Originally posted on a separate blog (now deleted), imported here with emendations.
Self-portrait of Leelah Alcorn; transgender advocate, artist, and writer; 1997-2014.
Thy extreme hope, the loveliest and the last,
The bloom, whose petals nipped before they blew
Died on the promise of the fruit, is waste;
The broken lily lies – the storm is overpast.
Adonais (1821), P B Shelley, lines 51-4.
To those who missed the grim details of Leelah Alcorn’s early death, let me briefly reiterate: Leelah, late of Ohio, came out to her Conservative Christian parents as transgender in her mid teens. Their reaction, unsurprisingly, was of horror, and they took firm steps to protect their child from herself by cutting off her access to social media, threatening her with eternal damnation, refusing to support her wish to transition, and rather notoriously sending her to Christian “conversion therapists” who, in essence, mentally abused her in the hope of shaming her out of her deviant behaviour. The all-too predictable upshot of this was her suicide.
But the point I would like to emphasise is the aftermath, and why to this day I struggle with the whole business of identifying myself with online transactivism. For Leelah’s parents were subjected to a huge amount of flak for this tragedy, which probably wasn’t helped by the fact that in her final online posts, along with her heartfelt plea for trans-friendly social reforms, Leelah also levelled a final accusation at her folks, making it quite clear that she blamed them for her depression. Unfortunately, various sympathisers and activists took this as a rallying call to threaten, insult, and dox Leelah’s parents, while Radical Feminist Cathy Brennan – one of the most scathing and politically active of trans-critical feminists – sent her parents a tweet of condolence. The tweet itself is no longer accessible, though the brief, appreciative response of Leelah’s father to her is still here, along with lots more unpleasant threats from trans activists and allies.
The ugliness that often seems to pervade online activism seems, alas, like a perfect case study in Orwellian “groupthink”, or as the late Terry Pratchett put it…
“The IQ of a mob is the IQ of its most stupid member divided by the number of mobsters.” (Maskerade, 1995)
On the subject of Cathy Brennan expressing her sympathy with Leelah’s parents, though, there is something almost risibly ironic about that gesture. Apart from their shared disapproval of transgender people, it is safe to say that she (as a Radical Feminist) and the Alcorns (as right-wing Christians) would have seen eye-to-eye on little or nothing. While trans people (myself included) have often pointed up an apparent similarity between Conservative Christians and trans-critical Radical Feminists for irony’s sake, in fact there is a huge disparity between the camps. The radfem position is, in basic and blunt terms, that transpeople are the deliberate creations of the patriarchy to undermine and infiltrate both feminism and lesbian culture, and ought to be mandated out of existence along with the patriarchy. The Conservative Christian position, essentially, is that patriarchy itself is a righteous entity, and transpeople are merely individualistic sinners who should be brought back into line with its social norms (via prayer, tough parenting, social ostracisation, or such strategies as conversion therapy). Cathy Brennan, though she might have approved of the Alcorn’s suppression of Leelah’s transgender identity, would in the first place not have been overly fazed by Leelah’s death (if her own activism is any indication), and she would assuredly not have approved of the future that the Alcorns wanted for their child, as Leelah herself wrote:
“They wanted me to be their perfect little straight Christian boy […].”
In other words, they wanted Leelah to be a perfect, privileged, masculine exemplar of that very patriarchal society that Radical Feminism is ranged against.
And I really have to concede the Alcorns this much: why wouldn’t they want that? Being transgender is certainly not a comfortable position to hold in all but the most liberal of societies – which does not include vast swathes of America (as my friend in the Bible Belt could testify, who could probably sort out all of her social woes if she was able to embrace her patriarchal “birthright”). Moreover, it is practically instinct for a parent to wish to protect their child, though one could certainly wish they would do so with more considered thought. Seeing Leelah, in their view, wishing to forfeit the tremendous social privilege of being a straight, cisgendered white man, as well as putting herself outside the pale of their church, was no doubt akin to seeing their child already committing a form of self-harm and suicide, and the Alcorns acted as well as they knew how to prevent that. They were catastrophically wrong.
But to those who think there is still any point in threatening them, perhaps it is as well to put their post-tragedy position into perspective. Leelah’s parents, probably acting in good conscience to save their child from shame, sin, and damnation, have instead seen her die by her own hand, cursing her parents (arguably in violation of the Ten Commandments), and unapologetic to the last for her transgender identity. They did everything they felt that God wanted of them, and their reward was (in their theology) to see their child condemned to Hell. What could anyone possibly do or say to them that could be worse than believing that? One can only hope their long-term reflections on the tragedy might lead to them developing a more flexible philosophy, if only for the sake of their own mental well-being.
Moreover, Leelah herself – a creative, intelligent young woman of great potential – deserves so much better than to be remembered only as a tragic death statistic. To quote, in closing, Sady Doyle at In These Times:
She was a writer, and a good one; she could pack complicated ideas into conversational prose without sacrificing either integrity or impact. She had the ability—even under adverse circumstances, even while enduring great personal agony—to craft incisive and compelling critiques of the society in which she lived and how its institutions had failed her. She was also an artist, and a working one: She had a job drawing caricatures at an amusement park. It wasn’t a glamorous start, but it was a start, and she could have—probably would have—done much more. […]
It’s important not to glamorize suicide by casting those who’ve died as tragic heroines or to send the message that killing yourself is a way to make people appreciate you. Leelah Alcorn was infinitely valuable to the planet, for reasons other than the circumstances of her death; she would have had more impact if she had lived longer. Had she lived, we might have remembered her for so much more: for her art, for her writing, for her advocacy, for her memoir about growing up in a repressive family or her Congressional campaign. We should have met her differently. But one only hopes some of the young trans women out there are seeing that the world valued her voice, and that she had the tools to make herself heard and find her community before her parents took them away from her—and that they’ll start using those tools for all they’re worth, and find the support and strength they need to survive. Those girls are necessary to the world. We need to meet them, too.