“No, of course,
What really matters is the blame,
Somebody to blame
Fine, if that’s the thing you enjoy,
Placing the blame,
If that’s the aim,
Give me the blame.”
-from ‘Into the Woods’ by Stephen Sondheim’
There’s a time for mourning and a time for finger pointing, and generally they shouldn’t mingle.
Case in point: The recent and well publicized suicide of 17 year old Joshua Alcorn, a high school transsexual going by the name “Leelah”, who posted a farewell message via Tumblr on December 28, deliberately timed to be displayed after his death. Then he stepped in front of a tractor trailer near his home in Kingsville, Ohio, horribly ending his young life, decimating his family, and igniting yet another national debate over who’s to blame when young lesbian, gay, or transsexual teens kill themselves.
In answer to the blame question, Joshua’s Christian parents have already become targets of widespread vilification. Browse the net for stories about this and you’ll find headlines like “Conservative Christian Parents Trigger Suicide of Transgender Teen”, “Transsexual Teen Commits Suicide, Blames Fundamentalist Christian Parents” or “CNN Links Transgender Suicide to Religion of Teen’s Parents”.
Joshua’s own last words are, at least in part, fueling the blame. His note describes his Christian upbringing, and his parents reaction when, at age 14, he told them he was transsexual, feeling like a female trapped in a male body. His mother answered that it was probably just a phase, that God didn’t make mistakes, and that a male becoming a female was an impossibility. Joshua saw these words as damaging, imploring other parents to take a different approach: “If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids”, he pleaded in his message, claiming those words only caused him to hate himself.
He further describes his depression over his parents refusal to allow him to live as a female, their insistence on him seeing Christian counselors who didn’t affirm transsexualism, their objections to his “coming out” at school, their subsequent removal of him from public school, and their confiscation of his computer and cell phone when they disapproved of his friends and his behavior. Taking a direct swing at Mr. and Mrs. Alcorn he posted, in a separate message appearing alongside his suicide note, “Mom and Dad, f — you. You can’t just control other people like that. That’s messed up.”
And the Finger Pointing Begins
Predictably, all of this has triggered the wrath of notable voices already convinced that conservative Christians hold destructive views about homosexuality and gender issues, views which should be silenced and the view-holders punished. Columnist and gay activist Dan Savage, for example, says of Joshua’s parents: “They threw him in front of the truck”, “Example needs to be made of them”, and “Charges should be brought (against them).”
And whereas at one time the notion of sex-change was shocking, in a time when culture is shifting towards approval of sex-change surgery, and the notion that gender can be chosen and modified, the visibility of well-known transsexuals makes disapproval of transsexualism, not transsexualism itself, the shocker. After all, if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie seem comfortable with their 8 year old daughter claiming a male identity, and if Cher’s daughter Chastity Bono transitioned with Cher’s full support to become Mr. Chaz Bono and if no less an icon than Olympian Bruce Jenner is now in the process of assuming a fully female identity then what’s the problem?
All of which paints Mr. and Mrs. Alcorn, already devastated by their loss, in a villainous role. And, by extension, all of us who believe the sex assigned us at birth is our intended sex – a non-negotiable endowed by our Creator – are likewise the bad guys if, in fact, this precious youth killed himself because of our beliefs.
All Have Spinned
But did he? Despite the widespread spin indicting conservative Christian beliefs, there’s another option for blame placing. Clearly Joshua was angry at his parents, his last words to them unmistakable proof. But a reading of his suicide message in its entirety also indicts his peers, perhaps even more than his parents, as the “last straw.” On this point let’s allow him to speak for himself. Describing life after his parents allowed him to return to public school, he notes:
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 s–t 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.
And noting the cause of his final despair, he says:
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.
Hold on here. “I’ll never transition successfully from male to female”; “I’ll never be happy with the way I look”; “I’ll never have a man’s love; I’ll never have enough friends”; “That’s why I’m killing myself” – where is the parent’s guilt in all of that?
In fact, when the Alcorns restricted him from his friends, Joshua didn’t even attempt suicide. Only after re-connecting with those he thought were friends, and finding them disinterested or unavailable, did he begin contemplating death. And when describing the bleakness of his future, nowhere did he state, “My parents will never approve of me so I’d rather die.” Instead he cited loneliness, lack of true friends, fear of never being loved, and fear that the very sex-change operation he said he wanted might never solve the problem. Those were the last straws, none of which cast any reasonable doubt over Mr. and Mrs. Alcorn.
“Still a Man Hears What He Wants to Hear and Disregards the Rest” (Simon and Garfunkel)
Scratch a tragedy’s surface and you’ll often find the blamers assigning unfair and inaccurate blame. (Matthew Shepherd’s grisly murder in 1998 comes to mind, a case in which a young homosexual was beaten to death and pundits began blaming Christian disapproval of homosexuality for the murderous behavior of Shepherd’s killers, none of whom went to church or identified as Christians.) As often happens, Biblically based beliefs are assigned the villain’s role in tragedies far more complex than this age of sound bites and political agendas are willing to recognize.
Joshua Alcorn, aka Leelah, would soon have become an adult. The future was wide open; he was free to pursue life on his own terms, male or female identity, homosexual or heterosexual relations. He refused, and we all lose when someone makes such a horrendous and needless choice. But by his own admission, it was the prospect of a hopeless future, not a parentally influenced present, which drove him over the edge.
“Of All Sad Words of Tongue and Pen, The Saddest Are These: ‘It Might Have Been!’ ” (John Greenleaf Whittier)
But could it all have played differently? I think so, and in both a better church and a better world, here’s how.
Mr. and Mrs. Alcorn would have been taught long ago through their church, Christian books, and Christian media, that homosexuality or gender identity problems were issues many Christian families face. They’d have been prepared with Biblically based materials (because such materials were widely available) so they could respond if, in fact, such an issue arose in their own home. They would have realized perhaps it was more than a phase, but they would have also exercised their parental authority (as indeed they did and, to my thinking, properly) by insisting their son associate with peers they approved of, and that he behave in a manner they condoned. Had he refused, they would rightfully impose needed restrictions (which they also in fact did) and the question of seeing a Christian counselor would be settled by their son’s desire for such counseling. They would reassure him of their love, which they also seem to have done.
But at that age the love and support of peers is a primary need, so at their church Joshua would have found friends his own age who’d accept him as he was, welcoming him into their ranks as a brother without trying to make him more stereotypically masculine, but also without encouraging him to embrace any identity other than male and Christian. He would have known he was loved by his Christian friends, who themselves would, through their Junior and Senior High School church curriculums, have been taught how to respond to a friend struggling with homosexuality or gender related problems.
They’d have realized we all struggle with something, and would have viewed Joshua as a fellow disciple bearing his unique cross while they bore theirs. And he, in turn, would have felt that yes, he was perhaps different. But also definitely and strongly loved; a young man who belonged.
And what do I know? Maybe all of that was in place, and he simply refused it.
We Can Do Better
But sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t. Modern Christians are still woefully ill-equipped to deal with these issues in our own ranks, so we’re losing way too many individuals affected by these issues, who find more tangible answers (albeit the wrong ones) in the world than they do in the Church.
Joshua stated in his suicide note that he wanted his death to count for something. But his life already counted for something, and perhaps the worst part of this nightmare is that he didn’t seem to know it. He said he wanted a better world in which transsexuals are treated like humans, and there we all agree. He also wanted people to legitimize the desire to change sexes, a request we can’t comply with.
But while it’s true that the accusations leveled against his parents and the Church by both he and numerous commentators are unfair, it’s also true that we can do better. There, and perhaps only there, do I find strong agreement with a heartbroken boy who believed he was a girl and saw no hope. May he be the last of such boys, and may we all learn what needs to be learned from Joshua Alcorn’s life and death.
For a copy of my books on Homosexuality and Gender Identity click here