Op-ed: We Need to Protect Our Trans Children
Three weeks ago in an Advocate op-ed, I talked about how our society devalues trans women so much that it increases our suicide risk. I was utterly heartbroken and stunned when, on Monday, my words came back to haunt me. And again, I got angry.
You should be, too.
By now, many in the queer and nonqueer worlds alike know the sad story of Leelah Alcorn, the 17-year-old transgender teen who killed herself over the weekend after years of being forced to live according to her parents' Christian ideals. The belief that it was now too late for her to transition and that she would never be seen as a woman -- something both her family and the media imprinted on her -- was escalated by her lack of access to transition-based health care.
Leelah was isolated by her family and community, with no way out except her own will to die. She left a very public suicide note pleading with society to honor her memory by making the world better. In death, she has taught many about the lives we trans folk attempt to live.
But moreover, Leelah's death, like the death of Islan Nettles and every other trans woman who is murdered or commits suicide, indicts our society. Each brutal death should be considered a national tragedy.
The reaction has been swift and uplifting, in many ways, from the #RealLiveTransAdult hashtag started by activist and writer Red Durkin in which thousands of trans people are sharing their lives and successes to petitions to outlaw transgender reparative therapy (an experience which Leelah said her parents forced upon her). For whatever reason, Leelah's death has struck a chord in America and beyond. And we owe it to her memory to give others the chances she never had to simply live her life, to have support. It could have saved her. Its lack is why she died.
Part of the problem is that so many people think the way to love trans kids is to attempt to reprogram them. But beyond love is acceptance. Love, for far too many in this country and others, means forcing your children to submit to your idea of what life looks like. The bible taken literally; "not my child," liberal and conservative hypocrisy alike. The list goes on.
Part of the other problem is that trans children often do not have agency — a phenomenon a friend of mine calles "parental supremacy" — and outside of major cities, cannot always access trans-focused health care under the age of 18 (or at all), or even a non-judgmental space in which to freely explore themselves and find support. The few places that do help trans teens are drastically underfunded, and the stories of homeless kids who've survived are intense and heartbreaking
In my own coming out, I've lost family. My father has essentially disowned me; unlike many, I still have a relationship with my mother, strained though mending. I have no doubt that it will one day be fixed. But due to her initial non-acceptance of me and the rift it created in my family, I stuffed my transition back down, went back in the closet.
For 18 months I suffered the effects of my mother's loss because she couldn't deal with it. I didn't want to "lose my family," so I suffered. I forced myself to live a lie. And I truly came very close to dying. Thank God I found my way out. I almost didn't. And that's me, as an adult human being, dealing with a parent who I don't live with and don't depend on for support. I cannot imagine the strain and stress Leelah had to deal with.
In our culture there is little understanding of the constant pain trans people endure, from families, preachers, teachers, and random folks on the street. If we do transition we are often blamed, accused of saddling others with our issues, and fault is lofted onto us: "It's a transition for me too," as I've had folks say to me. Sure it is. You have to get used to a different name and appearance. But you have no idea the torturous heartbreak that gets us to this point. The daily struggles. The lack of safety, the constant fear. Doing this as a grown-up was hard, and I and other trans friends often mourn our lack of wherewithal to have recognized this in ourselves, or to have at least voiced it, at such a young age.
Leelah Alcorn voiced her truth. She lived nobly as herself and struggled to be heard.
And when her parents refused to intervene on her behalf, to listen to her, to help her, to do something I wish every person who calls themself my ally would do -- which is to say, "What can I do to help you?" -- it killed her.
This is not an isolated incident. It's happening everyday. We, as a culture, need to stand up and protect trans and queer kids wherever they are.
Parents, tell your kids they can be whoever they are in your homes. Get them away from that which harms them. And if you know a gender-variant or queer child in a non-supportive home, give them a safe place. Get them out of there, away from the child abuse. Don't ask, "What if I'm wrong?" Act today. You could save a life. Validate them. Be their allies. Be their anchor. Be the change you want to see so that these stories end.
And please keep sharing Leelah's story. Tell people that we have to love our children for who they are — not try to force them to conform to ideas of who they should be. If you still say, "These things aren't happening here," you're wrong. They are, everywhere. This story will keep repeating, unless we change society now. Let Leelah's memory be for a blessing. Let us honor her by changing.
It doesn't take a movement to save one life. It doesn't take a committee. It's up to every single one of us to find the people in our lives who need us right now, and if we can, to be that light for them, to help them and ourselves through darknesses. It starts by making a safe space for others for and within ourselves -- in our homes, in our families, our communities.
This New Year, please: Give someone hope in a dark time; help them to see the next day. Listen to them, even if you don't understand what they are going through. Tell them there are places and people who will understand, and that you will do your best to learn and embrace them, too. Be that safe place for them. No matter what.
If you are a transgender person thinking about suicide, or if someone you know is, you can reach the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. LGBT youth thinking about suicide can also reach out to the Trevor Project Lifeline (ages 24 or younger) at 866-488-7386.
MYA ADRIENE BYRNE is a proud trans woman, musician, performing artist, writer, and public speaker based in New York City. Follow her at @myadriene.