Love your kids unconditionally, keep them safe, and always be there for them.
Leelah Alcorn, born Joshua Alcorn, was a 17-year-old transgender Ohio kid who took her own life last week because her parents couldn’t follow that most basic and universal tenet of parenting. After telling her parents she has long identified as a girl trapped in a boy’s body, they responded by negatively judging her, removing her from school, taking away her online support network, and sending her to Christian therapists who reinforced her parents’ views that what she was doing was against God’s will.
And that, according to her suicide note published online (which cannot be linked to because her parents asked Tumblr to remove it), is what led to her throwing herself in front of a tractor-trailer last Sunday.
In the aftermath of this totally preventable tragedy, some have said it’s bad form to “bash” parents who have just lost a child. Others think making a big deal of this story in the press will only serve to cast Leelah Alcorn as a martyr, thereby legitimizing suicide as a viable solution for kids in similar situations.
I believe those people are wrong on both counts.
On the latter point, transgender kids are already at a heightened risk of suicide. According to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, half of all transgender youths attempt suicide at least once by the time they turn 20. Thinking the media spotlight on Leelah Alcorn’s death will be the catalyst for heightened suicide attempts is a misguided attempt to brush off an uncomfortable conversation. After all, this is an important story and one that absolutely must be told, because it shines a light on a subject far too many people would rather leave festering in the shadows.
And finally, while I wouldn’t wish the loss of a child on any parent, it is vital to talk about the fact – and it is a fact – that the actions of Leelah Alcorn’s parents directly contributed to her death. Here she is in her own words.
“When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.
My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.”
She also described what happened when she came out as gay at school, which included a mostly positive reaction from friends, but non-acceptance from her parents. Leelah’s parents then removed her from school and took away her phone and laptop, which separated her from social media and online support networks. She spoke of “No friends, no support, no love. Just my parents’ disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.”
As I watched this story unfold during the last few days, I held out hope for one final potential silver lining: Leelah’s parents ultimately accepting their daughter’s gender identity, and finally seeing how their actions contributed to her death. Unfortunately, after Leelah’s mother was interviewed by CNN, it appears that’s too much to ask.
“We don’t support that, religiously,” Carla Alcorn told CNN, regarding Leelah’s request to live as a girl. “But we told him we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.”
First of all, if your religion says it’s a sin to be a homosexual or for boys to live as girls, imagine what it says about parental intolerance that directly contributes to the death of your child. But second, and most disappointing, even after Leelah’s death and subsequent suicide note begging for her death to mean something and help other transgender kids, her mother STILL couldn’t bring herself to refer to Leelah as “she.” And aside from Leelah’s death, her mother’s reaction after the fact is one of the most devastating parts of this story.
The reason we need to criticize Leelah’s parents and shine a light on their behavior, is because it directly contributed to the death of a child. The two people who created her – the two people on this planet who should love and accept her the most – turned their backs on her. More than that, they yanked Leelah’s support network while she was depressed, which is exactly when she needed it most. And then they sent her to religious “counselors” who perpetuated shaming tactics and reinforced the idea Leelah was an affront to herself, God, and her parents.
As a parent, that is unconscionable. That is unacceptable. And that is the kind of abhorrent behavior that needs to be exposed so fewer people will repeat this mistake.
“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. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
If Will or Sam came to me and told me they were gay or transgender, then I’d be the proudest damn father of a gay or transgender kid you’ve ever seen. I might not fully understand it and I’d probably have some reservations, but we’d talk about it. And I’d support them. And I’d let them know no matter what happens, they are loved by their mother and me to the max.
Parents, love your damn kids unconditionally. Real unconditional love, not love that’s dependent on things like sexual orientation and gender. It’s your main job and it’s your most important responsibility. It’s also the best way to honor Leelah Alcorn’s last wish, and give transgender kids in this country the love and support her parents couldn’t provide her.
If you’re in a similar situation and contemplating suicide, please reach out. To a friend, parent, teacher, or a professional at places like TransLifeline.org.