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Op-ed: Prejudice, Parental Choice, and the Death of Leelah Alcorn

Op-ed: Prejudice, Parental Choice, and the Death of Leelah Alcorn


Why parents can sometimes be the harshest bullies to their children.

My family has followed the heartbreaking story of Leelah Alcorn's suicide since we first learned of the news. How tragic to read that any teenager or child has reached the point of such despair. As I'm an ally to the trans community and the parent of a teenager, this issue hits very close to home. And as a therapist who works with young people, many with histories of abuse and/or neglect in their families of origin, I know the struggles kids face in simply trying to make it through each day, let alone survive their teenage years.

Much has been made of the online post from Leelah pointing to a lack of parental acceptance as the reason for her death. This does not surprise me one bit. In my work as a gender specialist and through the process of researching my books, I have talked to hundreds of parents of trans and gender-expansive children. Some were immediately accepting, some took time to get there, and some never became so. But all struggled somewhere in this process to understand an issue that isn't covered in the baby care books. I'm acutely aware of the issues any family must face in choosing to accept their child for who they actually are -- not the child families thought they had or wish to have.

This is where the issue of choice comes in. Parents almost always love their child but still may not accept who that child really is. This is a subject also quite familiar to everyone who is lesbian- or gay-identified. And as anyone who works in child welfare can attest, parents can love their child yet neglect, abuse, shun, shame, and isolate them in the most egregious ways. Parents often choose to rely on what is most known to them, such as their own upbringing or their religious beliefs, rather than challenge themselves to choose what is unknown and likely better to make their parenting decisions. Challenging notions of gender -- their own and society's -- is one of the hardest for parents to do.

In Leelah's note, she expresses that her mother told her "God doesn't make mistakes." Unfortunately, this is a term frequently used by religious parents to their transgender children.

Don't believe me? Pick up The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals, which I wrote with Stephanie Brill, and flip to page 82. You'll see the heading "Religion-Based Condemnation." Under that heading is a quote from a parent, interviewed for our book, which begins, "I told him God would never make him be a girl in a boy's body. God doesn't make mistakes..." Brill and I subsequently write that "telling children that God will punish them because of their sexual orientation or gender expression increases their risk for health and mental health problems. Telling your child to pray in order to change who they are is using religion to condemn them."

Sound familiar?

We also examine the other methods Leelah's parents used to try to change who she was. These methods allegedly included practices that Leelah says she experienced, like excluding Leelah from family activities, blocking access to supportive online activities and resources, and enforcing silence and secrecy about her gender differences. They apparently also chose not to challenge their religious beliefs nor contemplate joining a different type of spiritual community that would be more welcoming of their child, which many families do make the choice to do.

In short, these actions are nearly a textbook case of how families choose not to support their child. The results, we know now, were devastating.

My own daughter, who is Leelah's age and is fairly savvy about gender, filled me in on the tone of the conversations happening about Leelah both in her school and on sites like Tumblr. Unequivocally, the response of teenagers has been to show support for Leelah's right to self-determination about her gender identity and has been condemning of her parents. As adults writing about youth, it's important that we understand that teenagers do indeed know inherently that a gender difference didn't kill Leelah -- but that society's prejudices and the lack of support of her parents did. Prejudice is abhorrent to the youth of today -- not a peer's difference in gender identity or expression.

So how do we move forward from this? We take a deep breath, and we dig in. We honor a life taken too soon, and we fight for the rights of those still alive. We organize professionally to ban the abusive and ineffective practice of "conversion therapy." We pressure our national LGBT organizations to focus more resources toward issues besides same-sex marriage. We work to expose and challenge those who bully transpeople, both online and in our everyday communities. We launch supportive groups for parents of transgender children and give their children a space to meet and play. We organize, we educate, we advocate, we donate, we network, and we speak up. We take the time to talk to young people about their lives, and we believe what they tell us. We take a stand, one moment, one person, at a time.

And did I also say, we write? The Transgender Child, which originally came out in 2008 is now utilized by medical and mental health professionals around the world, has been translated into other languages, and continues to provide necessary information and hope to families everywhere. I'm sorry that Leelah's parents may not have found it in time or chose not to read it. Perhaps it could have provided a means toward the compassion and understanding that may have kept Leelah alive.

But the tragedy of Leelah's death has also helped motivate me to realize that it is long past time to personally step up in my capacity as a professional writer. Thus, I have just pledged to begin the journey of writing

The Transgender Child's overdue sequel, The Transgender Teen: A Handbook for Families and Professionals, which the same publisher, Cleis, will bring out next year. It will cover many of the topics Leelah and her family struggled with during her brief journey of transition. Although too late for Leelah, I hope The Transgender Teen will prove as essential a text as its predecessor. Because there are many more Leelahs out there, and many more lives worth saving.

RACHEL PEPPER is the author of several books, including Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children (Cleis Press), and is the cofounder of the Unicorn Project.

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