The suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn makes this new mother reckon with her devastation, her Christianity, and the possibility of raising her daughter as a son.
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My Darling Daughter:
I’ve been meaning to write you this letter in case you need it when you’re older, but I thought that I could put it off for at least a couple of years. Now, after hearing about the December 28 suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, I feel an urgency to get this down.
Right now, you’re not even a year old, far too young to understand the tragedy of how Leelah, feeling socially isolated and rejected by her Christian parents, stepped in front of a passing semitrailer on southbound Interstate 71 in Union Township, Ohio on a quiet Sunday morning. She was just 17. As a mother, her death breaks my heart. As a Christian, it moves me to speak out.
When I was a few months pregnant with you and the perinatologist told me that the prenatal blood test “showed no signs of Y chromosomes,” I knew that you were a girl. I was thrilled. Despite the oft-bandied-about opinion that “girls are so much harder,” and “girls are such trouble,” I couldn’t wait to tell everyone: TEAM PINK!
On the sunny spring afternoon that you were born, the nurses wrapped you in a blanket and put a tiny, gender-neutral pink-and-blue-striped cap on your little head. They brought you over to me, rosy and squalling. As soon as I started speaking to you, my voice a steady coo, you settled, and I knew that you were my daughter.
But what if it turns out you aren’t?
What if you are actually my son?
The year of your birth, 2014, presented a giant leap for transgender visibility. Actress Laverne Cox broke new ground when she became the first trans person to receive an Emmy nomination, for her role on Orange Is the New Black, and again when she appeared on the cover of Time magazine for a cover story on the transgender movement. Model Gena Rocera told her inspiring coming-out story in a TED talk, which drew 2.5 million views. Laws and workplace policies regarding transgender issues shifted favorably.
The suicide of dear Leelah, however, tells us that we still have so very far to go.
Say that as the years go by, and as your body, mind, and identity mature, you find that your physical self doesn’t match your sense of your own gender. What if, female body aside, you believe you’re male? Or you feel no gender at all? How will I raise you? How will I love you?
The same. I will raise you and love you just the same.
Per the note posted to Leelah’s Tumblr—which has since been deleted, but whose contents have been preserved by those devoted to keeping her memory alive—when Leelah came out as transgender to her parents, her mother, an avowed Christian, “reacted extremely negatively, telling (Leelah) that it was a phase, that (she) would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that (she is) wrong.” Then came the embargo on social media, and the retinue of (Christian) therapists who told Leelah that she was “selfish and wrong” and that Leelah “should look to God for help.”
The First Commandment of child-rearing is to parent the child you have, not the child you wish you had. I can think of no greater emotional sin than rejecting a kid for who they really are. I don’t think God makes mistakes, either: Trans children deserve to be treated like divine beings, not pathologies. They are to be nurtured and supported, not cured. Conversion therapy has a disastrous success rate, and isolation, it has been proven over and over again, is deadly, a fact made obvious by the first line of Leelah’s note: “If you are reading this, it means that I have committed suicide …”
Make no mistake, my daughter, we are raising you in a Christian home—albeit a multi-denominational one. A Presbyterian Celtic cross hangs in the front hallway and the gold heirloom crucifix you wore at your Catholic baptism rests in a music box on your nursery dresser. Should your path be like Leelah’s I want you to know that, yes, you can look to God for help. Not for help in overcoming your transgenderism, but, rather, in finding a bulwark against the prejudice you encounter in the face of it.
A few years back, Nichole Nordeman’s song “Brave” was a huge hit on Christian radio.
So long, status quo
I think I just let go
You make me wanna be brave.
These lyrics describe exactly how I’d like you to relate to God—as a support for becoming who you really meant to be, and a safe spot on a risky journey. With mainstream Christian radio not being known as a hotbed of progressive gender politics, I sincerely doubt the lyricist intended the song to become an anthem for transgender people, but should that be your destiny, may you see God an ally, not an adversary. A force that makes you want to be brave. There are churches, organizations, and clergypeople who will welcome you, unreservedly. I hope that as time passes, acceptance becomes the dominant image of the American Christian, instead of the stiff, blinkered, fear-driven Jesus Machine that seems to be holding sway today. Like many other believers, I am so very, very tired of intolerance and willful ignorance dressed in the guise of Christian principles. I almost swore off of the church for good because of this, but recently, I reconsidered. Renouncement started to feel like resignation to me, and I decided I’d rather try to build bridges than burn them.
(If you’re wondering how I had time to write this with you in my care, I frantically typed while your aunt, a Presbyterian minister, babysat. After entertaining you with an odd iPhone playlist of children’s playroom classics like “The Farmer in the Dell,” peppy Christian day camp songs, and Jimmy Buffet, she read to you from a gift she brought, “Baby’s First Photo Bible.” Quote therein: Jesus loves all the little children of the world—emphasis mine.)
You will always be my child, but your identity will always be your own. If you grow into a strapping young man, your Army dad will teach you how to put a proper shine on a black leather boot. If you end up a high-flying femme, I will blow glitter on your wings. If on your wedding day, I end up straightening your tie instead of smoothing your veil, I will do it with greatest pride and, I’m sure, more than a few shameless tears. (Be warned, though: Whether you mature into a heterosexual girly girl or a bisexual butch, or a queer transman, I will likely get on your nerves by skootching for a grandbaby or two. Sorry, kid. Nobody’s perfect!)
At the end of her suicide note, Leelah wrote, “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 f*cked up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.” As a mother, as an activist, as a Christian, I will do my best. And I am not alone.
Jack Kerouac said, “Nothing else in the world matters but the kindness of grace, God’s gift to suffering mortals.” In this horrific loss, grace appears as the opportunity to agitate for change, to educate, to affirm the core goodness of Christianity. My beautiful child, may you always know love for who you are. If you can’t count on that from the world, know what you can at least count on that from me. For Leelah, for every transgender, genderfluid, or gender-transcending soul, I make this pledge: I may not succeed in fixing society, but I will never stop trying. God as my witness.
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