Well that was interesting. Normally this blog averages around 200 visits per day. For the first five days of 2015 it averaged over 1500 visits.
It is obvious why this happened. The story of Leelah Alcorn has struck a nerve with the general public. I very much wish that it wasn’t necessary to write about a tragedy like this before people will pay attention to trans issues, but at the same time I need to take advantage of the opportunity while it lasts, because Leelah is the tip of a very big iceberg and we need to stop tragedies like hers from happening again. While I do talk a bit about trans issues here, I’m much more likely to be talking about books, so many of the people who have discovered me over the past few days will soon get bored and stop reading. I’m going to do what I hope is one last post while there is still interest in the subject.
Today I received email from the organization promoting the petition to outlaw conversion therapies in the USA. It asked me to imagine myself in Leelah’s place: alone, cold and seeking solace in death. That wasn’t hard. I’ve been there. Most trans people I know have.
Also today I saw this NPR interview with Greta Martela, the founder of a national (US) suicide helpline for trans people. She says she started it because she could have done with one herself. When she tried calling one of the big suicide prevention hotlines it was less than helpful.
“the operator didn’t know what ‘transgender’ meant, and so I had to explain that to him,” she says. “And once he did understand what I was talking about he got really uncomfortable.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Greta says about Leelah, “I think every trans person I know was crying about it the day that it came out.” I’m pretty sure that was the same for me.
Why? I refer you to this 2012 survey (PDF) of British trans people conducted by Scottish Trans. It reported that 84% of the respondents had considered suicide at one point during their lives. Eighty-four percent.
And yes, those numbers do include me, as I participated in the survey. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, suicide isn’t just something I considered in the past, it is something I know I need to plan for in the future as I get older.
When people say that Leelah’s suicide note struck a chord, we mean it. We have pretty much all been there. We know how she felt, because most of us have had those feelings, and nearly all of us know someone who has. Many of us have lost friends to suicide.
Why? How does this happen?
Well to start with it was the timing. Leelah died just after Christmas. That’s a time of year when many people are talking happily about shared family experiences, about spending time with their loved ones. By no means all trans people are openly rejected and abused by their families, as Leelah was, though many are.
I was talking last year about a charity trying to raise money to buy a house where homeless trans kids in Jamaica can shelter, because right now they are living in a sewer, having been kicked out of their homes by their parents. For some it really does get that bad. And I see from their Facebook page that over Christmas the police raided the place where the kids were sheltering and beat them up.
For many trans people Christmas is a time for gritting teeth as elderly relatives constantly mis-gender us and call us by the wrong name. Others are simply not welcome at family gatherings because of the friction it would cause, or get asked when they are going to “get over” the “phase they are going through”. It’s no fun. It is often easier to stay away. So Leelah died at exactly the right time of year to trigger memories of family issues.
You might think that your family is the one group that ought to support you. Again, not everyone is like Leelah’s parents. The trouble is, however, that the better someone knows you, the harder they find it to come to terms with a gender change. The way we humans interact with each other is so heavily influenced by gender that we find it very difficult to change how we see someone if their gender changes. Also parents tend to imagine futures for their children the minute that the midwife has pronounced the gender of the baby. If they are not sufficiently clued up to look for signs of gender discomfort, they will have nurtured those hopes for years before they find out there is a problem. Truly, families are a minefield for trans folk.
Something else that will have struck a chord with almost all trans people is the part where Leelah talks in her note about feeling that she is running out of time. Puberty is a shit time for an awful lot of people, but for trans folk the problems are multiplied many times over, because we find ourselves turning into monsters.
When you are a kid it is possible to hold on to crazy dreams about how the whole gender thing is a dreadful mistake, and when puberty hits it will all come right. Maybe you have some intersex condition that no one knows about, but will manifest itself when you need it. When puberty hits, these dreams come crashing down in ruins. Trans teenagers find their bodies changing in ways that horrify them; ways that they know can only be fixed by painful and expensive surgery. No wonder they think that their lives are over.
In some ways it was easier for me, because I didn’t know that anything could be done. Sure people like April Ashley had got hormones and surgery when they were older, but teenagers had no access to that. Modern teens like Leelah know that isn’t true. Treatments do exist, and you can get them if only your parents and doctors will let you. There must be a very real sense of seeing an opportunity pass you by.
I’ve seen some very passionate posts about how it is wrong that trans women should feel it so important to conform to classic standards of beauty, and I can see the point. The trouble is that from a very early age we are bombarded with messages telling is that being pretty is the most important attribute a girl can have. It takes considerable strength of will to resist that sort of conditioning.
There is also the matter of personal safety. Trans people — trans women in particular — do suffer from a much higher level of violence than non-trans people. If, as a trans woman, your looks are somewhere in the average range for non-trans women, then you will be much safer from such attacks than if they are not. That might be a dreadful state of affairs, but it is a simple fact of life.
So the process of going through puberty, the process of acquiring an adult body of the wrong type, is a deeply traumatic thing for trans teenagers. Every trans person who has known about their condition from childhood (and not all of us do) will have gone through that. Most of us have also wrestled with the knowledge that our families don’t fully support us, or the fear that they won’t if we tell them. The feelings that drove Leelah to take her own life are common to the vast majority of trans people.
Truly, there but for the grace of the Goddess, go I.
And one final thing. One more reason why, despite the awfulness of Leelah’s story, people are so keen to share it. The media has finally taken notice. With a few dishonourable exceptions, it is covering the story sympathetically. This is rare and unusual. We’ve got lucky, and we need to exploit the moment for all it is worth while that luck lasts.
We know, for example, that around the world a couple of hundred trans girls like Leelah are murdered each year. Mostly these killings are not reported outside of local media, or at all. If Leelah had not been white, her story would probably have got much less media attention, and would have been spun very differently.
If you are sensing an air of desperation, of a feeling that this too is an opportunity that could easily slip away, and we have to make the most of it while we can, well you’d be spot on.
Fix society. Please.