Op-ed: The Meaning of Leelah Alcorn's Death
"We are who we are, and there’s very little we can do to change our core. If we’re asked to change, there will be a chasm so deep inside of us that it will threaten our very life."
—Jodie Patterson, mother of transgender child
The suicide last week of 17-year-old transgender girl Leelah Alcorn was a soul-crushing reminder of how our society is failing our transgender youth. Leelah’s parents rejected who she was and subjected her to conversion therapy, apparently believing the deadly lie that a person’s gender identity can be changed. In her last writings Leelah left us with this charge: “Fix society. Please.”
Like countless LGBT youth across this country, Leelah struggled with the anguish and isolation of navigating a world in which her core identity was erased and rejected. Despite the gains we have achieved in securing the equal rights of LGBT people in many arenas, too many of our children continue to suffer the ravages of intolerance and bigotry.
Last year, we at the National Center for Lesbian Rights launched our #BornPerfect campaign to end the practice of so-called conversion therapy in five years. For more than 20 years, we have witnessed the terrible damage done by subjecting children to the discredited practices that are designed to change their immutable identity. We have talked to countless conversion therapy survivors, who continue as adults to experience deep emotional scars caused by these practices, even as they thrive and live accomplished lives. Tragically, we have also learned of too many of our brothers and sisters who did not survive.
In 1970 a 5-year-old gender-nonconforming boy named Kirk Murphy began treatment at George Rekers’s clinic — a clinic that promised it could “cure” homosexuality — at the University of California, Los Angeles. Like many children subjected to conversion therapy today, Kirk was rewarded for stereotypically masculine behaviors and punished for stereotypically feminine behaviors. Several years later, Kirk was pronounced cured, and George Rekers went on to build a highly influential career based in part on this so-called success story. When Kirk was 17, the two met again. Kirk told Rekers he was gay and suicidal and didn’t know what to do. Rekers continued to publish research citing his success story.
At 38, Kirk took his own life.
Today, the dangers of conversion therapy are well established. These practices have been condemned by every major medical and mental health organization across the country. We want to believe that this barbaric practice has ended, but sadly, that is not the case. As many as one in three LGBT people have experienced some form of conversion therapy at the hands of a mental health professional or a faith leader. There are still many religious leaders that continue to preach that LGBT children are doomed to eternal damnation. Conversion therapists continue to peddle their sham practices to ignorant and vulnerable parents.
In the past two years we have helped pass legislation to stop conversion therapy on minors in California, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia, and we have successfully defended those laws from challenges brought by the therapists who traffic in the lie of conversion therapy. But we must do more. And that is where you can help.
We need you to advocate in your state for laws that ban this harmful practice. We need you to talk about the dangers of conversion therapy to your friends and family. We need you to help us create a climate in which no loving parent would consider subjecting their child to these dangerous and discredited practices.
We are working with legislators across the country to stop conversion therapy, and we are bringing cases to hold those who subject youth to these dangerous practices accountable for the devastation they have caused. Your local advocacy, your voice, your support can help us realize the goal of #BornPerfect. We can end this condemned practice and we can give renewed hope to LGBT youth everywhere.
It is impossible to come to terms with Leelah’s death. But this tragedy strengthens our resolve to create a world in which all children are cherished and supported to become their authentic selves. Leelah’s utterly tragic and completely avoidable death must not be in vain. We can “fix society,” but we can’t do it without you.
KATE KENDELL, Esq. is executive director for NCLR. The #BornPerfect Campaign will hold a Twitter Town Hall from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Pacific on Thursday to discuss the fight to stop conversion therapy. Join the conversation with Kendell, Kirk Murphy’s sister Maris Ehlers, survivor and mental health expert James Guay, faith leader Justin Tanis, and #BornPerfect Campaign coordinator Samantha Ames. Ask questions in advance and during the Town Hall @NCLRights using #BornPerfect.