Friday, January 2, 2015

Thoughts on a Trans Teen Suicide

Just before the end of 2014, a teenager in Ohio stepped in front of truck. As many people know from her suicide post on Tumblr, she did this because she was transgender and given her family situation she saw no other way out. Her name would have been Leelah.

For whatever reason, perhaps the suicide note being on Tumblr, perhaps the very impassioned eloquence of it, maybe just the luck of who saw it and when, her suicide note went viral. It's actually sort of surprising that her death became national news - trans kids killing themselves because their families don't accept them is something that happens all the time. It clearly touched a nerve in the trans community, prompting a burst of activity, including multiple twitter hashtags, petitions to abolish reparative therapy on trans kids, and endless articles and commentary.

In my case, it took me a while to realize why Leelah's suicide touched me as it did. It even took a while to realize that had affected me so deeply. As I say, trans suicides are not uncommon, so why should this one affect me more than others, the ones that I hear about literally every week?

Yes, her youth makes the loss more tragic, as does the isolation she endured, and the impassioned plea in her suicide note for trans kids to be treated with simple humanity. Having taught teenagers for over 25 years, having listened to their problems, and having seen them grow and ultimately overcome almost every hurdle as they grew to adulthood, it's heart wrenching to think of the lost potential and the sheer desolation of a lonely kid with no friends and no one to listen.

But I think the real reason that Leelah's death affected me so strongly was even more direct. Like many, I suspect, in the trans community, the reason her story racked me to my very core was that in Leelah I saw myself.

Beyond what she put in her suicide note I can't speak to what Leelah was feeling. But I can recall what I was feeling as a trans teenager decades ago.

I grew up in a small Nebraska town, in a time and place where everyone was deeply trans- and homophobic, not to mention misogynistic. People delighted in stories of rednecks beating up hippies and cutting their hair, and racist jokes were the norm, even on TV.

I'm amazed when I think back to the sort of nasty homophobic jokes that were made even by my teachers, my scout leaders, really almost everyone almost all the time. Women were also routinely disparaged and disrespected, not so severely as gay men, but more frequently, indeed constantly. Trans people were so bizarre and outlandish to us then that the jokes were fewer, but usually managed to add a healthy pinch of misogyny to the transphobia.

I grew up in a family that preached family before everything. Some might have this interpreted this as "unconditional love," but I don't believe it was. I knew that love and acceptance were very conditional in my family. Judgements flowed freely at home - "good" Indians and "hard working" Latinos were the exception, while women who were too extravagant, too lazy, too ugly, or too loose were all too common. And there were no "good" gay or trans folk at all.

In my little town religious diversity meant deciding whether you were Catholic, Protestant, or Fundamentalist. There were no Jews, no Muslims, no Buddhists, no Hindus, all of which would have been tolerated somewhat more than atheists.

My family were staunch Lutherans, my dad a board member for many years, my mom a stalwart of the ladies groups. They cared what the people at church thought, and I think they deeply and unquestioningly believed in what the church taught.

For a trans kid in this environment self hatred was inevitable. There was literally no one I knew who was like me, no one I could dare talk to, for fear of exposure and humiliation and worse.

When I learned the word for what I was, I was enthralled to learn that others like me existed, that people who had been assigned male at birth could end up being women. I also knew that none of this could apply to me. It involved significant expense, doctors in faraway places, and most of all doing something that my entire world told me was not only impossible, but perverted to even wish for. I knew what my family and community would think of me if they knew - that I was crazy, that I was sick, that I was unclean.

What if?

I have thought about what might have happened if in my teens I would have had the courage to face my truth and declare it to the world. Suppose I had sat down with my parents and pointed to that article in Look magazine on transsexuals and said, "this is me." What would have happened?

When I told my family I would have been flatly denied. I would have been shouted down by my father, who used to swear under his breath every time he saw Milton Berle do drag, "dressed like a goddam woman." My mother would have tearfully refused to believe me, or to even discuss it, which was her tactic when I told her of my atheism a few years later. My brothers each would have taken me aside and through clenched teeth told me to stop causing my parents pain.

I would have had freedoms revoked, and I certainly would have been required to attend church as much as possible. Reparative therapy (or any therapy) didn't exist, but I would have been intimidated into a retraction, and if I would have resisted, things would have escalated.

Once word got out in town I would have been without friends. I say this with pretty much absolute certainty, intending no disrespect towards some very dear friends from that time who have unfailingly supported me as an adult. As teenagers in Nebraska in that era I can't think of a single kid who would have been able to stay my friend. I doubt most would have wanted to.

School would not have been supportive, and I would have become the prime target for the town bullies. I think it's probably fair to say that in a matter of weeks my situation would have become untenable.

I might have run away, but where would I have gone? I had no clue where to find any place less hostile, let alone trans friendly. I didn't know how to get by on my own, with nowhere to go, no money, nothing.

The other option would have been the more final one. I never came very close using it, but in those days I had already worked out an exit strategy, just in case. I would have tied my deer rifle to the top of a chair, used a string to pull the trigger, and shot myself in the heart.

I never got to that point. Instead I chose to hide, to suppress what I knew was true, to hate myself, and to keep my secret. I chose to survive. It was a choice based on the certainty that if my secret became known I would not be accepted. Not by my friends, not by my community, not by my family.

So when I think of Leelah Alcorn, I think of how in similar circumstances we made different choices. She trusted in parental "unconditional" love and told her secret. I did not. And that has made all the difference.


  1. Really heart wrenching. Thanks for sharing, friend!

  2. Yours sounds like an extreme situation but few places seem to have been safe for us in our youth...

    I know that if I had ever been given the chance to hold a loaded gun all my problems would have been over in an instant...

  3. Well written and such an eye opener for inclusiveness, acceptance and admiring the courage and bravery to be vulnerable and who you are.

  4. Naomi: I saw your PyCon 2014 talk online last year, and with it being PyCon season once more I figured now's as good a time as any to write.

    I just want to say that your talk made me realize that my attitude towards trans people was not consistent with my personal values of acceptance and compassion. While I never felt or verbalized any hostility towards the trans community, I was not empathetic towards them and did not see their plight through the same lens that I view other modern social issues of our time such as gay rights.

    All it took to change that view was for you to put a human face on the matter. Not a celebrity that I couldn't identify with, not an abstract argument about morality -- just a single personal tale to force me to consciously address something I had never considered before. And then the choice was easy.

    1. Thank you so much for that comment, Jon. That is one of the reasons I gave that talk, and that is the kind of response that makes it worthwhile.