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What we can learn from Leelah Alcorn’s suicide

January 08, 2015

*this photo was posted on Leelah Alcorn's tumblr site

On December 28, 2014, Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old high school student from Ohio, committed suicide when she was struck by a tractor trailer a few miles from her home. Any time I hear of a teen suicide, my heart breaks. At 17 years old one has their whole life ahead of them, and it is such a tragedy to see it all end so soon. Leelah’s story is one that begs to be heard. It is full of heartache, a need for understanding and a hope for acceptance.

Leelah Alcorn was born in 1997 as a male, Joshua, but in a suicide note posted to her social media account, she stated that she was a person who was transgendered. In Leelah’s own words, “I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was four.” According to personal accounts, Leelah came out as gay at school and received support at school and from friends. It was at home, however, that she felt rejected.

Due to Leelah’s parents’ religious beliefs, they have said that they were not accepting of someone who was transgendered. Leelah’s mom, Carla Alcorn, has been quoted as saying that although they did not accept their child being transgendered, she and her husband loved their son. I cannot imagine the sorrow that Leelah’s parents are experiencing right now- the loss of their child, the guilt that they may be experiencing. My heart hurts for them and the rest of their family.

The sadness I feel for those within the transgender community is significant as well. Over and over, people who are transgender consistently report that being transgendered is not a choice they make. Simply put, it just is what it is. Yet despite the fact that people are not choosing this life, this population frequently reports discrimination and a lack of support and understanding from others.

People that are transgender exist in every corner of the world. Although it may seem like a faraway, sad story for many of us, the truth is that any one of us parents could end up knowing or even raising a transgender child. If we end up being that parent, how do we raise a transgender child in a supportive way? What does it really even mean? Even in 2015, there seems to be confusion about what exactly it means to be transgender.

What does it all mean?

According to the American Psychological Association, transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior does not conform to the sex they were assigned at birth. Sex is different from gender: Sex refers to genitalia, and gender is the cultural construct society has created to differentiate between men and women. This is why “gender” is the word we use when we say, “transgender.” This means that a person identifies with the gender (the boy or girl characteristics or qualities) that is different from their sex.

A person who is transgender may or may not be gay, lesbian, or bisexual, just like a person who is not transgender may or may not be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. One really has nothing to do with the other, but it easy to see how this can be confusing. Someone who is born a boy, but identifies with the female gender may dress, act, and feel like a girl. This person could be someone who is attracted to the same sex as them (male), or the other (female).

Another term that can cause confusion is transsexual. Someone who is transsexual is a person who is looking to alter or change their bodies to become more like the gender that they associate with. However, not all people who are transgender want to change their bodies.

How does someone know that they are transgender? Well, how did you know you were a boy? Or a girl? You may not really remember having some sort of epiphany; it’s more likely that you just always knew. People that are transgendered are the same. They just feel differently, is all.

What do we do?

It is not unusual to see young children play and experiment with different roles and genders. Many years ago, I remember picking up my son from preschool and seeing three of his friends playing dress-up. One was a priest, one was a groom and one was a bride. All three friends were boys. I was grateful to see that the teacher’s reaction was a cheerful, “The kids sure do love to dress up!” without a look, an eyebrow raise, or a comment. I felt that it was a positive thing to see all the children in the classroom were given the same access to all the toys, without redirection or judgment. That being said, a child who plays dress-up is not necessarily going to end up being transgendered. They are simply a child who is playing dress-up. It is important to not overthink behaviors like this at this age.

Deciding not to judge others really is the first and most important step in the process of learning how to support someone who is transgender. Let’s face it, we are never really going to understand every little nuance of every person out there. People will have different interests, preferences, personalities, attractions, and even gender associations. Being transgender may feel like a new issue to some people, but according to the American Psychological Association, there have been transgender people documented in many indigenous, Western, and Eastern cultures and societies from antiquity to the present day. Just like the decision to accept someone regardless of their skin color, gender, or religious belief, we can make the decision to accept someone regardless of whatever gender they associate with.

As a parent, this acceptance starts early. It means giving a child the space and freedom to be themselves, no matter who that person ends up being. Make sure that child hears, “I love and support you” from YOU no matter what they do. Those five little words will do amazing things to the well-being and self-esteem of any child, but even more so to the one who feels different from everyone else. Imagine every moment of every day, feeling that you are trapped in the wrong body. You may physically be a female, but every ounce of your being tells you that you are supposed to be a boy (or vice versa). Think about how many decisions you make each day that are affected by gender, even as a young child. The clothes you wear, the way you sit, the color backpack you choose, the public bathroom you use. So, as parents, it is important not only to empathize and try to understand how a transgendered kid is feeling, but also to let our kids choose the clothes they want to wear, the toys they want to play with, and the activities they want to participate in.

We also have the responsibility of being the best parent we can be. Our kids did not ask to be born. We chose to bring them into this world. This means that we have to not only take care of the basics (food, shelter, education), but the more abstract stuff, too. It is our job to try to teach them to be good people, to go after their dreams, and to love and accept themselves. In the process of teaching them to love and accept themselves, we need to be ready to love and accept them, too. We need to be aware of our own thoughts and feelings regarding gender issues and how our attitudes and beliefs can be seen as either helpful or harmful to our kids.

Accept the fact that a person who is transgendered is going to associate with a gender that is not the same as the one they were born with. They may change their clothes, hair, style, or even their body. They are most likely going to want to be called by the pronoun that matches the gender they associate with. A transgender boy who feels that he is a female is probably going to want to be called a “she”, not a “he.” This can be a hurdle for many parents, as they have most likely always identified with their child as being a particular gender. It may seem silly, or annoying, or just wrong. Parents may go through a grieving process for the child they thought they had. This is never easy. However, sometimes in life, we take a deep breath and just do certain things for our kids. This is one of those times.

Treat your child the way you want others to treat them. This is your baby, your flesh and blood. Most parents do not accept anyone discriminating against or judging their child. Make sure you don’t do it, either. Giving your child respect, acceptance and love (no matter what!) means they will in turn, treat others that way, but most importantly, they will treat themselves that way.

Be open to learning. There is so much to read and talk about when it comes to the topic of people that are transgender, that it can feel overwhelming and confusing. It can feel wrong. It can feel embarrassing. If you find yourself feeling this way, imagine how your child feels. They are the ones that are living this first hand. Take the journey together. If you don’t know what to do, seek out support from people who are knowledgeable and understanding. Criticism and judgment will not help. We are so fortunate to live in a world where we have immeasurable amounts of information literally right at our fingertips. Go online and find organizations that can help you and your family accept and learn about living life as someone who is transgendered. You owe it to your kid and you owe it to yourself.

Leelah Alcorn plainly said in her suicide note, “My death needs to mean something.” She is right. So while we mourn the loss of Leelah, a bright, vibrant 17-year-old with her whole life in front of her, we also appreciate her for being brave enough to share her story. We, as parents, can honor her wishes and educate ourselves and our children about how to treat each other and ourselves with compassion. Leelah shared in her suicide note: "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. My death needs to be counted." We, as parents, with love, respect, and compassion in our hearts, can help that happen for Leelah, for our children, and all the other people who are living a life where they don’t feel respected and accepted.

To read more about Leelah and how to support people who are transgender:

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