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Her Name was #LeelahAlcorn: A discussion on adolescent transgender suicide

On Sunday, December 28, 2014, trans teen Leelah Alcorn committed suicide. If we were to leave it at that, all we would be doing is showing yet another example of a pandemic problem in the United States, and no doubt around the world. Transgender teens are attempting to take, or are taking, their own lives at an unprecedented rate.  As noted in a 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 41% of transgender teens had attempted to take their own lives, in comparison to the 1.6% of cisgender teens doing the same.

In the suicide note that Leelah Alcorn left us, she pleaded for us to “fix society” and correct what she saw as problems with the ways we treat transgender people. While there is currently no evidence that the Alcorns physically abused Leelah, there is clear evidence that they subjected her to extreme emotional and psychological abuse, including the use of extremely controversial “conversion therapy.” While there was certainly not intent to maliciously harm their child, from what is known, the decisions that they made had a profound impact on Leelah’s life that resulted in it coming to an untimely end.

There are wide ranges of specific reasons why transgender teens are attempting to take their lives at such astounding levels — 78% of K-12 students reported harassment in school, 35% reported physical assault, and 15% were forced to leave school altogether because of the extreme levels of discrimination they were facing in their education. While this astounding level of discrimination and abuse that transgender teens are subjected to makes it clear why so many feel that they are driven to suicide, these teens also face a high level of rejection at home. A total of 57% of teens surveyed had “experienced significant family rejection,” according to the NCTE/NGLTF study. Another study from 2010, found at the Family Acceptance Project, show that teens with unsupportive families were significantly more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, and had suicidal thought and suicide attempts nearly twice the rates of families with high levels of acceptance (38.3% vs. 18.5% and 56.8% vs. 30.9%).

The 2011 groundbreaking study by Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin, in The Lives of Transgender People, as well as a plethora of other studies over the past 30 years, have shown that transgender people develop an understanding of their gender identity in early adolescence and a time when children are forming their identities. Under even the worst of situations, this study and many others show that transgender people stick with and further define those identities throughout their lives. This is an important point that society needs to pay attention to, but that’s not happening, and we are losing our children because of it.

Instead of listening to transgender children, parents reject their children’s identities at high rates, which, according to the NCTE/NGLTF study, puts children at a significant disadvantage. However, this rejection can become abusive when families punish, isolate, and force erroneous gender assignments on them in attempt to have the child they want, and not the child they have.

From the note Leelah left us, we know “conversion therapy” was certainly part of that. Many of the nation’s and world’s leading medical, psychological, psychiatric, and pediatric organizations have publicly came out in opposition to this harmful treatment, such as the American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and TherapistsAmerican Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, the National Association of Social Workers. At least 12 other organizations, including several of the above, have joined together in a group know as the Just the Facts Coalition, where they explain the harm that “conversion therapy” — which seeks to “convert” someone to become cisgender or heterosexual — has on individuals. The Coalition also states that adolescents can be best served by promoting overall mental health and the wellbeing of children as they explore their sexualities, gender identities, and expressions.

The use of this therapy has become such a significant issue that in early November of 2014, the United Nations Committee Against Torture expressed great “concern” with the use of “conversion therapy” in its debate on various forms of torture worldwide. The National Center for Lesbian Rights has created the #BornPerfect Campaign, specifically aimed at ending this harmful practice. Representatives of the organization spoke at length to the U.N. Committee about the dangers it has, using a vast amount of science-based, peer-reviewed study condemning the practice in hopes that the Committee will pass a resolution to end the practice, and is also aiming to end the practice in the U.S. within the next five years.

Despite the fact that all major medical organizations have spoken publicly about how dangerous this anti-LGBTQ therapy is, there are several pseudo-scientific organizations that stand against it, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, who track known hate groups and violence against minority populations. The SPLC has noted that many of these organizations that push faith-based “therapies” are largely devoid of any actual scientific evidence to support their claims and often use medical-sounding names like The National Association for Research and Therapy for Homosexuality (NARTH), The American College of Pediatrics (ACPed), and Family Research Council in attempts to disguise themselves among mainstream associations. These extreme, right-wing conservative, faith-based organizations rest the vast majority of support for “conversion therapy” on claims of separation of church and state instead of actual science. In the case of ACPed, this constitutes one third of its “evidence” to support the continued use of these damaging treatments.

Surprisingly, despite the vast amount of progress for the LGBTQ community, only two states — California and New Jersey — and Washington D.C. currently ban the use of this harmful practice for adolescents. This is in direct opposition to the clear statements from the nation’s leading medical, mental health, and LGBTQ organizations. Recently, ACPed and NARTH information was used in an attempt to create the appearance of legitimacy in an attempt to overturn California’s ban on the practice, which was rejected by the United States Supreme Court, allowing the vital law to take effect.

Leelah believed that the systemic abuse of trans people, much of it embodied in her parents’ actions, contributed to her depression and ultimately her suicide. Had the Alcorns supported their transgender daughter, instead of forcing her to be their son, it is likely that Leelah would still be with us today.

It is understandable for some parents to be reluctant to accept their child as transgender or lesbian, gay, or bisexual. There are wide ranges of reasons this happens; it can be because of perceived safety concerns, assumptions of gender nonconformity being a phase, or conflict with religious beliefs, to name a few. However, physical, mental, and emotional abuse of these children is not the answer; acceptance and support is just one of the many ways we can stop this pandemic problem, in addition to banning the “conversion therapy” that is pitched to parents as helpful and effective through extremely deceptive practices, when it is anything but.

I asked Gale Billett, a transgender teen, if he and his mother would want to help write this article to help focus on the specific issues that trans teens like Gale, as well as his family, have been able to overcome because of the level of acceptance and support that he receives, and how that can be the difference between life and death for a trans teen. It is always helpful when you can put a personal connection to a societal issue and contrast that with how damaging a lack of support and acceptance, as well as attempts to change children through coercive and damaging treatment, can be. I’ll Leave Gale, a 16-year-old trans boy, to talk about this from his perspective.

For transgender teenagers, without the support of your family, it can feel like there is no hope. Unsupportive parents can make issues like self-harm, self-hate, and depression even worse – the things they do and say to their trans children can go so far as to drive them to attempt suicide, all too often successfully. However, the opposite can also be true, and for those of us facing the hardships that being trans can bring, supportive parents can make all the difference in the world. It’s the contrast between being able to live your life as yourself, and being bullied into living it as someone you’re not, and that can be the difference between life and death.

I came out to my parents as transgender the summer before my junior year of high school, and for a trans teen, I’d say that I was pretty lucky. While my parents were extremely supportive, they have always told me that there was a transition period for them as well, a sort of grieving for the daughter that they had all mistaken me as for sixteen years before they could come to terms with the fact that they had always had another son. It took about six months before they started to consistently use my actual name and pronouns, but by most scales, that isn’t long at all. While this has been one of the hardest times in my life, knowing that I have the full support of my parents now, almost half a year later, is what makes it bearable.

I’m in therapy, receiving necessary and life saving Hormone Replacement Therapy, wearing binders; I’m getting the things I need to be somewhat comfortable with myself, things I wouldn’t have without my parents. Obviously, there are the struggles that come with being transgender; the Dysphoria, depression, and suicidal thoughts. I still have all of that. However, if my parents didn’t have my back throughout this whole process, I may have already ended up as part of those statistics; another number in the scores of transgender teens who kill themselves every year because of their unsupportive parents. My parents’ reinforcement is one of the reasons I’m still here.

Of course, having a transgender child can be difficult for families as well, whether it’s issues with other family members, friends, or at work. Both of my parents say they shared most of my experiences; they were both open about the fact that I’m transgender, and found support from those around them. Aside from the occasional person who thought that I was too young to know or that I was being confused by Satan, no one has spoken up to voice anything but support, even, somewhat unexpectedly, in my parents’ church and the Christian school where my mom works.

My parents stood up for me even when there could have been a backlash in the communities in which they live and work, because that’s what parents do for their kids, despite any pushback from those around them, because their child matters more than the opinions of others. When I asked my mom about what she had to say to others in her position, she told me,

“As a parent, one of the most difficult things is to watch your children suffer. But it is even more difficult when you aren’t able to understand what they’re going through. Even when we weren’t sure what to say or do or think, we knew we loved our child – no matter what. From there, it has been about learning what Gale’s needs are, and finding the best way to address them.”

As you can see, families do make a difference in the lives of their trans children. As a parent myself, I can say that what you read above from Gale’s mom Mary is really down to the basics of what it is to be a parent and how we need to support them. We bring our children into this world to let them live; its not always easy to figure out how to do that the best, but its always important to let your child live to their fullest capability possible in what way works best for them, and by no means should that include extremely harmful treatment like “conversion therapy”. Support your trans child; you might just be giving them an amazing gift – a new lease on life, and one that they desperately need to live. You can join the effort to end conversion therapy by contacting your elected state and national representatives and well as throw your support behind efforts like NCLR’s #BornPerfect Campaign. We need to do right by our children, and we need to do it now.

Header image credit: Jessica Krcmarik via Lets Queer Things Up

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Emma Cronin is a thirty something trans woman. She is a student, scholar, and activist of feminism and LGBTQ issues, and currently attends the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh with majors in Environmental Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies. Emma has future plans on claiming a legal education through a duel J.D./PhD program to further her ability as an activist. She spends a great deal of time connecting disadvantaged LGBTQ, and other economically challenged individuals, with much needed resources and is currently creating a trans education, leadership, and resources program for her region in Wisconsin. You can regularly find her engaged in debates with other students about the wonders of feminism, and encouraging young women to be loud, opinionated, and in your face.

Trans woman student, scholar, and activist of all things feminist

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