As the clock strikes midnight tonight, balloons will drop, champagne glasses will be raised, and happy couples everywhere will toast to a new year filled with endless possibilities. Not everyone will be celebrating though. The parents of Leelah Alcorn will be mourning the death of their 17 -year-old daughter, who recently committed suicide. Only, they don’t refer to her as their daughter. Even now, after her death, they refuse to recognize the person that their child always was.
Leelah Alcorn was “born a boy.” As in, her biological sex was male at birth. She was raised a boy by her parents, two devout Christians living in suburban Ohio. And when, at the age of 14, she learned what the word “transgender” meant – someone whose biological sex doesn’t match their gender – suddenly everything made sense. Why, since the age of 4, she felt (in her words) like a “girl trapped in a boy’s body.”
People, namely Leelah’s parents, consistently refused to recognize her true gender. They did this ostensibly because they were Christians. And this is the reason that Leelah is dead. Because they sent her to “Christian” therapists who refused to acknowledge what accredited therapists all agree on: that the best thing parents can do for their transgender teens is support their transition.
I am not a parent, so I can’t comment on what it must be like to raise a child that you love dearly, and have them tell you that, essentially, you’ve been wrong in how you’ve seen them since birth. That must be incredibly painful and confusing to deal with. But I am someone who has been raised since birth learning the same truths that Leelah’s parents lived by; the truth that living a life that honors Christ is the most important thing of all.
Part of me understands how hard it must have been for two small town Christians who likely had no LGBT friends or family to process Leelah’s coming out. How clearly it must have seemed to them that the solution to all their problems was just prayer, and church, and Jesus. And you know what, I agree with them there. The solution for how they could have saved Leelah’s life was prayer and church and Jesus. Or it would have been, if the church they went to was one that knew how to minister to transgender teens and adults.
If there had been at least one Christian at Leelah’s church who had educated themselves about transgender rights, and reached out to her parents, maybe Leelah would still be alive.
If the “Christian therapists” that Leelah’s parents took her to had followed accepted medical and psychological practices instead of advocating for harmful treatment, maybe Leelah would still be alive.
If the church she went to, or it’s larger church network had listened to transgender Christians who have said over and over that who they are is who God made them to be, maybe Leelah would still be alive.
As much as I love my faith, I am not immune to its weaknesses. I know, from the years I’ve spent studying the roots of religious homophobia, that the church has some major gender issues to work through. There are many Christians who believe that the Bible has clear outlined gender roles for men and women, and it is a sin to challenge these. Despite the fact that this is not true, and has been disproved by numerous theologians, patriarchy is still the accepted, honored norm for many Christian denominations.
It’s this belief – that men and women are designed by God to be completely different and fulfill separate but “equal” roles – that fuels religious transphobia. That’s why I can both understand the fear and confusion of Leelah’s parents, while mourning over the fact their ignorance lead to her death. It’s this ignorance that needs to change.
There are so many things I wish had gone different in Leelah’s life. If they had she’d still be alive, and she could see the outpouring of love and support from people all over the world. But since her death can’t be undone, the biggest hope – no, prayer – I have is that her final wish be honored. The last words of her note said, “Fix society. Please.”
What breaks my heart is that it wasn’t “society” that failed Leelah. It was the church. It was Christians. She was fully connected to a body of believers who could have helped her and possibly saved her, if they’d just listened. If they’d learned what most of the world now knows to be true – that transgender people are not broken or sick or damaged. They are just people, people who deserve to live authentically.
So this is my prayer for 2015 – that Christians will remember Leelah’s name. That they’ll educate themselves. That they’ll be there as an advocate and ally for any transgender teens in their churches or families.
There is no bringing back Leelah. But we can honor her memory, and refuse to forget her. And we can try to prevent the next Leelah from feeling so misunderstood and alone. That’s our job as the church, and it’s what we must do better at. Lives literally depend on it.