Last Sunday, transgender teen Leelah Alcorn committed suicide due to the lack of support of her family to allow her to express herself as female. It really shook me up, first reading the article detailing the incident and secondly reading about her suicide note.
There’s so much pain here. Being a teenager is rough to begin with, and adding the pain of being in a body and role you feel isn’t right for you can drag on your human spirit. It dragged on Leelah so much she decided to end it. That hurts me so much. Her suicide note ripped me up as I read of her parents trying to force her to stay male, taking her to counselors who did the same, the isolation, and the overall lack of support.
Trans men and women are out there, and I know it’s not something we hear about often. Do you know about what it means to be transgender? Not just the definition, but what people experience? If not, please give yourself an overview here.
As a secular humanist, I want to support all people being kind to one another and helping each other through the awful parts of life. Our culture makes a huge deal about gender roles. What’s appropriate for each gender to wear, sound like, look like, have as hobbies, social habits, etc. Your gender, if you see yourself as male, female, or other, is usually a key part of your self-identity. That’s especially true in the teen years, a period of self-discovery.
It does not take very much effort at all to support a transgender person. Like everyone, they have desires, interests, struggles, and processes they go through. They have the added complication of having the gender they feel they are not matching up with their private parts. Most have the added complications and sufferings of people putting the gender expectations of the wrong gender on them throughout their life. In order to support transgender people, seek to understand them. Listen to their story. And then just accept them and love them for who they are. Ask what pronouns they’d like you to use. Educate yourself on trans issues so you can understand them better.
You may find that you had a lot of emotional dependency on your gender expectations, for this person and perhaps for the male or female gender in general. When this has occurred, you may need to make peace with the fact those expectations will not be met. That can be upsetting. But keep in mind, the happiness you had attached to that gender expectation would only really be happiness if that person was happy, If somebody is coming out as transgender, they have not been happy with their gender role, and they wouldn’t be happy fulfilling your expectations. Do you want to make people unhappy to fulfill your dreams and expectations?
For Leelah Alcorn, it was more than just unhappiness. It led to deep depression, frustration, and dysphoria. She is not a rarity among transgendered people. There is very little support out there among the general public for trans people. They are not out to change society or hurt anyone. They just want to express themselves in the gender they are most comfortable in. It is a harmless request that requires very little of us. But when we refuse to allow people to do that, it can destroy their mental health beyond recovery.
If you love somebody and they are important to you, it is worth challenging previous preferences you had. If we can just stretch our definitions and expectations a bit, we can stop isolating people who need to be different from gender norms. We can support people as they find out who they are, what they’re into, what genders they are attracted to.
If you are still stuck on ‘they were born with a vagina, they should live like it’ or ‘God made them a male, they should live like one’, remember people are born with all sorts of health problems, hair colors, body types etc, that people alter through surgery, hair dye, diet, and lifestyle changes. Nobody stays they way they were when they were born, and we don’t shame people for getting prosthetic legs, dying their hair red, or trying to lose weight. Those people are just trying to make their life a more happy and healthy place to be. Same with transgender people.
The way we will help prevent incidents like Leelah’s is to share information. When people learn more, they can make educated changes. I hope that in the future, people who are silently struggling with their gender issues will be able to transition fearlessly, without shame or derision from family, friends and communities.