The death of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old trans girl whose online suicide note went viral over the last two weeks, has ignited a long-overdue conversation about transphobia among advocates and members of the public. In Alcorn’s Tumblr post, in which she also described how her parents had rejected her, isolated her, and forced her to go to “conversion therapy,” she urged those reading her note to “fix society.” But too often, those discussing Alcorn’s tragic situation replace “society” in this context with “a few bad apples.”
Some people, like The New Statesman’s Sarah Ditum, have tried to silence Alcorn entirely by painting her as an unreliable narrator and her death as an isolated incident. Even supportive writers, though, have focused on her parents and their attempts to take her to “conversion therapists”—who, according to Alcorn, told her that she was “selfish and wrong”—as the culprits behind her death.
“#LeelahAlcorn’s parents threw her in front of that truck,” writer and podcast host Dan Savage posted on Twitter, referring to the circumstances of her death. “They should be ashamed—but 1st they need to be shamed. Charges should be brought.”
“We know that parental hostility & rejection doubles a queer kid’s already quadrupled risk of suicide—rejecting your queer kid is abuse,” Savage continued. “The ‘Christian therapists’ who counseled #LeelahAlcorn should also be charged.”
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On his personal blog, writer Jackson Warlock agreed, “[Alcorn’s parents] … are legitimately directly responsible. There is no rational way to spin what they did into anything but child abuse, no matter how much they think they’re mourning now. To reiterate, Leelah was isolated from her entire support system for five months and sent to therapists explicitly chosen to demean her.”
And last week, a representative from the Transgender Human Rights Institute posted a petition to Change.org asking Congress and President Obama to pass “Leelah’s Law,” which would ban “conversion therapy,” also known as reparative therapy. I signed it, and so should you. Still, the irony of asking federal, state, and local governments to ban it nearly choked me. If, in the broader sense, conversion therapy is any set of actions designed to convince trans people to abandon our genders and sexes, and to accept the ones assigned to us by a transphobic society, well, governments large and small are the biggest offenders out there.
Don’t get the wrong idea: Based on the treatment Alcorn recounted receiving from her parents, they are responsible for her death and they should be prosecuted. But this analysis is too convenient, too easy—they couldn’t have driven her to suicide without our help, without our silence, and without our government and institutions empowering them to do so and engaging in further isolation, abuse, and invalidation of transgender people.
Leelah Alcorn was wrong when she wrote that 18 was too late to transition. She was wrong that a non-cis life is not a life worth living; it is. She wrote, “People say ‘it gets better’ but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.” I wish I could’ve told her when she was alive that it can get better, and it does once you can control your own life, when you’re not in the custody of the government, under control of unsupportive parents, or held hostage by a therapist. But she was right that it isn’t always better and it’s never all better. She was right that our society—not just her parents—is shitty to trans people, and the less cis you look, the worse it is.
A cis person is a person whose gender and sex are broadly legitimated by society and government; in the words of writer Julia Serano:
The primary purpose of the cis/trans distinction is not to simply describe differences in identity. Rather, its main purpose is to articulate differences in societal legitimacy. By this reasoning, what is significant about me being “trans” is not the fact that I have rejected my birth-assigned gender (as in a perfect world, that might not be particularly noteworthy), but the fact that my gender is deemed to be less socially legitimate than other people’s genders because of that fact.
That denial of legitimacy happens in every arena of our lives. Leelah Alcorn’s parents continue to refuse to acknowledge her gender; months before her death, she posted on Reddit that they’d told her, “You’ll never be a real girl.” But these statements came reinforced by the policies of her home state of Ohio, one of three that do not acknowledge trans people’s genders on their birth certificates under any circumstances. Another 41 only allow this change after genital surgery—which is inaccessible, contraindicated, or unnecessary for most transgender people, and in any case is only available a full year after social transition.
In fact, just six states and the District of Columbia respect trans people’s genders on birth certificates without surgery. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), an organization supposedly on our side, has created that hazing period of vulnerability, violence, and discrimination and called it the “real-life experience”—to “allow” transgender people to “change their minds” and go back to their sex of assignment. The fact that a tiny minority of us cave when subjected to discrimination and violence is the very justification they need to continue doing it. So when the state tells us our genders are fake, or deliberately makes it harder for trans people to access public life in the hopes that we’ll give up on who we are, is that so different from conversion therapy? Or is this what Alcorn meant when she wrote “It doesn’t get better”?
According to Alcorn, her parents punished her for being trans by isolating her at home and surrounding her with poisonous words; local governments punish us with police violence and profiling. As the Transformative Justice Law Project wrote in their November report to the UN Committee Against Torture:
Transgender women are 3.7 times more likely to experience police violence and 7 times more likely to experience physical violence when interacting with the police… Police profiling of transgender women in the United States has become so prevalent that it has earned the descriptor “walking while trans”, which describes the experience of transgender women being stopped, questioned, and frisked by police in public spaces, regardless of their activity.
Once we’re in prison, state and federal governments’ punishment for being trans is misgendering and mis-housing, but that often escalates to harassment, rape, and solitary confinement. We want to ban people from hurting us to convince us to stop being trans, right? Is this different? Is it better?
While statistics are scarce, studies have shown approximately 68 percent of trans women have been raped; the Kenagy study further states that 67 percent of us have experienced violence in the home, and 65 percent have been physically abused. Some of that is child abuse specifically intended to coerce us into changing; some of it simply stems from the fact that we’re vulnerable targets, often ignored by the public at large. Yet domestic violence shelters often turn us away “out of respect for survivors,” because our existence is uncomfortable for some cis people. When they tell us to go back to the people who hurt us, is that different from conversion therapy? Is this better?
But let’s ask another question: Why give her tormentors the power to do this to begin with? Alcorn’s parents shouldn’t have been able to deny her the ability to medically transition or to halt an unwanted puberty. All people—including trans teenagers—have the right to control their own body, and parental consent law should be updated to reflect the needs of trans young people, as it has been for abortion in many states. No one should have to sit quietly while an unwanted puberty mandated by their parents rewrites their face and their body, any more than they should have to endure the permanent consequences of an unwanted pregnancy because their parents think they should. Imagine, cis non-intersex people, that your parents had decided to force you to take hormone replacement therapy to make you into the sex they wanted. That is what the law and the WPATH Standards of Care empower them to do to us, to trans and intersex kids, but they’d be locked up if they did it to you.
Even for adults, outside of cities with informed consent clinics, the practice of gatekeeping outlined by the WPATH Standards of Care wrests control of trans people’s bodies away from us and into the hands of a therapist. That person may respect an individual’s autonomy, or they may tell them they can only have hormones once they stop being homeless, depressed, or addicted to drugs. Regardless, the fact remains that they have the capability to deny trans people the most basic control of our bodies. If Leelah Alcorn’s bodily autonomy had been respected, if she’d been empowered with control over her own body by her society, she would have been able to make her own choices without her parents’ involvement to begin with.
There is something heinous about masking abuse as “parental love” and “therapy”—and the use of such delicate tools can be especially effective at making us hate ourselves and think that death is the only way out. But there is also something heinous about blunt instruments like police profiling and solitary confinement, and something heinous about sabotaging access to basic public necessities like identification and bathrooms. All of these things work together to try to make us give up on who we are and punish us if we don’t.
Transphobia is a cornerstone of our culture that permeates every aspect of our lives. Complicity in that transphobia can be active: anything from engaging in direct abuse to referring to trans women as “penised individuals” or including trans misogynistic jokes on popular, liberal-friendly television shows. Or it can be passive: remaining silent about these injustices, stepping aside as our whole society tells kids their genders aren’t up to them, or insisting that the problem is only those people over there—those bad parents, those evil therapists—not us. Until everyone deliberately works to eradicate the omnipresent oppression of trans people, we must recognize that we, too, are part of the problem.
Leelah Alcorn’s demand for change did not stop at conversion therapy, and it did not stop at abusive parenting. “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,” she wrote. Trans people aren’t. “Fix society,” she urged. Are you?