I drove Jo back to school last night, after a last minute marathon to do at least some of the homework that could and should have been spread over the past four weeks, rather than the final an hour and a half of the holidays. I sat at the computer while Jo dictated to me, or left instructions as to what to say while attempting to dye a strand of plaited hair blond (it didn’t work). In the car she shared her anxieties about school, and I can see her point. Although the staff have been very supportive, and she gets sick of her housemaster, tutor and others saying that they are totally ‘there for her’, its still hard. She had wanted tutors to explain clearly and fully to their tutor groups what being transgender meant. Instead, the message seems to have been that Jo had changed her name and would be wearing girls’ uniform. That left the onus on her to do all the explaining. The girls in her age group mostly accept her as a girl, but there aren’t many of them, and one or two have been very unkind (‘spreading rumours about her’, she says).
One of the easiest ways to get at Jo is to say that she is gay – which means that boy friends or potential boy friends are also automatically labelled as gay. This started before she transitioned. She was still outwardly a boy but clearly felt female and her sexual orientation shifted from girls to boys. Jo and her boyfriend do not see their relationship as one between two gay kids. Having close relationships with either boys or girls is complicated for her. She is biologically male, and has not started on hormone blockers. Living on the girls’ landing in a boarding school is out of the question – she could theoretically get a girl pregnant, however unlikely in practice. She shares a room with another boy who boards part-time. This was her choice as she didn’t want to be isolated in a single room – isolation carries its dangers in a school setting. She doesn’t socialise with the boys on her landing. There have been incidents when they threw her padded bras out of the window, and sprayed her perfumes all over the place, drew on mirrors with her lipstick and so on. They have two fantastic common rooms on her landing but Jo feels awkward socialising with a group of teenage boys (most of whom have learning and behavioural difficulties) and prefers to stay in her room.
She did have a small, supportive group of boys and girls she hung around with, who accepted her as she was, before and after her transition. Unfortunately they have all left, either expelled or withdrawn from the school (in other words asked to leave) – mainly for drug offences, a ubiquitous problem it seems. With a couple of exceptions the boys don’t want much to do with her. Most are awkward in her company. They don’t know how to react or what to say. She overheard one kid say to another, “that girl’s got a dick”. Its understandable if they have not had any real education in gender issues but also deeply hurtful when you just want to go about your daily life. New children are a threat as they pick up gossip from peers and stare. It seems that things are not explained well to the other kids. It is a while since I have really had a chance to talk to her tutor, who I seldom see, or housemaster, who is usually busy looking after the children and sorting out various problems when we drop her off or pick her up. In some ways negotiating reactions at school and engaging in educating her peers in a relatively safe environment is good preparation for adult life, but I can see how tough it is. No wonder she has little energy and attention left for academic work. The best part of the week is apparently sport, which she used to hate, as this year instead of being forced to take part in team competitive sports she has opted for climbing, at which she is pretty good.
It is only one week ago, on Sunday 28th December 2014, that another transgender teenager, took her life by walking under a truck. She was just 17 years old. There can’t be many parents, especially parents of trans children, who don’t feel distraught at the tragedy of the loss of this young life. Leelah Alcorn from Ohio in the USA left a suicide note on her Tumblr social media account to be posted automatically after her death. The account has since been removed, but her message needs to be heard if Leelah’s plight is not to be repeated, so I make no apologies by posting it here in full. I don’t blame her parents or community, although I do believe they were and are profoundly mistaken in their attitudes. They have lost a child, which is tragic. They are in defensive mode, it seems, trying to justify why what they did was right. They were apparently convinced that their Christian convictions did not allow them to recognise Leelah as transgender. There is nothing in the Bible on the issue and although I don’t want to defend the Bible (I was brought up on Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror), I can’t identify their attitudes as Christian.
There is a valid argument that Christianity is what Christianity does. In other words it doesn’t exist in any abstract form, but is the sum of what people who identify as Christian say, think, believe, teach and do. The same can be said of any religion. While to some extent I subscribe to this view there is also something to be said for rejecting extreme manifestations of a religion that are not in accordance with tradition and core teachings. Most Muslims do not regard the Islamic State jihadis as exemplars of their faith. There is nothing in Buddhism that exhorts its followers in Sri Lanka to persecute Muslims, or anything in Hinduism that compels Hindu nationalists in India to regard non-Hindus as second-class citizens. Certainly living in the UK I have never come across people calling themselves Christian who subscribe to the views of Leelah Alcorn’s parents. Maybe they exist, but strictly binary views of human nature are either not the norm, or if held are put alongside a willingness to learn from others’ experience. If God is Love and there is no male and female in heaven, gender is part of our adventure on earth as human beings, not something intrinsic to our spirit, which exists before and after this lifetime. If God is Spirit and not an anthropomorphic person, being in God’s likeness does not imply being either male or female. For people who are not religious the whole debate must seem ridiculous, and does a great disservice to religion in general.
So here is the text of Leelah Alcorn’s message to all of us:
If you are reading this, it means that I have committed suicide and obviously failed to delete this post from my queue.
Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in … because I’m transgender. I could go into detail explaining why I feel that way, but this note is probably going to be lengthy enough as it is. To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally “boyish” things to try to fit in.
When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. 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. That’s exactly what it did to me.
My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to Christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more Christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.
When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart. The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn’t receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep.
I formed a sort of a “fuck you” attitude towards my parents and came out as gay at school, thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as trans it would be less of a shock. Although the reaction from my friends was positive, my parents were pissed. They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight Christian boy, and that’s obviously not what I wanted.
So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.
At the end of the school year, my parents finally came around and gave me my phone and let me back on social media. I was excited, I finally had my friends back. They were extremely excited to see me and talk to me, but only at first. Eventually they realized they didn’t actually give a shit about me, and I felt even lonelier than I did before. The only friends I thought I had only liked me because they saw me five times a week.
After a summer of having almost no friends plus the weight of having to think about college, save money for moving out, keep my grades up, go to church each week and feel like shit because everyone there is against everything I live for, I have decided I’ve had enough. I’m never going to transition successfully, even when I move out. I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say “it gets better” but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.
That’s the gist of it, that’s why I feel like killing myself. Sorry if that’s not a good enough reason for you, it’s good enough for me. As for my will, I want 100% of the things that I legally own to be sold and the money (plus my money in the bank) to be given to trans civil rights movements and support groups, I don’t give a shit which one. 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. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.
(Leelah) Josh Alcorn