The tragic story of Leelah Alcorn has created a lot of sadness and anger for people and, as often happens with senseless death, they are looking for someone to blame. It is an understandable desire, but one that can be as counterproductive as it can be cathartic. In this particular case, the role of conservative religion in Leelah’s decision to commit suicide is being examined and held responsible. Leelah’s parents’ insistence both on their “unconditional” love for their child and their vocalization that they could not support her identity because of their religion is a huge source of contention. Some articles have emphasized the role of the Christian conservative right in Leelah Alcorn’s death, but why? What makes the connection between LGBT suicides and the Christian right so powerful?
For many in the LGBT community, what they have suffered at the hands of Christian conservatives is enough to justify their virulent denunciation. It is a verifiable fact that many LGBT identified persons have suffered because of religion’s influence. An estimated one in three LGBT persons have undergone “conversion therapy,” a conservative Christian motivated “psychotherapy” designed to turn people straight or stop their transgender impulses. With this kind of percentage, it is no wonder that so many in the LGBT community blame the Christian right for their sufferings and the suffering of people like Leelah Alcorn.
This 17-year-old girl’s story is now part of the evidence that many in the LGBT and their allies community have levelled at the Christian right. Despite claiming that they loved their child unconditionally, the Alcorn’s also said they could not support her identity religiously. They put her through conversion therapy and their general attitude was enough to make the 17-year-old feel that “the life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender.” There is a connection between her parents’ lack of support and Leelah’s sense that she deserved to live. “Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone,” Leelah’s suicide note asked, “especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self [sic]. That’s exactly what it did to me.” That is what drove Leelah Alcorn to kill herself and it can be squarely laid at Christian conservatives’ feet.
While her mother has denied that it was ever a big issue, claiming that Leelah Alcorn never talked about being transgender or mentioned her preferred name, the story from the deceased girl tells a very different story and it is a sadly all too common story for many trans people, especially minors. That fact has led some to launch a Twitter hashtag “Real Live Trans Adult,” which is designed to show that someone who is transgender can live a fulfilling life and that people suffering in isolation are not alone. It is part of an effort to combat the feelings of worthlessness that Alcorn described in her suicide note.
The relationship between Leelah Alcorn’s depression and suicide and her parents’ Christian conservative faith is a damning one for many, like Dan Savage who has called for the Alcorn parents to be prosecuted for child abuse. The stage for such an argument is set very well by both LGBT activists and Christian conservatives. Both see each other as the enemy and neither side seems willing to compromise too much on that fact. The problem is that both are working under the assumption of a false dichotomy. Not all LGBT people are the enemies of Christian conservatism and not all people on the Christian right are the enemies of LGBT people.
In an article on Slate discussing the idea of prosecuting Leelah’s parents for abuse, one writer correctly noted that Conservative sources of information direct the narrative in an oppositional way. “These conservative parents of transgender kids may be learning of this death through the distorted kaleidoscope of right-wing media—or they may know nothing about it,” the writer said, accurately highlighting one way in which the oppositional narrative is created and fed. Media influence is one big cause of the LGBT versus Christian right viewpoint and it is one that people in the LGBT community fall prey to as well. Both sides accept the narrative of opposition set by Christian conservative campaigners without examining it closely enough to see just how manufactured it is.
The fact is that there are Christian conservatives for whom the issue of LGBT rights and existence are a non-issue. But where are they? That is the tricky part. Because they do not agree with the accepted narrative of opposition, their existence is denied and negated. Because hard right conservative campaigners are so set in opposing the LGBT community, anyone who does not fall in with their policy and belief is ostracized or silenced. So while more accepting Christian conservatives do exist and are not opposed to the LGBT community, they are hard to find, if not impossible in some cases.
Leelah Alcorn’s story has exacerbated the received narrative of us versus them that exists between the LGBT community and the Christian right. Because of the facts of her experience being put through conversion therapy and other Christian-centric modes of counsel, the reasonable acceptance of a better way to handle the issue is even harder to achieve. Dan Savage’s call to prosecute her parents is just another part of a toxic and needless warfare. It is understandable, but it is not the best way to create change.
And change is what Leelah was hoping for. Her suicide note asked that society be changed so that people in her position could be allowed the dignity of their identity no matter what their parents’ religious or political affiliations. She was asking, above all, that love trump agenda, whether it be pro-LGBT or not. That is a much harder thing to do than a mere battle cry and charge in a war of belief. Unlike her parents, who loved her but let their religion trump her well-being, people who wish to heed her call for change would do well to avoid furthering the oppositional narrative that the Christian right still pursues.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury