I listened to a lot of Annie Lennox last weekend. My mum was into her when I was a kid. It’s what I do when I’m depressed. That, and eating baked beans straight from the tin. I can’t tell you how upset I’ve been by the news of Leelah Alcorn’s death, the transgender teen who has dominated headlines this past week. Devastated. I didn’t know her, but I’ve tasted that pain, that loneliness, that despair. All the promise 2015 has to bring us. All the sights. All the sounds. All the love. She won’t see any of it now. Leelah didn’t just have a New Year ahead of her. She had a whole new life. She was 17.
Trans people around the world have been deeply affected by Leelah’s death. We can never truly know how another person feels, of course, but we can make an educated guess. I won’t dwell on her suicide note, because she describes her pain and reasons for leaving this earth better than I or anyone else possibly could, but you should check out what she had to say in full. Leelah’s family has asked Tumblr to remove the suicide note, but it is archived here. The note blames them for abusing her and driving her to suicide.
Thank goodness for social media. Thank goodness for Leelah’s ingenuity. Thank goodness we know why she found herself under the wheels of a truck when she should have been out having fun with her friends, like any other teenager. If she hadn’t have told the world why she couldn’t go on, we wouldn’t be talking about her now. Her family would have seen to that. They continue to refer to her using male pronouns and the name they gave her, a boy’s name, because they “didn’t support” who she was, on “religious” grounds.
The world has taken notice of Leelah’s death. Maybe it’s because she was so young. Or so white. Or so clear about her reasons for going. It’s the sort of suicide the media laps up in a slow news month, but her death is not an isolated incident. Some people say we shouldn’t talk about Leelah’s suicide in case we encourage more trans people to kill themselves, but there is already an epidemic of suicide within the trans community. Isolation is the problem. Society is the problem. Talking honestly about why trans people take their own lives, because of the awful way other people often treat us, is the only way things will ever change. Leelah knew this. ‘Fix society’, were her words.
Back in March 2012 I wrote about a primary school teacher called Lucy Meadows who’d been hounded by the press during the final months of her life. Last January, I wrote about a transgender woman called Dr V who was driven to suicide by a journalist threatening to out her as trans. Two months ago, I wrote about Mikki Nicholson, in her 30s, who threw herself under a train following years of depression and social rejection. Yesterday, someone sent me a story of a 24-year-old trans girl in Turkey. She was beautiful. And now she’s gone. They’re all gone. There are so many more, some we know about and some we don’t, because oftentimes families try to cover up the real reasons their ‘loved’ one took their own life. I, like many trans people, have lost precious friends to suicide. It is one of the major causes of death among transgender people, and our youth are particularly at risk.
For gay and trans kids, the very people who are supposed to love and support us may turn out to be our primary source of hostility. The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey revealed that trans kids who have suffered family rejection were nearly 60 per cent more likely to commit suicide than those whose families accepted them. Newsflash: Family rejection is devastating.
When I was 9, I was sent to live with my father. He made me round up all my “girl” toys and put them in a box, all my Polly Pockets and Disney Dolls. I didn’t dare defy him. Plastic isn’t like human flesh, it takes hundreds of years to degrade. Princess Jasmine is probably deep underground now, all bent out of shape under a tonne of trash. I wonder if she still has her long black hair.
He was a violent man. He’d give me a ‘clip around the earhole’ for ‘talking like a poof’. And worse. Sometimes he tried to help. He sent me off for boxing lessons to try and toughen me up, so I’d be able to defend myself from bullies at school. No one told me how I was supposed to stop him from bullying me when I got home.
Leelah’s parents took away her phone when she came out at school as ‘gay’. She knew she wasn’t gay, but it was a start. They stopped her seeing her friends. Isolated her. Took her to her to religious ‘therapists’ who tried to convert her to be a ‘good Christian boy’. How do you think that felt? You don’t need to think because Leelah told us. It was unbearable.
Some of the best responses to Leelah’s death have come from the gay community. Stephen Fry gets it. Dan Savage gets it. Vicky Beeching gets it. Savage suggested that Leelah’s parents be investigated for abuse, while Beeching said the suicide was a ‘wake up call for the church’. They’re both right. Leelah was abused and it’s a scandal that so called ‘conversion therapies’ are still legal in many states in the US. Thank goodness the word is finally starting to get out.
Conversion therapy does not work. There is no medical evidence that you can ‘cure’ someone of being trans. There is, however, evidence that conversion therapy causes huge psychological distress; the World Health Organization describes it as “a serious threat to the health and well-being – even the lives – of affected people”. You can’t ‘pray away’ being transgender any more than you can ‘pray away the gay’. No respected medical body in the world supports conversion therapy – but every respected medical body in the developed world agrees that medical transition is THE effective treatment for people who feel they are in the wrong body. It’s very simple. Gay kids don’t need conversion therapy, and nor do trans kids. They need love.
It’s time to say fuck off to the cheerleaders of conversion therapy. Guardian columnist Julie Bindel promotes conversion therapy for trans people, and I have no idea why we let her get away with it. Though she has apologised for ridiculing transgender people in some of her early writing, she was never backed down from her support of conversion therapy for trans people. It’s an outrage. Her beliefs are based on zero evidence. They are her personal opinions and wouldn’t bear repeating here were it not for the fact that such dangerous lies are what lead people like Leelah Alcorn to take their own lives. In 2007, during a BBC Radio 4 debate, Bindel expressed her support for “talking therapies” for transgender people. In 2009, and again, as recently as 2011, she described schemes to support trans teens to transition as “child abuse”. Hormone blockers for transgender adolescents are the very opposite of child abuse: only teens with supportive parents could access such treatment, which pauses puberty and gives the young patient time to decide what they want to do. It’s a completely reversible treatment option. More importantly, it works. A study released last year shows that puberty suppression leads to positive outcomes for trans kids. They are happier. If only Leelah’s parents had put her on hormone blockers instead of lockdown. I’m an adult and I can eat baked beans and drop Valium and listen to Annie Lennox. I’ll be OK. Yet, as Leelah’s death reminds us, despite living through a great period of progress in the trans community, for many vulnerable people it is still very much the dark old days. And it gets even darker every time we lose a precious young person like Leelah. I hear she was extremely musically talented. What a waste. What a tragedy. What a scandal. I hope Leelah’s death really does come to mean something, that, as she requests, gender is taught in schools, and that conversion therapy is outlawed, everywhere, but there are better ways of effecting change. If you are feeling lonely and desperate right now, yes, your death could mean something – but your life could mean so, so much more. Live. Hold on. Stay with us. Nothing lasts forever and, although it may feel like your pain will never end, trust me that one day it will, and you’ll hardly be able to catch your breath at the beauty this world has to offer. It’s too late for Leelah but it’s not too late for you. I may not know you, but I love you, from the bottom of my heart. Love yourself. Love life. More stories: Paris Lees: 'After years of tension, LGBT people are finally a community' Paris Lees meets FIFA World Cup’s first transgender player