Surely as night follows day, support for a cause leads to a backlash. The huge outpouring of sympathy and support for trans people that came from the sad death of Leelah Alcorn was inevitably going to lead to attacks on trans people. Unsurprisingly to any trans activist in the UK, the first salvo has come from the New Statesman.
On the face of it, Sarah Ditum’s article is supportive and caring, but it is actually a very clever piece of concern trolling. What Ditum wants to happen, is for people to stop writing about Leelah. Her excuse for this is that it is against Samaritans guidelines to publicise suicides, least this encourage copycat attempts. Technically, of course, this is correct, in that yes, the Samaritans do advise this. Practically it is quite another matter.
To start with, Leelah did a darn good job of publicising her suicide herself. She posted her suicide note on Tumblr, and by the time I woke up on Tuesday morning my Twitter feed was full of the story. Many young trans people have few friends outside of the Internet because they dare not tell anyone who might gossip about them to their parents, their teachers or other kids at their school. The bush telegraph of Tumblr and similar sites is very effective. Any additional publicity was mostly going to reach cis people, who are not the people at risk.
Secondly, many of the trans activists who covered the story (myself included) deliberately pointed to Leelah’s own words because we know how badly our stories can be mis-represented in the media. If a community is used to having news sources tell lies about it, then it will want the right to speak for itself.
Then again, there’s the question of least harm. If a teenage girl had killed herself because her parents were sexually abusing her, would people want this made known so that the parents could be brought to justice? I’m pretty sure that most of you would say yes. Well Leelah wanted the world to know that she was being abused too. Her parents had forced her to undergo “therapy” to “cure” her feelings. I don’t think they use electric shocks like they did when I was a kid, but this sort of thing is still very much psychological torture. The aim is to make the kid associate having the “undesirable” feelings with pain and unhappiness. In many parts of the world, using these methods on gay and lesbian people is banned by law. It is still commonly advocated for trans people.
By the way, while Leelah’s parents certainly bear some responsibility for what happened, personally I would prefer to see the blame land squarely on the preachers and quack psychiatrists who peddle these supposed cures. They prey on worried parents for profit.
But couldn’t the publicity that Leelah’s death has got encourage other trans kids to kill themselves so they could become famous too? If you believe that trans people are all attention-hungry and mentally ill — and many radical feminists do appear to believe that — then maybe yes. However, trans kids are killing themselves in ridiculous numbers anyway. As recent surveys have shown, the number of suicide attempts per head of population for trans people is over 40%. Roughly speaking, a trans person is 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than a straight cis person, and twice as likely as a gay or lesbian cis person.
As this Salon article notes, “Trans people don’t commit suicide because they’re trans; they commit suicide because the rest of us don’t treat them like people.” Leelah knew this, and said so. Her eloquently written note ended with a plea for trans people to be treated like human beings. It led to exactly the sort of outpouring of support from the mainstream media that she must have hoped for. No wonder some people want her silenced.
Given that the trans community was all getting the story on social media anyway, a deafening silence in mainstream media would have confirmed everyone’s worst fears. Publishing supportive articles was a far better way of preventing copycats than silence.
Like all good pieces of concern trolling, Ditum’s article contains some good points. She certainly sounds like she cares. But what she doesn’t say is also very telling. For example, she makes use of the #TransLivesMatter hashtag, but says absolutely nothing about the #RealLiveTransAdult hashtag that was very popular in the wake of Leelah’s death. Why did she fail to mention it? Could it be that it was because it was solid proof of the trans community doing something positive to try to prevent further tragedies? That would hardly fit with the narrative of people needing to be protected from themselves now, would it?
The real viciousness of the column, however, will be invisible to most readers, because it lies in the choice of author. You see, Sarah Ditum has a reputation amongst trans people in the UK as a leading TERF. In fact it would be hard to find any journalist more hated by the UK trans community. I guess they could have asked Julie Burchill to write that piece, but she’s incapable of the sly subtlety that Ditum has mastered. If the New Statesman’s editorial team (and yes, I do mean you, Helen Lewis) wanted to commission something guaranteed to cause hurt and anger amongst the UK trans community, they could not have done better than to ask Ditum to write it. This looks like Fox News level viciousness.
So why does this happen? On the face of it, the New Statesman is a very liberal, progressive newspaper. It publishes some great articles by Laurie Penny, who is a good friend to the trans community. Why do they have this hate on for trans people?
It would be simplistic to say that they are all radical feminists stuck fighting a battle that they lost back in the 1970s. It is certainly true that Ditum believes that trans women are “really” men. I’m sure she’ll take any criticism by trans folk of what she writes as “male bullying”. But that’s not the whole story. If it was she wouldn’t be able to do the concern troll thing so well, and Lewis wouldn’t think she was doing right by publishing it.
No one thinks of themselves as a villain. Conservatives tell themselves that they are following the world of God, or that the oppression of the poor is simply the Law of the Jungle in operation. When liberals want to oppress someone, they tell themselves that they are doing it for that person’s own good.
What I see here is a deep-seated belief that trans people are mentally ill; that they are not capable of speaking for themselves, because they are so clearly deluded. They need protecting from themselves, and curing of their sickness. When I see Ditum say that she cares about trans people, what I hear is that she wants us in asylums, where she hopes that we can be made to be not trans. I hear exactly the sort of dehumanising behaviour that drove Leelah Alcorn to take her own life.
So yeah, if there is anything at all written about this case that is likely to cause more trans suicides, it is that piece in the New Statesman. And they will tell themselves that it is for our own good.