Early Sunday morning a young transwoman, Leelah Alcorn, left a suicide note on Tumblr before walking out in front of a truck. She believed that she would never be able to successfully transition, that she would never be able to live a full life as a woman, that it was impossible for her to live a full life as a man.
Leelah’s mother posted that her “son” had gone for a walk and been hit by a truck. It’s a post that has been reposted, reblogged, tweeted and proliferated all over the internet, and there’s been a lot of hatred poured out on Leelah’s parents. As is often the case in teen suicides, Leelah blamed her parents for her unhappiness. I don’t know whether this is justified in most cases or not. I know that I when I was a suicidal teenager, my parents really had nothing to do with it: I was clinically depressed, and not interested in seeking help.
Leelah, however, was interested in seeking help. As is too often the case in LGBTQ suicides, her parents’ religious beliefs prevented her from being able to access that help. She was taken to counselors, but only to ones who wanted to forward a particular ideological agenda in conformity with her parents’ beliefs. According to Leelah’s suicide note, her parents isolated her from her friends, removed her from school, and prevented her from having access to any network of support from outside of the house.
I don’t want to add to the hatred that’s being poured out on the Alcorns right now. They’re grieving. All grief involves guilt. Grief for a suicidal child involves a lot more guilt. Grief for a suicidal child who blames you in her suicide letter is probably one of the most terrible and heart-breaking things that a parent can go through. Adding a storm of judgements on Facebook, Twitter, national media… No. I don’t think anyone deserves that kind of pain.
But no one deserves the kind of pain that Leelah suffered either.
What needs to be addressed, then, is the attitude within Christian culture that drives genuinely good and loving parents to do cruel, hurtful, even life-threatening things to their LGBTQ children in the name of God.
I have no doubt that it was a burden on Leelah’s family when they decided to withdraw her from public school and keep her at home. I’m sure that taking her to Christian counselors, and trying to “fix” what was wrong with her was a lot of work. I’m sure that being at war with their teenager over her gender identity was a constant trial and a huge source of stress. And I am absolutely positive that the Alcorn family made these sacrifices because they honestly believed that what they were doing was right, that it was the only way to save their child from the fires of Hell.
I can sympathize with that. I remember, one day when I was on the verge of “coming out” queer on my blog, I was reading through an article in a Christian magazine about what I was supposed to do to prevent my kids from turning out gay. Mostly it involved modelling appropriate gender behaviours, and gently correcting gender atypical ones. Just for a moment, I was seized with intense, irrational panic. What if my inability to teach my children to shop and wear make-up was … making them gay? No. That was ridiculous. Obviously I wasn’t afraid of that.
I queried again, and realized that the my reaction to the article had nothing at all to do with my children. The subtext was not “You might be making your kid gay” the subtext was “You might be a bad mother.” I was afraid that as a queer woman I might be literally incapable of raising my children properly. It was a wholly irrational fear, and I knew it. I mean, I’d been researching the subject full time for nearly seven years. I was only reading the article in the first place because someone had e-mailed it to me as an example of misinformation in the Christian press. And yet, the accusation implict in that article had the power to inflict psychologically crippling anxiety.
It’s something that I’ve seen a lot in the Christian parents of LGBTQ kids. One woman once told me that she felt her child’s sexuality was God’s way of telling her that she should never have been a mother in the first place. She was a good mother. She was supportive of her child. But she carried around this incredible sense of guilt and inadequacy because she thought that she had done something wrong to cause her child to be gay.
Another woman said that her young teenage son had come out to her, and that she had supported him, cried with him, told him that she loved him, that she was glad that he had been honest with her, and that nothing would ever diminish her love. She said that she wanted to be a faithful Catholic, but she couldn’t reject her child. She wanted to know if she was still allowed to receive communion.
Think about the shame and guilt associated with being told that you have ruined your child. Not just their life, but their eternal soul. Imagine being told that if you don’t do everything in your power to stop them from being gay, or bi, or trans, you are going to be damned as well.
This is the message that a lot of parents of LGBTQ children have gotten from their Christian communities. It’s implicit in articles that tell us how to keep our kids straight, in therapies that blame poor parent-child relationships for same-sex attractions, and in Christian writings or sermons that vilify LGBTQ people and the people who love them.
Leelah’s parents did what their Christian community had told them to do. They tried to protect her from the “evil” influences that might have saved her life. They thought they were saving her soul.
Both Leelah and her family have my prayers. All trans kids out there in similar situations have my prayers. So do their parents. But we need to do more than just pray. We need to repent.
Leelah’s suicide is not an isolated event. Approximately 40% of trans people will attempt suicide. Those who have faced parental or religious exclusion are significantly more likely to be in that 40% statistic than those who have found acceptance and support. Trans people are at elevated risk for dozens of problems, from suicide to substance abuse, homelessness to sexual assault. For trans people, the Culture Wars are not a bloodless ideological dispute, a set of questions about gender and sexuality to be answered in townhall meetings and academic conferences. For a lot of trans people, and especially trans kids, the Culture Wars are deadly.
Whatever our ideological beliefs about gender and sexuality may be, those beliefs should not translate into an isolated child, deprived of hope, rejected by her parents, cut off from her support networks, denied the ability to be the only person that she knew how to be. The love of God should not translate into the slaughter of the innocents. That was never His work.
Melinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections. She blogs at Sexual Authenticity and can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.