Leelah Alcorn. Photo by LAZERPRINCESS/TUMBLR
The short life and tragic death of Leelah Alcorn — a transgender teen from Ohio who killed herself on December 28 — has sparked a worldwide discussion that shows no signs of slowing down. Hundreds of mourners honored the 17-year-old on Saturday by holding a candlelight vigil at her school, Kings High School, where speakers touched on issues of community support and regret. But on social media and blog posts, the conversation has been focusing in on the topic of Alcorn’s religious parents, whom the teen blamed for belittling, rejecting, and punishing her over her trans identity.
In a desperate plea that Alcorn posted on Reddit months before her suicide, she said her parents forced her into conversion therapy, bullied her, told her she was going to hell, and isolated her from her friends, making her feel “subhuman.” And in her highly publicized suicide note on Tumblr, since deleted by her parents (but visible here), she wrote, “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 [sic]. That’s exactly what it did to me.”
Last week, Leelah’s mom Carla spoke to CNN about her child, born a boy named Joshua. She still referred to Leelah as a son but said that she was a loving parent, despite the teen being transgender. “We don’t support that, religiously,” she said. “But we told him that 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.”
Doug and Carla Alcorn. Photos by LinkedIn (left) and Facebook.
Responses toward Leelah’s parents have ranged from gentle empathy to unabashed condemnation.
Speaking to CNN, Shane Morgan, executive director of Columbus-based TransOhio, was gracious. “I know that they’ve been receiving a lot of backlash and a lot of unacceptable meanness. And it’s not okay,” he said in a recent broadcast. “These folks have lost a child and we need to remember that.”
On another end of the spectrum has been fierce blame, including from noted writer Dan Savage, of the It Gets Better Project for LGBT youth. He tweeted that Leelah’s parents “threw her in front of that truck. They should be ashamed — but 1st they need to be shamed. Charges should be brought.” Feminist author Jessica Valenti’s response, meanwhile, was to write in the Guardian that “homophobic, transphobic parents make abusive homes,” citing that so-called conversion therapy has been found to be clearly harmful (and has been outlawed in states including California, New Jersey, and Washington D.C.).
So what’s the most helpful, deserving response to Leelah’s mom and dad? It depends on whom you talk to, of course. But according to many who have dedicated their lives to understanding and advocating for transgender lives, it’s probably somewhere in the middle.
“When you get down to it, it’s complicated,” says Cristan Williams, executive director of the Transgender Foundation of America, based in Texas, and editor-in-chief of the Transadvocate. “On one hand, you have some parents who put faith in a dogma — ‘pray away the gay, or pray away the trans’ — that contributes to the death of their child. There’s a reason why that’s illegal in some states, as it’s rightly viewed as child abuse,” she tells Yahoo Parenting, noting that she’s worked for years to help transgender youth who have been kicked out their homes into lives of despair on the streets. “On the other hand, I don’t believe the parents began acting out of malice.”
What Leelah’s parents no doubt experienced, Williams explains, were profound feelings of loss upon realizing their child was not on the “preordained” path they had chosen. “But some choose to cling to those hopes and dreams tighter than others do — some in an almost pathological way,” she says, “where the hopes and dreams become more valuable than their actual child.” What could help families in similar situations, she says, is for parents to both get gender-specific therapy for their child and to talk to other parents who are dealing with similar situations.
Cindy of Michigan is one such parent. Though she prefers to keep her last name private, she’s one of 22 “ally moms” who have made themselves available through a blog to other parents who have transgender children and who are having a hard time accepting it. Cindy’s 25-year-old son came out as a transgender female to her this year, and though she’s always considered herself to be open minded, she admits she was “totally blindsided.” She tells Yahoo Parenting, “I felt sadness, then fear, because I knew there were so many people who might want to kill her just for walking down the street.”
Cindy says she got upset and cried and that she felt “fear of the unknown,” and that she can understand and relate to the fear that Leelah’s parents must have felt. “I think persecuting her parents is just as bad as what they did to their child,” she says. “I’m sure they felt what they were doing was right. You have to be very brave when you’re the parents of a transgender child, and not everyone’s up to it. But I do believe they should be held accountable for making poor choices.”
So does Brent Childers, executive director of Faith in America, a North Carolina–based non-profit with a mission to “end the harm to LGBT youth and families from misguided religious teaching.” The organization’s work includes educational outreach to religious leaders, and has made significant inroads with folks from the influential Rev. Dr. David Gushee to American Association of Christian Counselors. Childers, who was raised Southern Baptist and now considers himself a “progressive evangelical Christian,” is the father of four kids, one of whom is a 16-year-old lesbian.
“My heart goes out to any parent who loses a child,” he tells Yahoo Parenting regarding the Alcorn family. “But what so many people don’t understand is this: You can tell a young person you love them all day. But if they feel you feel there is something sinful or shameful about them, then that’s not unconditional love in the eyes of that young person.”