She had arranged for her suicide note to be posted on her Tumblr account that evening. “I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound,” the note said. “I'm never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I'm never going to have enough love to satisfy me.” Alcorn described in the note how she had felt “like a girl trapped in a boy's body” since the age of four, and at 14 came to identify herself as a transgender female, when she discovered, to her immense joy, that such people existed, and she was not alone.
In the aftermath of Alcorn’s death, a lot of criticism was levelled at her parents, described as conservative Christians who could not accept their little boy’s sexuality and desire to be a girl. It's understandable that such a scenario would be difficult, potentially devastating, for any parent. But Alcorn's parents responded to her coming by taking her out of school and enrolling her instead in an online academy, cutting off all her access to social media, and taking away her phone.
The note continued: “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.”
The suicide note went viral—until the family asked for it to be removed from social media a few days later. It inspired vigils for Alcorn in cities across America and internationally, too, including in Trafalgar Square last month. It sparked a general raising of consciousness of the plight of transgendered people the world over.
• Although the word “transgender” wasn’t invented until 1971, transgenderism is not some contemporary fad—it’s as old as humanity. Elagabalus, Roman Emperor from 218 to 222, was said to be transgendered, and in ancient civilisations, “two-spirit” people were often called on to perform religious or cultural ceremonies;
• An estimated 2 to 5 percent of the population experience some degree of gender dysphoria;
• About 1 in 12,000 males and 1 in 34,000 females undergo gender reassignment;
• 90 percent of transgendered adults have experienced discrimination at work;
• 50 percent have been raped or assaulted by a partner;
• 41 percent have attempted suicide;
• 20 percent are homeless;
• Trans women have a 1 in 12 chance of being murdered—or 1 in 8 for trans women of colour.
One of Alcorn’s despairing parents’ strategies to make their child “normal” was to send her for “conversion therapy,” which claims to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation.
This kind of thing was quite common back in the day, when techniques included hypnosis, testicular transplants, electric shocks to the genitals, masturbatory reconditioning, spiritual damnation, and prayer. It was as effective then as it is today, which is to say not at all. It’s a practice that’s fuelled by a certain kind of religious fundamentalism and has been derided as a ridiculous and doomed attempt to “pray the gay away.” A consensus has finally emerged that homosexuality is not some kind of aberrant pathology, an abnormality in need of a cure, though this took a long time: It was only removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as recently 1973, and even made a brief reappearance—“ego-dystonic homosexuality”—in 1980.
Says the American Psychological Association: “The idea that homosexuality is a mental disorder or that the emergence of same-sex attraction and orientation among some adolescents is in any way abnormal or mentally unhealthy has no support among any mainstream health and mental health professional organizations ... efforts to change sexual orientation through therapy have been adopted by some political and religious organizations and aggressively promoted to the public. However, such efforts have serious potential to harm young people because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”
Conversion therapy is already illegal in New Jersey and California; attempts to ban it in other states—Virginia, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Washington, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Hawaii and Rhode Island—have thus far been voted down or withdrawn. Oklahoma has recently been vying to position itself as the nation’s most homophobic state by proposing a law that would protect the right of its citizens to waste their money on attempting to force their children to stop being gay.
Even China is more enlightened: a court in Beijing recently ordered a private counselling center in Chongqing to apologise and pay compensation to a 30-year-old man for providing him with “gay cure” treatment, and ordered all ads for similar services to be removed from Baidu, China’s equivalent of Google.
In the U.K., an alarming 2009 study found that out of 1,328 therapists surveyed, 222 (17 percent) had attempted to change the sexual orientation of at least one client, and 55 of them would continue to do so. The issue received much greater attention with the case of Leslie Pilkington, a Christian counsellor who attempted to “cure” undercover journalist Patrick Strudwick; in 2012 she was struck off the register of her professional body, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. The following year, health minister Norman Lamb called conversion therapy “abhorrent,” something that has “no place in a modern society,” but said there were no plans for a ban.
Last month, NHS England and more than a dozen leading organisatons released a memorandum of understanding on conversion therapy. Guidelines will be published—GPs are not to refer patients for conversion therapy and no-one employed by the NHS can provide it. And just this month, a consensus statement was released, a unanimous condemnation of thee practice from all the leading counselling, psychotherapy and psychology bodies. Lord Black, the Executive Director of the Telegraph Media Group, has campaigned for a ban, and a 2013 motion calling for a government ban on conversion therapy for under-18s was signed by 55 MPs.
Some more stuff:
• Stephen Fry meets the founder of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, Dr. Joseph Nicolosis: click here.
• “Pray the gay away—exposed”: Amusing sex education vlogger Laci Green speaks out: “Gender and sexual orientation exist on a broad spectrum,” she says. “There’s no normal. There’s only more common. Failure to accept this simple fact has serious consequences”: click here.
• Some experiences of conversion therapy in the U.K.: “It’s really sad I spent three years of my life trying to do something that was impossible”: click here and click here.
Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note ended: “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.”
Alcorn’s story does mean something. So do recent stories like the gender reassignment of Olympic gold medal decathlete Bruce Jenner, and former boxing promoter Frank Moloney, and the stories of famous trans people like Chaz Bono, Eddie Izzard, Danny La Rue, Chelsea Manning, Jan Morris and Grayson Perry—to name just a very few.
On January 20, 2015, Barack Obama became the first American President to mention transgender people in the State of the Union Address: “Condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.”
If you or someone you know might need help with transgender issues, there is now plenty of good information online, starting with the NHS, the American Psychological Association; for further information, here’s a list of useful resources.
As for conversion therapy, a change.org petition to ban it in America—called “Leelah’s Law”—now has more than 340,000 signatures; another White House petition received more than 100,000 signatures in January, meaning President Barack Obama’s administration must formally respond to the request. The #BornPerfect campaign took their case to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. One way or another, conversion therapy seems to be inexorably heading for retirement in the therapeutic curio cabinet, along with skull drilling, lobotomies, leeches, and various treatments for “female hysteria.”
Therapy (and life) isn’t about trying to make yourself become someone you’re fundamentally not. It’s not about trying to change other people, either. Better to be who you are—and let other people be who they are, too, as opposed to who you think they should be. Whether we’re part of the mainstream or we live more towards the margins of one bell curve or another, we all want acceptance and freedom. We all want to live in a fair, inclusive and peaceful society rather than a prejudiced, oppressive and violent one. A society that doesn’t condemn some of its teenagers, consigning them to life and death on a very lonely highway.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.