity. To parents with transgender children may you learn a valuable lesson from Leelah’s situation.

  8. kathy burton says:

    I’m so supportive of this article , Thanks for sharing it!

  9. Chris Coulson says:

    I think that the parents of this transgender teen was being very two faced in the approach they took. They told her that they loved her unconditionally when I feel in fact they was actually not being truthfully because they wouldn’t accept that their child was transgender so the child they did love that way was the one they gave birth to. There are so many not only transgender but also homosexuals that aren’t accepted not only by their family but also society in general, which I would like to know who died and put society in charge of judging what is right or wrong and how people should act or not act.

  10. Reverend R. Wood says:

    Altering what God has created in my personal opinion is wrong. This child obviously did not have the maturity to make a adult decision. We don’t let children smoke or drink because we understand that they don’t have the maturity to understand it all so why would we allow something like what Joshua did. Yes I said Joshua because that is HIS name. No matter what you remove or add to yourself you will always be the same inside and that is where the real you is. People live every day with thoughts that are contrary to God but they do not act on them out of respect of God. This young man thought that his torment couldn’t be any worse. His torment has just begun as now he will suffer the eternal torment for his own murder. He will not see the face of God but rather feel the sting of his transgressions as they rip his flesh in that firry hell. Talk with God, walk with God, listen to him through his words. Go through life putting him first and you will be first in his heart. Humble yourself and take what life gives you for in just a little while will come the judgment and the sentence to Heaven or Hell. It is totally up to you. Blessings to all. Be strong in faith and he will remember you forever.

    1. Cary Talbott says:

      Yes indeed, we were created this way. It has been thus for thousands of years, long predating the christian religion. I was wired wrong and have lived with it my whole life, being outcast, never allowed to fit in because I couldn’t…that’s right, I couldn’t understand the body I was tuck with at birth. It is wrong, it feels wrong, it reacts wrong, and I felt like a total stranger to myself. This is not some “lesson” that some god has picked me out for, it is a problem with the genetic code and has been recognized as such. I will not debate or argue your beliefs, this is not what this is. It is wrong to condemn an innocent to a life sentence in prison. That is what it feels like. Stepping up and stepping out is the brave and right thing to do. No one can tell us we are wrong. The monotheistic religions are the only ones that put us in prison. I have committed no crime and will not now, or ever, allow myself to be held up for judgement by you or your interpretation of what the bible tells you. Blessed be, may She shine her light eternally upon you and your house.

  11. Dr. Stephanie Ramirez says:

    Thank you for sharing! We have so many people from this issue alone! I’m an advocate for mental health and suicide prevention. In my child’s school, there are been many suicides because of non acceptance by relatives or peers. Being a teenager in itself is very difficult to try to understand your emotions and just to find yourself. Self esteem is very low when a child is faced by a stigma, rather it be religious based, culture or misunderstanding of what it really is. Education is key and I feel more schools and open churches need to start discussions. No matter the outcome, at least it’s no longer a stigma but an actual issue people face today. It’s a medical proven fact that most people are indeed born this way. So if they are born this way, religions need to understand that indeed this is Gods creation. Everyone has a reason in this world, and once that reason is fulfilled, by faith, God brings back his children to Heaven. I really believe although this was a very horrific tragedy and this young woman could had lived a longer life, her reason was fulfilled to have people recognize the issues that many have to endure. We also need to understand that his parents know they lost a child because of their parenting and disapproval. People grieve differently and guilt and denial is the stage they’re in to feel better of their actions. Hopefully that grief will turn into understanding of their fault and ask for forgiveness. They will have to live with their decision of not understanding or lack of wanting to learn. Also, of their lack of unconditional love for their child. Deepest condolences to the family and friends. We can not judge, but can forgive. As long as they learn from this huge mistake and ask for forgiveness, their sins will be washed away but not God can judge. However, that never be an excuse for this to continue in a church, by loved ones or peers. Much love to all! Stephanie Ramirez~ Companionship for the Soul

  12. Pamela Rick Ramirez says:

    Dr. Stephanie Ramirez
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    January 14, 2015 at 2:16 am
    Thank you for sharing! We have so many people from this issue alone! I’m an advocate for mental health and suicide prevention. In my child’s school, there are been many suicides because of non acceptance by relatives or peers. Being a teenager in itself is very difficult to try to understand your emotions and just to find yourself. Self esteem is very low when a child is faced by a stigma, rather it be religious based, culture or misunderstanding of what it really is. Education is key and I feel more schools and open churches need to start discussions. No matter the outcome, at least it’s no longer a stigma but an actual issue people face today. It’s a medical proven fact that most people are indeed born this way. So if they are born this way, religions need to understand that indeed this is Gods creation. Everyone has a reason in this world, and once that reason is fulfilled, by faith, God brings back his children to Heaven. I really believe although this was a very horrific tragedy and this young woman could had lived a longer life, her reason was fulfilled to have people recognize the issues that many have to endure. We also need to understand that his parents know they lost a child because of their parenting and disapproval. People grieve differently and guilt and denial is the stage they’re in to feel better of their actions. Hopefully that grief will turn into understanding of their fault and ask for forgiveness. They will have to live with their decision of not understanding or lack of wanting to learn. Also, of their lack of unconditional love for their child. Deepest condolences to the family and friends. We can not judge, but can forgive. As long as they learn from this huge mistake and ask for forgiveness, their sins will be washed away but not God can judge. However, that never be an excuse for this to continue in a church, by loved ones or peers. Much love to all! Stephanie Ramirez~ Companionship for the Soul

  13. creativereverend says:

    There is no such thing as transgender, this is a mental health issue. He was simply a deviant child who needed mental and emotion intervention. My thoughts and prayers are for the poor truck driver he sucked into his mental torment to kill himself.

    1. Dr D, Chaze, Professor, Harvard says:

      Wow, seriously, you are not someone i would want to be around. They should not have let your comment on here especially “He was simply a deviant child who needed mental and emotion intervention. “My thoughts and prayers are for the poor truck driver he sucked into his mental torment to kill himself.”” Wow, really what you are saying is you are happy he is dead. WOW.

      Again your post should be taken down. I pray you are not out there teaching what “you” believe in because it is certainly not the word of God.

      As for the parents of Leelah, any parent is to love their child unconditionally. Maybe they do not understand that term. People all around the world, even in the strict of religious beliefs do believe this does happen, that some are “born with the wrong parts” and some of those religions even help pay to get them reassigned to the gender they were supposed to be. They realize it was not their faults and understand and get them to where they need and should be.

      “creativereverend” is not something or someone I personally would want to be around. You don’t seem to be, you are, close minded and uncaring and not someone who should even be allowed to teach. Maybe the screening to get a license here should be tougher so we don’t have people like you in here, spreading the wrong words, spreading hate instead of love and understanding.

      1. Brother John says:

        I understand your indignation Dr. D. As you probably know, there is no screening process to be ordained online and no moderation to post comments with the ULC. Although the ignorant, racist and shameful comments, often posted by deluded fundamentalist Christians, are repulsive, they simply appear as soon as the Post Comment button is pressed.

        We may take some comfort in knowing that many of those who read the truly ignorant comments will understand the destructive darkness that unfettered dogma and blind faith offers humanity. Hopefully, they will be encouraged to examine their own beliefs and discard those which have infected their minds with hatred, bigotry, racism and self-righteousness.

    2. Cary Talbott says:

      Sorry…nothing creative in your egotistical hate mongering. You should be ashamed and banned for your lies and ungodly hate!

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