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Op-ed: Leelah Alcorn 'Ciswashed' by the Media, White House

Op-ed: Leelah Alcorn 'Ciswashed' by the Media, White House


Response to White House support of a conversion therapy ban has erased the trans girl who inspired the proposed law.

"Ciswashing," a term that refers to the systematic marginalization of trans people, is a phenomenon that has existed at least since the dawn of the modern American queer rights movement. Just as the Stonewall Riots of 1969 ended up being framed as a gay rebellion despite the fact that many of their leaders, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, were trans women of color, the most recent version of this problem comes in the form of the White House response to a petition to ban conversion therapies for LGBTQ+ people that came about as a result of the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a teenage trans girl.

The response and resulting media coverage gloss over Leelah's trans status -- that's especially troubling given how sure Alcorn was about her own identity and how clearly she stated that society's transphobia was the main reason she ended her life. This situation continues the historical denial of trans identity in favor of what has become the far more respectable status of cisgender gay men.

The White House response has been justifiably lauded by the media as a good-faith attempt to define where the president stands regarding the issue. Despite the fact that it would require action by Congress to enact a national law that bans conversion therapy, it does go a long way that the Obama administration endorses existing legislation by individual states and will presumably support a congressional bill.

However, the Obama quote that introduces and frames the response demonstrates how gay men, as the most powerful and respectable segment of this population, rather than trans women, end up being presented as representative of the problems that the original petition was trying to address:

"Tonight, somewhere in America, a young person, let's say a young man, will struggle to fall to sleep, wrestling alone with a secret he's held as long as he can remember. Soon, perhaps, he will decide it's time to let that secret out. What happens next depends on him, his family, as well as his friends and his teachers and his community. But it also depends on us -- on the kind of society we engender, the kind of future we build."

There are a number of disturbing elements in this quote. First is the context in which it was made, at the Human Rights Campaign Dinner in 2009, in a speech that barely references the transgender community. This leaves little doubt that the "young man" in question here is not a trans man but a gay man.

This quote pushes aside the centrality of Leelah Alcorn in the White House response as well as her plight as a young trans woman. Leelah wrote in her suicide note, "To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy's body, and I've felt that way ever since I was 4." She was clear about her identity despite the fact that a major experience of trans girls in the U.S. is being misidentified and dismissed as extreme versions of gay boys. So it's disturbing to start off the White House response to "conversion" therapy with a quote so narrow in its reach.

Moreover, Leelah's circumstances also demonstrate how much harder it is for trans women than it is for gay men in America today. In the same note, she wrote: "I formed a sort of a 'fuck you' attitude towards my parents and came out as gay at school, thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as trans it would be less of a shock." This statement is at the crux of how treating gay and trans as equivalent categories in today's America minimizes the much more urgent needs of trans people. While there's no doubt that there are gay kids who face rejection and bullying because of their identity, people who would do this would almost invariably have just as bad if not a more negative reaction to a person who discloses as trans.

Another vital problem with equating trans and gay is that being gay is easier to hide. It's easier for a person to express themselves as gay to a more limited group of people and to hide their identity from strangers. A vital aspect of a trans person's identity is the ability to present as the gender they feel internally, which typically requires them to live as that gender at all times. So while sexuality as an issue comes up at specific and limited times, gender expression is an aspect of identity that pervades nearly every moment of life. So a trans person who isn't expressing themselves as their internal gender is constantly reminded of this, and one who chooses to transition is much more visible and therefore subject to rejection and harassment.

Thus, when the White House response goes on to say, "We share your concern about its potentially devastating effects on the lives of transgender as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer youth," then goes on to essentially treat trans and gay therapies as interchangeable, it obscures the much larger and pressing needs of trans people as compared to other groups in the LGBTQ+ umbrella.

The rhetoric of the White House response has filtered its way into media reactions, which have tended to prioritize gay identity over trans and, in at least one prominent case, excludes trans identity altogether. In a piece for TheWashington Post titled "Obama's Move to Ban Gay Conversion Therapy, Explained," Aaron Blake manages not only to entirely frame the response around "gay conversion therapy" but seems to go out of his way not to make even a single mention of the word "transgender" in the article, referring to Leelah Alcorn as "a 17-year-old."

Other media outlets were not as extreme, though there was a marked tendency to headline pieces either with "gay conversion therapy" exclusively rather than including transgender. This also resulted in unfortuante headlines such as this one from People: "Obama Calls for End to Gay 'Conversion' Therapy Following Leelah Alcorn Suicide," which implies that Leelah was gay rather than trans, an identity that she specifically distanced herself from.

While some may consider this nitpicky, even ungrateful, it's important to consider this instance of ciswashing in the context of transgender identity being consistently marginalized in LGBT discussions. This is one issue that centered on a transgender woman, who wrote eloquently about her specific plight: "The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren't treated the way I was, they're treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights." Though the White House and many in the media have the best of intentions, an important way to recognize our humanity as trans people is not to treat us as though we don't deserve to be talked about or fought for as much as gay people, or that we can't be at the forefront of civil rights efforts.

If Leelah's Law is to be enacted, it needs to remain known that it was a trans woman who ignited American's response, and that today, the lives of trans youth are at the greatest risk.

MEREDITH TALUSAN is a writer, artist, and advocate whose articles have appeared in The Nation, The American Prospect, Vice Magazine, BuzzFeed, and The Guardian. She can be found on Twitter @1demerith.

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