Hidden under the surface of an apparently everyday, even mundane at times, police procedural whodunnit, by new author Alex Clare, lie a handful of neat twists. The cleverest twist, encountered on its front cover, is the book title itself. The intentional double meaning of “He’s Gone” describes both the disappearance of a young kidnapped or killed boy, and the gender dysphoria and real life experience of a transitioning male-to-female lead detective.
“The double meaning in the title is quite deliberate. It’s meant to show that Robyn is here to stay.” – Alex Clare
Robyn was Detective Inspector Roger Bailley, that is, until the day they return to work as Robyn. Then, on their first day back at work, facing every trans person’s “Real Life Experience” (it used to be called a test) nightmare, they are launched into a missing persons case and on day two, a body is found. Now, that is not every trans person’s typical transition at work scenario. These two clashing worlds, Roger/Robyn’s inner one and the outer reality of a serious crime, are blended together well in this debut novel by, sometime corporate commuter, Alex Clare.
The focus on day-to-day details of police procedures, internal force politics, in-tray and waste bin descriptions, and fears of your boss and Professional Standards constantly checking your progress on both the crime(s) and your own transition at work, rooted Robyn in reality, not fantasy.
At times, that reality, as someone all too familiar with being transgender, was painfully raw and depressing. Being one of the first books to tackle this subject in fictional form with sensitivity, rather than exploitation as crossdressing serial killer or exotic sex object, makes it groundbreaking. Although there have been others such as Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge (1968) and Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto (1998), among a few more, they have tended to concentrate more on sexuality and the erotic rather than the practical dilemmas of transition itself.
The daily facing of colleagues, public, family, and the media, are treated well, and resonated as closer to fact than fiction. The constant sniping, media intrusion, initial family rejection, even the workplace bullying and transphobic vandalism, none of these are sensationalised but instead rather realistically realised.
The inspiration came, in 2013, from the author’s watching of the UK Parliament debating the Equal Marriage Act and the intensity of feeling it created. She, therefore, invented a fictional literary world to explore some of the issues and attitudes:
“Some of the opinions horrified me, people being defined and condemned by a single aspect of their life. The character of Robyn Bailley formed quickly in my mind and I’ve really enjoyed telling her story and what she has to face to live a normal life.” – Alex Clare, author of He’s Gone
The dilemma, for me as a very much non-conforming non-binary trans person, was that at times it plays into the hands of stereotyped trans tropes – the obsession with time spent in front of the mirror, makeup, clothing, voice, tucking, pronouns, name and ID documents. These are less criticisms than my personal preference for a gender non-conforming trans role model, even a fictional one, as some comic books have done. It is understandable, however, why these features have been described, and, on the whole, embedded without taking over from the book’s plot.
I did wonder at a few things including why her police warrant card had not been updated speedily by the police as part of her transition at work plan, and similarly that her Gender Identity counsellor “insisted on skirts” and make-up to “demonstrate she was living as a woman” (p.80). Advice that seemed about 3-4 years out of date. Such is the pace of NHS GIC improvement that sourcing reference material and other trans people’s experiences may already be dated, however much “some of the scenarios, … comments people make … and their reactions are taken from real life.”
“There is an active trans community on Twitter and I have read there about real-life experiences and the discrimination suffered. I’ve tried to reflect these in the book, like the example where Robyn is asked for ID before buying alcohol and doesn’t have anything that gives her new name.” – Alex Clare, Interview in OmniMystery News
Other minor details, on the other hand, were eerily and sometimes humorously accurate, such as forgetting that women’s clothes tend to fasten and button the other way, or that their suits tend to lack pockets. These were gentle insights that I remember well. I’ve since made a point of buying women’s clothes with decent pockets as smartphones do not fit inside your bra these days!
I imagine, for many readers, it may feel as though turning the pages of this book gives insights into the lives and emotional discomfort of many trans people, and it does – but there’s not just one type of trans person, and there are, indeed, many trans police officers, as well as trans prison officers, fire and rescue officers, and perhaps up to 1% of people in all walks of life who experience some form of gender dysphoria that may lead to hormonal and/or surgical transition.
I would love to see Robyn’s character develop, for her to touch base with trans support groups and find peer advice. I certainly went through a phase of obsessing over hyper-feminine stereotyped presentation myself, fortunately for me it lasted barely six weeks before I discovered Dr Martens and comfortable clothes! Robyn’s own transitioning at work journey is just 10 days old by the end of the book so I am being somewhat hyper-critical in expecting much evolution of trans personal awareness or feminism 101 in that short timeframe.
The first plot twist, with respect to the crime itself, I didn’t see coming, but the second I guessed straight away, but then watching it play out and come up with the proof was interesting. I found the mid-book anti-climax like a reboot, and the second half more interesting than the first from a crime fiction point of view, and by which time characters were more fully developed. I particularly liked the allusions to a cultish religious group and its holier than thou attitudes to difference and morality. Having once been a part of such beliefs and then been on the receiving end of them, they resonated, painfully.
“How do you find a missing child when his mother doesn’t believe you have the right to even exist?” – He’s Gone, back cover
It was great to see a preponderance of female leads as victims, suspects, investigators, family members and secondary characters. It also made a change not to have a heterosexual partners sub-plot, whether as cop-buddies or romantic liaison constantly making it about sexual friction and frisson. Instead, it was about Robyn internal relationship with her trans self and her external dealings with fellow police officers and colleagues, not to mention the rather awful mother of the missing child whom you end up thinking doesn’t deserve to have her son back. As another reviewer described her, “singularly one of the most deeply unpleasant individuals that one could encounter”.
As a character, I felt Robyn needed an ally, someone to confide in and talk to about her feelings and struggles. The dialogue, advice, emotions and humour that that might provide would supply some relief from her inner torture and the laboured process of the Police investigation. Her relationship with her daughter, though, was well portrayed as she struggled slowly to accept her father’s transition. Perhaps, she might become an ally in future books, along with a work colleague? I look forward to reading their future character arcs and seeing how DI Robyn Bailley develops.
Tom Sosnik comes out as Trans citing Leelah Alcorn as inspiration
An apparently confident young 13yo Jewish teen living in Oakland, California, has come out as trans with the full support of his sister and parents. Tom Sosnik comes across as mature, self-assured and brave, but in no doubt of the hard path ahead. He cites Leelah Alcorn at the beginning and end of his coming out speech and both, thanks, and calls for the support of, his peers and community.
His YouTube video, published 16 March 2015, comes with the following statement by him:
This is how I came out to my community as trans.
Please share my story and my message with your loved ones.
To all those struggling to embrace their true and authentic gender or sexuality, I want you to know that if no one else accepts you, I always will. Rest in power, Leelah.
Full text transcript of Tom Sosnik’s coming out video
“On December 28, 2104, Leelah Alcorn a 17 year old trans woman committed suicide because her family didn’t accept her. This made me want to act on a subject that has been bothering me for quite a long time.
All of sixth grade I struggled with my gender identity and I’m now embracing my truth. For a while, I dismissed the fact that I hated my body, I pretended to be content with what I was assigned until at a certain point I broke. I went through a series of horrible breakdowns and I would stand under the water in the shower crying. I knew I wasn’t happy but it didn’t seem fair to me that everyone else around me was. They didn’t spend all their time thinking about how much they hated being categorised as a woman. I didn’t share that same feeling, in fact, I felt the opposite.
For some of you, this may come as a shock and for others, well you knew or thought I was transgender, well here’s your reassurance – I am no longer Mia, I never really was and now I finally stand before you in my true and authentic gender identity, as Tom. I stand before you as a 13 year old boy.
I understand that this will be a difficult adjustment but I hope and trust that you will treat me with respect and thoughtfulness. So for those of you who are having trouble that is completely understandable. You have known me as a girl for over a year and it is hard to understand that I never was that girl. I want to tell you as a I consider you all my friends, well most of you – no I’m kidding. In my heart I am still the same person, whether you like that person or not, it’s me. So here I am, no longer Mia Sosnik, a 13 year old girl, that you thought you knew, but Tom.
I imagine that some of you will have questions and I am open to answering them at any time they come to you. I trust that you are all mature enough to understand which questions are inappropriate, disrespectful or hurtful. Please feel free to ask me because after all I know the most about my transition. Please talk about this with your parents and your family but I ask of you really not to talk about it with your friends, it’s not – gossip worthy.
If there’s something you want to say I’m happy to talk with you and I really hope that you all will support my decision to embark on a harder route in life as the boy I truly am. Any form of support I receive with much gratitude and I hope that everyone can really support me because you guys are like my second family. And if you support me, I will feel like the luckiest boy in the world. Thank you for letting me share my story.
I want to just tie it back to what I said at the beginning. After reading Leelah’s suicide letter I came to really appreciate the support I have in my family in my community that she never got. Thank you all for making me feel safe enough to openly be myself.”
Risk of Copycat Suicides
The positive references to Leelah Alcorn are all the more uplifting given the spate of US trans teens suicides recently, and the lack of recognition even in death by many of their families. Overnight, it was desvestating to hear of yet another suicide as 18 year old Blake Brockington took his life. He was the first Charlotte, NC trans homecoming king last year. This, only weeks after Ash Haffner, another Charlotte trans man ended his life.
Furthermore, some have argued that the sharing of Leelah Alcorn’s suicide letter would inspire copycat suicides, rather than in the case of Tom Sosnik, an inspired coming out, in part, because of her.
Both of Tom’s sisters have been “meaningful members of his support system“, and one of them, Gil Sosnik, shared his story and video on facebook:
Last week, my 13 year old brother came out as trans to his school and community in a really moving naming ceremony and we were able to capture it on camera. Seeing how much his words have inspired and touched the family and friends in his own network, Tom began to see that there was something about his speech that was universal and humanizing, something that could empower trans* and otherwise gender nonconforming folks while also conjuring empathy and understanding among allies. Watch and share if you are moved by his story.
It has been clearly demonstrated that family support has a huge impact on the mental wellbeing of transgender youth and according to a 2012 Canadian report, can lead to a:
“93% reduction in reported suicide attempts for youth who indicated their parents were strongly supportive of their gender identity and expression”
Without that support, some 57% of young trans people attempted suicide, even higher than the averaged-out figure for trans of all ages and domestic backgrounds. (See more on suicide risks)
Another LGBT suicide has recently been put down to religious non-acceptance in the harrowing story of gay repression and rejection in the life of a successful Muslim Doctor in the UK.
More positively, Tom’s family and religious background is in complete contrast to the religious home life of Leelah Alcorn which saw her sent to Christian therapists and undergo conversion therapy to try and stop her being trans. A path which was no doubt a contributing factor to her suicide and is categorically dismissed as psychologically sound or helpful by the APA.
Reparative Conversion Therapy
Reparative or Conversion Therapy seeks to turn someone from their innate sexuality or gender identity by positively encouraged, aka forced, heterosexual and birth sex gender “appropriate” roles. Of course the concept of appropriate comes from stereotypical concepts of socio-familial and sometimes all-out religious traditional understandings. This kind of aversion therapy, whether of LGB or Trans people, is more likely to increase suicide risk than prevent it. The APA argues that:
“reparative therapy poses a great risk, including increasing the likelihood or severity of depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior for those undergoing therapy.”
Dr Kenneth Zucker
Dr. Ken Zucker is Psychologist-in-Chief and Head of the Gender Identity Service in the Child, Youth, and Family Program at CAMH, Ontario. The American psychologist and sexologist, and GIC head at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, is also on the APA’s DSM-V committee. Just last week CAMH suspended all trans admissions and treatments by Zucker and has put the whole programme under review.
“The APA, responding to criticisms by LGBT activists, point out that Zucker does not advocate reparative therapy for teens and adults, not for gays and lesbians at any age, but only for the trans community.”
Well that’s ok then – “only for the trans”! This is 2015 and being trans is still considered a mental illness, a mental struggle – yes, but it is not something that is aided by disparaged and unethical reparative therapy and pathologising treatment.
How Trans Support should be done
Tom’s own family is Jewish and seems to have positively supported his coming out, posting nothing but proud affirmations on Facebook whereas Leelah was banned from using social media and cut off from her friends and support network.
Tom Sosnik, his family and community, are an example of how coming out as trans, and/or LGB, should be handled – with bravery, acceptance, and support. He and his family embody the “fixing of society” that Leelah Alcorn called for.
On Sunday morning in Ohio, USA, whilst many were attending church, an unnecessary tragedy struck. 17-year-old teenager Leelah Alcorn, took her own life. Whilst some reported it as an accident – including her family, her death on I-71 by a trailer truck was clearly suicide by her own admission on her Tumblr blog (now deleted at her parent’s request but accessible by web archive). It was sadly preventable.
Within days of her death on 28 December she has set the world alight in terms of trans activism, vigils, messages and memorials of sympathy, petitions of change, Facebook campaigns, Twitter trending hashtags, blogs and comments deleted, backed up, reported, reposted. There has also been, what can only be described as “hate”.
Transphobic Hate, Anger at Leelah’s Parents
The calls for criminal charges and invective targeted at her parents may be understandable but in the immediate period of grief perhaps misguided and inappropriate, for now at least.
She will certainly never now be forgotten and may trigger a change in the very society she sought to “fix”.
Leelah herself regarded her domestic situation as “shitty parenting” not criminal abuse, others might disagree and regard the things that happened, as outlined below, as abusive.
Reaching out for help via Reddit
After coming out to her parents, she had her Internet access revoked and laptop removed, but upon their return (after submitting to reparative Christian therapy) she began to reach out on social media again. Whilst her Tumblr blog suicide note made the news after her death she had previously posted in the Reddit asktrangender community, at the end of October:
I really need help.
Hi, I’m Leelah, 16 and MtF/dmab. Ever since I was around 4 or 5 I knew I was a girl, just like most of the lovely ladies on here, but I didn’t actually understand that it was possible to successfully change genders until I was 14. As soon as I found out what transgender meant, I came out to my mom. She reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong, and it felt awful.
She then proceeded to tell my Dad without my consent, and they were both extremely angry with me. They never physically hurt me, but they always talked to me in a very derogatory tone. They would say things like “You’ll never be a real girl” or “What’re you going to do, fuck boys?” or “God’s going to send you straight to hell”. These all made me feel awful about myself, I was christian at the time so I thought that God hated me and that I didn’t deserve to be alive. I cut myself at least once every couple days, and I was constantly thinking about suicide.
I wanted to see a gender therapist but they wouldn’t let me, they thought it would corrupt my mind. The would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl.
Eventually I lied to them and told them I was straight and that I was a boy, and then the derogatory speech and neglect started to fade. I tried my absolute hardest to live up to their standards and be a straight male, but eventually I realized that I hated religion and my parents. I came out as gay in school, hoping to ease my friends into the whole LGBT thing before I came out as trans. Although my friends reactions were mostly positive my parents were beyond pissed. They took me out of public school, took away my phone and computer, and wouldn’t let me on social media websites, so I was out of contact with any of my friends. I was like this for 5 months, completely and utterly alone. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone outside of church and I wasn’t allowed to be with any of my friends, I just had to stay in my house and be quiet.
Eventually they came around and gave me my phone back, but they heavily monitored my facebook/twitter/tumblr profiles in case I did anything “stupid” again. Although I got my friends back I wasn’t allowed to talk to them about anything LGBT.”
“I’m sure someone on here can convince me not to kill myself…Can someone please give me a reason to live”
It is clear from the wider context of her post that Prozac anti-depressants were not helping what should have been a case of referring someone to a Gender Identity clinic or specialist. That, unfortunately, was not something with the worldview of her Christian parents who preferred to send her for “conversion therapy“.
Trans Positive Parenting
It has been clearly demonstrated that parental attitudes have a huge impact on the mental wellbeing of transgender youth and according to a 2012 Canadian report, can lead to a:
“93% reduction in reported suicide attempts for youth who indicated their parents were strongly supportive of their gender identity and expression”
Without that support, some 57% of young trans people attempted suicide, even higher than the averaged-out figure for trans of all ages and domestic backgrounds. (See below for more on suicide risks)
Leelah was born Joshua and went by Josh too. That is the name and gender by which her parents still knew her, despite her protestations and requests to be allowed to transition after her 16th birthday.
Her mother posted on Facebook, but upon the press contacting them about Joshua also being Leelah – which the family confirmed, they requested privacy, and have now made their profile private blocking access to the following post:
“My sweet 16-year-old son, Joshua Ryan Alcorn went home to heaven this morning. He was out for an early morning walk and was hit by a truck. Thank you for the messages and kindness and concern you have sent our way. Please continue to keep us in your prayers”
Whilst Leelah herself left another Tumblr note, an apology to certain friends, it did not include her mum and dad and explicitly said:
“Mom and Dad: Fuck you. You can’t just control other people like that. That’s messed up.”
I understand the frustration and the pain that led to her suicide, and nothing excuses parental non-acceptance of their own child. Certain behaviours they may not be accepting of, certain identities they may not understand – my own took years to understand, but accepted and loved me from the outset of coming out.
The cries of “murderers” and “evil” seen on some news and social media comments, are “unhelpful“, though. Many parents have become LGBTI advocates after experiences such as these. The grief of losing a child is still losing a child, whether you accepted their gender or not. Certainly, they could have diminished the likelihood and reduced the family factor leading up to the loss of life, but suicide very often has multiple causations, as I know only too well. Family and faith were factors, but society, friends, and not being able to see any future happy outcome as male or female, also contributed.
Religious repression and Christian confusion
I can understand from personal experience that it takes time for family to come around to a name change, let along a gender change, and the accompanying pronouns, but Leelah’s parents were doubly burdened, it would seem, by their personal faith – they were Christians. Whilst there are some inclusive Christian groups out there, in the UK, for example, the Metropolitan Church, Changing Attitude, Greenbelt festival, there are even Accepting Evangelicals, many would regard a transgender Christian as an oxymoron. I experienced attempts to “pray away the gay“, exorcise the trans demon, heal and cure my “twisted” gender – as it was termed by a charismatic Christian healer, who was also an Ob/Gyn consultant.
I know it is hard, too, for believers to step away from the idea that since “God does not make mistakes“, gender is somehow fixed. I theologically tortured myself, repenting and repressing my gender dysphoric identity for decades. I prayed – when I believed, for God to take away the “curse” of being trans. I too tried suicide on more than one occasion. My psychiatrist called me “the most reluctant transsexual he’d ever met” because of my own religious repression.
I know people currently or previously involved in Christian reparative therapy, some willingly undergo it, only for them to revert to their true nature (trans or gay) later – sometimes called ex-ex-gay and ex-ex-trans. Neither ex-gay conversion therapy nor psychotherapies to prevent gender transition are endorsed by UK or US psychiatric and psychological professional bodies, eg. APA, AMA, APA, BACP, BPS, UKCP etc. It is hard to outlaw it completely if some people actively seek it. Many in those circles call it “unwanted same sex attraction”, the unwanted bit gives them pseudo-legitimacy to offer it. In Leelah’s case it was very definitely imposed, and an unwanted intervention.
Quite rightly, a call to reign in “conversion therapy” was made at the London vigil for Leelah, by Sarah Brown, the full text of her speech can be read here.
“presumably … the conversion therapist assured them [the parents] that their therapy could “fix” their child and turn Leelah into the dutiful straight cisgender son they wanted. That the trans feelings could be “cured” … We have known for a long time that conversion therapy, whether it be aimed at changing gender identity or sexuality does not work. We also now know that if a trans person has stated the need to transition, and things are done to block them, there is a better than evens chance that they will try to kill themselves.”
Trans Suicide note left on Tumblr
Leelah’s suicide note showed up on the social media site Tumblr along with some personal posts on scheduled release. It began:
“If you are reading this, it means that I have committed suicide and obviously failed to delete this post from my queue.”
“Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender. I could go into detail explaining why I feel that way, but this note is probably going to be lengthy enough as it is. To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally “boyish” things to try to fit in.
When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.
My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.
When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart. The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn’t receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep.
I formed a sort of a “fuck you” attitude towards my parents and came out as gay at school, thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as trans it would be less of a shock. Although the reaction from my friends was positive, my parents were pissed. They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight christian boy, and that’s obviously not what I wanted.
So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.
At the end of the school year, my parents finally came around and gave me my phone and let me back on social media. 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 shit 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.
After a summer of having almost no friends plus the weight of having to think about college, save money for moving out, keep my grades up, go to church each week and feel like shit because everyone there is against everything I live for, 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. Sorry if that’s not a good enough reason for you, it’s good enough for me. As for my will, I want 100% of the things that I legally own to be sold and the money (plus my money in the bank) to be given to trans civil rights movements and support groups, I don’t give a shit which one. The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. 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.”
(Leelah) Josh Alcorn
Leelah’s feelings are both unique and somewhat typical. I resonate and empathise having experienced something similar. In my case it was my own Christian fundamentalism that kept me down, my Anglican parents were none the wiser, and unlike Leelah, I didn’t discover the word transgender till my 20s, even then, that was before social media and Internet support groups.
Transgender Suicide Stats
Her desire for her death to mean something, “to be counted”, not just as a statistic, but an individual life, that should not have been added to the toll of trans deaths by murder or suicide that is already way too high.
She remarked, and it is worth repeating:
“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.”
Transgender suicide stats are horrific. I co-spoke with a psychiatric medical director at an NHS seminar on “Gender, Sex and Mental Health” less than 2 weeks ago. Putting up a PowerPoint slide that reports trans young people as 8x more likely to attempt suicide than other teens, and that that figure is 48%, is enough – or at least should be, to stop an audience in its tracks, and for someone to cry “enough!”
The reality is that repeated surveys in the UK, US and Canada, show figures of 32-48% trying suicide to end their dysphoria and felt-rejection by family, partners and society. Up to 80% consider suicide but don’t act on it. In the UK alone, 30% of trans under the age of 26 had attempted suicide in the past 12 months.
The most recent US statistics were published earlier this year:
“The prevalence of suicide attempts among respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, is 41 percent, which vastly exceeds the 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population who report a lifetime suicide attempt, and is also higher than the 10-20 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide.”
News reporting of Trans stories
It has long been a bugbear of trans persons that many newspapers and websites will report a trans story using the wrong pronouns, focusing on tales and pictures of before and after, or erase our identities and histories in some other way.
Local news sites were still misgendering Leelah – if they even mentioned her female identity, and ignoring her social media suicide note, hours after people online had caught up with the facts. It seems both the family and media outlets were in denial about her being trans. The main local reporting on WCPO took nearly 2 days to post an editorial update after 3 stories had already aired about “Joshua’s accident”.
Editor’s note: WCPO.com posted an update to this story on Tuesday. The update connects Joshua Alcorn to a blog post by a “Leelah” Alcorn in which Leelah says she was transgender and committed suicide.
Finally the WCPO news source reported about Leelah rather than, or at least, as well as Joshua, within the last few hours. Further updates and later news stories were now acknowledging that Joshua preferred to be called Leelah and termed her Leelah Joshua Alcorn and managed the tightrope walk of journalistic caution by subsequently calling her just Alcorn but now using female pronouns. Not all related stories had been fully updated though.
A supportive feature on Cincinnati.com included an interview with a friend and fellow young teen artist, Abigail Jones, to whom Leelah came out as trans last July. Abigail described Leelah as “super bubbly and upbeat, with a really brash sense of humor; she could make anyone laugh”.
Of all papers, the Daily Mail, in the UK ran a properly gendered article about her suicide, using respectful and correct – as per her self-identification, pronouns.
Positive political support came from Chris Seelbach, Cincinnati City Council’s first openly-gay elected politician, who wrote about Leelah on his Facebook page, re-shared some 16,000 times:
“Cincinnati led the country this past year as the first city in the mid-west to include transgender inclusive health benefits and we have included gender identity or expression as a protected class for many years….the truth is….it is still extremely difficult to be a transgender young person in this country.”
He went on to appeal for donations as an “investment in our trans kids” for TransOhio.org. Many other trans support groups in the US have been listed on a Storify post.
High School Memorial
As Joshua, Leelah’s former school offered a memorial and counselling advice. “Beloved Son, Brother, Friend – 1997-2014” was the inscription on the memorial meme. After complaints, it was removed but is still referenced here.
Some social media users created and circulated an alternate memorial of a “Beloved Daughter, Sister, Friend” instead, also citing Leelah’s last wishes.
Indeed, Facebook, Tumblr with tens of thousands of notes and reblogs, and Twitter were the primary sources of information, respect, and concern, these last 48 hours.
Of all the thousands of trans suicides worldwide each year it is Leelah’s that has struck a chord with people and reached the #1 trending topic on Twitter. Hopefully, enough to make a difference.
For all the flack social media gets it should be remembered that they can be a primary source of support for, especially young, trans people seeking help and advice. Leelah was forcibly deprived of access for months at a time, along with Christian therapy, to ween her off being trans, something that could not be done. Nonetheless, Leelah also realised that even social media friends may not be that deep, and with “hating herself” as she was and not seeing any future for herself as man or woman, she could not even be a friend to herself in her desperate isolation in the real, online , and her own internal worlds.
Public Memorials and Vigils
Various locations in Ohio, and elsewhere worldwide, are holding vigils to commemorate Leelah Alcorn, hundreds are set to go to each of them. Trafalgar Square in London, also hosted one on Saturday 3 January. Some of the pictures can be seen on the Facebook event wall.
Rowan Davis, one of the London vigil organisers, said of Leelah Alcorn that:
“Her death was a political death. When a member of our community is brutalised at the hands of oppression we must all fight back.”
The London vigil press release had four stated aims of the event:
To remember a life cut so short by someone that shared our struggles, a girl killed by systemic transmisogyny.
To remind people that her death was a political death, that when a member of our community is brutalised at the hands of oppression we must all fight back.
A reminder to other folks that we are more than just individuals in this struggle, that as a community we are stronger and that we can create positive change.
It is deeply saddening that Leelah’s parents are still refusing to give her the basic respect she deserves, even in death, and so the fourth purpose of this vigil is to do what they will not and mourn a sister.
My Chemical Romance – Musical Memorial
Ray Toro, former My Chemical Romance guitarist, has released “For The Lost and Brave“ and dedicated it to Leelah Alcorn. Reviews have described the simple poignant song as, “absolutely beautiful”, “giving assurance and comfort…really freaking good”, “perfectly articulate an alienated teenager’s perspective”.
The only true and lasting memorial would be if Leelah’s wishes in death were honoured, unlike her wishes in life. She wrote in her suicide note:
The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something.
This we can do. Can’t we? As families and individuals we can respect the human rights of a trans person to identify according to their felt-gender, preferred name, and requested pronouns. As Christians, churches, and other faiths, we can stop theological pathologisation of trans as somehow sinful – when in fact to be true to yourself is one of the highest forms of honesty and integrity.
Gender Identity Teaching in Primary School
As teachers, educators, and policy makers, we can make sure that “gender is taught in schools, the earlier the better”, something that I have been saying for years. I occasionally get to speak on gender in schools but never below the age of 15. Leelah was aware from 4 and convinced by 14.
Professor Stephen Whittle, OBE, should know as a trans man father of several kids, whom he and his wife and have been open about gender with. In a recent blog post he discussed how they had shared with even their 3 year old about gender being a best guess at birth subject to a child’s affirmation or change as they grow, it was simply and superbly put, and their other child’s response was “ok”:
“As the baby’s parents we make a guess – but it is only a guess. When the babies grow up, if it turns out to be the wrong guess, and either or both of them turn out to be boys, they will tell us. And then we can make the changes they would like us to make.”
Instead of only trying to eradicate homophobia and teach about homosexuality from puberty, given that gender identity is awake and aware from ages 3-8, gender “options” should be taught about earlier. I was aware by 5, yet had no language or option to discuss it and so closed up. Other studies have shown that the age of first gender realisations is 3-5, first transgender awareness on average around 7, and yet, coming out can take decades – that’s years of self-repression, often self-loathing, and, delays to and denials of being oneself – a basic human right, surely?
A basic human right that Leelah Alcorn was denied in life and in death, as she was buried and remembered by family under her male birth name in complete denial of her identity, though undeniable grief at her loss, in the main it seems due to their dogmatic evangelical faith.
If we don’t do something we will keep seeing more trans teen suicides. Indeed, in the 2 months after Leelah Alcorn took her life, at least 3 more US trans teens died from suicides and others tried but survived. These others have echoed the call for better and earlier gender education “about male and female and all the other genders”. Twitter campaigns via #HisNameWas… and #HerNameWas… have sought to affirm their names and gender in death as lasting memorials.
Marriage in Northern Ireland is still “defined as being a union between one man and one woman” says NI Christian bakery company that refused to bake a “gay” Bert and Ernie queer cake and is taking “a stand” according to a trending BBC story.
It seems that the cake request came from a volunteer LGBT activist from Belfast’s QueerSpace, as the cake design was to include their logo. QueerSpace is a “volunteer-led collective which has been serving the LGBT community of Belfast and Northern Ireland since 1998. It does this by raising LGBT visibility, supporting LGBT community activities and facilitating communication.”
The cake was designed for their event to promote the International Day Against Homophobia as can be seen in the alternatively sourced cake that features prominently in several Facebook photos.
Described by Channel 4 News as “Sesame Street’s most sexually ambiguous couple”, Bert and Ernie have long been considered possibly, if not probably, gay.
The official Sesame Workshop position is that they are just “good friends”. In a 1993 statement they issued, it said:
“Bert and Ernie, who’ve been on Sesame Street for 25 years, do not portray a gay couple, and there are no plans for them to do so in the future. They are puppets, not humans.”
CEO Gary Knell in Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years of Life on the Street, was a little more vague, hinting at sexual ambiguity as well as their sexual inability:
“They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets. They don’t exist below the waist.”
In a 2011 statement it was reiterated that they “do not have a sexual orientation”.
This didn’t stop some Christians complaining that they represented a gay couple. Reverend Joseph Chambers on his radio show, in 1994, said:
“Bert and Ernie are two grown men sharing a house and a bedroom. They share clothes, eat and cook together and have blatantly effeminate characteristics. In one show Bert teaches Ernie how to sew. In another they tend plants together. If this isn’t meant to represent a homosexual union, I can’t imagine what it’s supposed to represent.”
Eric Jacobson, in a 2011 interview for Vanity Fair, said that Bert and Ernie were more “The Odd Couple” than a gay couple, if anything they emulated the close friendship of Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
All these assertions and denials, it makes one wonder, because we all know what hides behind denial, lol! 😉
Ashers Baking Company
Ashers Baking Company and its Christian founders and directors have taken their stand based upon their religious beliefs against a customer’s request to bake a pro-equal marriage cake. Whether the gay rights activist’s order was a test and if the bakery’s Christian views were well known beforehand is not clear. What is clear, is the law. Refusal of goods or services based upon someone’s actual or perceived sexuality is an offence. The Equality Commission wrote to the bakery saying that they had discriminated against the customer on the grounds of his sexual orientation and that they had seven days to recompense and “remedy [their] illegal discrimination” or end up in court.
According to a YouTube statement the company was named after Asher, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, recorded as having “gifted bakers” in it. It runs itself on what it perceives to be Biblical guidelines, not opening on Sundays either.
General Manager, Daniel McArthur, said of the customer order that:
“The directors and myself looked at it and considered it and thought that this order was at odds with our beliefs. It certainly was at odds with what the Bible teaches, and on the following Monday we rang the customer to let him know that we couldn’t take his order.”
It was not the first time the bakery had declined orders, McArthur, said they had also refused to bake cakes containing “pornographic images and offensive vile language”. They made no direct link between gay marriage and pornography but by offering up no other examples their statement makes a less than subtle and unfortunate, if not downright offensive, connection between the morality of pornography and homosexuality to some Christians.
Rev Andy Marshall, a Church of England priest, has written a fabulous piece pointing out Ashers’ biblical failings according to Leviticus and the New Testament. I mean what is a non-bearded man doing selling pork sausage rolls and then condemning dubious Levitical laws allegedly condemning homosexuality? Not to mention not representing the love and acceptance that Jesus showed towards ‘outsiders’, the oppressed and minorities. I can imagine Jesus being more likely to storm angrily into the bakery and upset their dough wielding a “whip of cords“.
Whilst Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK not to have passed a same-sex marriage law, this particular incident depends entirely on existing legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Northern Ireland and Devolved Equality -The Equality Commission
Unlike Wales and Scotland, anti-discrimination legislation is devolved in Northern Ireland has devolved anti-discrimination legislation, what this means is that whilst Wales and Scotland fully comply with the Equality Act (2010), Northern Ireland implements it incompletely, in its own way. The Northern Ireland Assembly, rather than the Westminster Parliament, is responsible for equalities law. Sections 73, 74 and 75 of the Northern Ireland Act (1998) established the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and placed public sector bodies under an equivalent though not entirely identical to British Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED). Notably, pregnancy and gender identity/reassignement are not explicitly protected characteristics.
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has responsibility for enacting and enforcing the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2003 and the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 acts. It is the latter regulations , which came into force in 2007, which make it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of, among other things, “goods, facilities or services”.
Whilst some religious organisations in Northern Ireland are exempt from the regulations, a bakery is a business, Christian-run or not, and as such must comply.
A Defence of Religions and Political Freedoms?
The Christian Institute, which is mounting their defence, disagrees and their director, Colin Hart said:
“All the McArthurs want is to run their bakery according to their Christian beliefs. There won’t be many situations where they need to turn down an order but this is obviously one of them. No one should be forced to use their creative skills to promote a cause which goes against their consciences.”
In an interview with the Daily Telegraphthe initial story of which made front page news, Hart described this in apocalyptic terms:
“[It’s] a sign of things to come exactly as we predicted…. Now this nonsense, more usually associated with the public sector, is being applied to the private sector … This means millions of ordinary people who do not agree with gay marriage, face intimidation and the real threat of legal action from the forces of political correctness if they, out of conscience, decline to provide good or services to campaign groups they do not agree with or support. It establishes a dangerous precedent about the power of the state over an individual, or business to force them to go against their deeply held beliefs.”
Their defence will be based upon arguing that an equal marriage cake is a political campaign and that it is not discrimination to refuse to endorse a political position.
The issue has now made it to the UK Parliament with Prime Minister’s Question time (PMQs) raising the issue and David Cameron, knowing little about it, being challenged to defend religious freedom.
Burwell v Hobby Lobby Case
The case has some similarity with the recent SCOTUS (US Supreme Court) judgement on Burwell v Hobby Lobby in which despite a federal mandate to provide employee health coverage, Hobby Lobby’s owners, David and Barbara Green, refused to comply as they felt that 4 out of 20 of the health insurance registered contraceptive drugs were morning-after and week-after life terminating abortion pills, based upon their view of life beginning at conception. SCOTUS upheld their refusal by 5-4 and ruled in their favour with “important implications for over 50 pending lawsuits brought by non-profit religious organizations … also challenging the mandate”.
[An earlier version of this article first appeared here]
QueerSpace Belfast Support Gay Marriage public facebook photo
Equality Commission NI logo
India has, today, ruled in its highest court that transgender people, usually called Hijra there, will henceforth have the option to be recognised as a third gender and all forms, documents and facilities will have to provide for them as such. Whilst numbering some 2-5 million people or up to 1-in-200 of the population, they will be given minority rights, job quotas, full access to education, adoption and healthcare.
In development since 2009, and in time for India’s current elections, the Election Commission has also allowed for a third gender option, “Other”, on voting forms.
Justice KS Radhakrishnan, headed up the Supreme Court ruling and said:
“It is the right of every human being to choose their gender…Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue…The spirit of the Constitution is to provide equal opportunity to every citizen to grow and attain their potential, irrespective of caste, religion or gender.”
Anita Shenoy, lawyer for the petitioner National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) said:
“We are quite thrilled by the judgement…The court order gives legal sanctity to the third gender. The judges said the government must make sure that they have access to medical care and other facilities like separate wards in hospitals and separate toilets.”
The case demanding equal rights first came to court in 2012 initiated by a trans-activist group led by trans Hindi film star Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. She said, upon hearing the ruling:
India is the world’s largest democracy yet especially in rural areas is far from an equal society. Tripathi proclaimed that, “The progress of the country is dependent upon [the] human rights of the people and we are very happy with the judgement.”
These rights are extended to trans and or intersex people that are living in a way that is different to their birth gender and yet also allows post-op transsexuals to legally choose their gender: male, female or transgender/other. Thus both binary and non-binary individuals are able to choose their identity, it is not a category that is being forced upon them but one they have fought for.
Western trans activists should remember two things here, firstly, that hijra=trans is not an exact Western/Eastern label match. The cultural evolution of their fight for recognition comes off the back of centuries of religious, social and cultural development, in context, and against different prejudices, classes and castes. Their identity was formed in the crucible of their history. We should not, therefore, seek to impose our LGBTI rights battles on their personal and political paths, we should, however, support them in their moves to self-assert their chosen identities.
Secondly, the concept of ‘third gender’ has been sought by them, whereas many in the West oppose that concept and fear its use in a 1930s anti-Semitic way to categorise and potentially segregate trans people as if with some kind of yellow star (Jews) or pink triangle (homosexuals).
Trans masculine identities in India
“If trans people are a minority with almost no rights in this country [India], transmen are a minority within that minority.” Just as “there are hijras, kinnars, mangalamukhis, aravanis, kothis, jogappas, shiv shaktis among trans women as identities, there is a wide range of trans masculine expressions”, says an Indian transman, one of 74 that co-signed a letter to the Indian Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, “We have many names to identify ourselves like bhaiya, thirunambi, gandabasaka, babu, ftm, trans man etc. For an umbrella term, to refer to us in all our diversity, we would like the use of the term, trans masculine. We do not identify with PAGFB [Persons Assigned Gender Female at Birth] which is what is being used in reports and meetings here to describe our identities. We strongly urge you to refer to us by identities that we assume, not ones that are imposed on us without due democratic discussions and consent.”
Another “term for FTM in Hindi is Sadhin“. Last November, an Indian trans man fled the country after being ‘outed’ by the media and sought asylum in the UK. This was before this week’s more positive news for trans rights. Although more sparse, trans masculine support does exist in India, but they have a lower profile in society, media and rights activism.
[The above section of this post has been reblogged many times including on several transmen Tumblr blogs – read the comments and reposts there for more thoughts]
LGB Gay Rights in India
Meanwhile, LGB rights of India’s gays, lesbians and bisexuals, are still behind the times though, having recently restored an old British colonial law banning homosexual activity. India has granted these historical Hijra rights, yet still bans gay sex in a logical anomaly. How is gay sex to be defined now there are three genders? If a newly defined Hijra/Third Gender has sex with a man is it gay or straight sex? If a Hijra has sex with another Hijra is that homosexual?
Trans rights in Pakistan
Back in 2011 after actions that began in 2009 Pakistan granted “third gender” status and improved rights to trans people, for example on national identity cards, employment and inheritance rights. Whilst many Hijra end up begging, wedding dancing or in prostitution, Pakistan has been enterprising in employing them as official agents pursuing tax evaders. Apparently, recovery rates are up 15%!
LGBT rights in Nepal
Thirteen years ago Nepal’s LGBT activists initiated a campaign for full LGBT equality, which resulted in a landmark decision in 2007 but which took another 5-6 years for full implementation of trans equality. The court decision ordered the then government to scrap all laws that discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and “that they study and implement a same-sex marriage policy, and that citizens be allowed to self-identify as a third gender on all official documents and registers.”
Nepalese activists have urged the government to use the word “other” rather than “third gender” or “trans” as a “more inclusive” term that allows full “self-identification”.
Trans rights in Bangladesh
Last year, Bangladesh also granted third gender rights and recognition to Hijras – a term in Bangladesh adopted by 10,000+ people including many male-to-female presenting individuals and some intersex persons. Cabinet Secretary Muhammad Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan said: “They will be referred to as hijras in both English and Bangla. Any other translations to English would be misleading.”
Non-Western Trans terminology
Across India, South and Southeast Asia numerous terms describe gender non-conforming people in ways which, because of cultural, historical and religious differences, are not totally synonymous with Western usage of trans terminology. For example in Thailand and, Cambodia, they are called, Kathoey, elsewhere the most common term is Hijra, but we also find Aravani, Aruvani, Jagappa, or Chhakka (Kannada), Bambaiya (Hindi), Khusra (Punjabi) and Kojja (Telugu). In Pakistan, terms include Khwaaja sira, Khusra (trans), Zenana (crossdresser) and Narnban (eunuch).
Polynesian Samoa has its Fa’afafine, Tonga its Fakaleiti, and Hawaii and Tahiti their Mahu. Both fa’a- and faka- are prefixes meaning “like a” or “in the manner of” and fafine and leiti mean ‘woman’ or ‘lady’. On the surface, therefore, they would pass as the prefix trans- before woman, but Western legal, political and cultural transgender terminology should not be imposed on their cultural-historical usage of the terms.
Native Americas traditions
Numerous indigenous Native American tribes had gender options outside the seemingly conventional Western binary. Berdache was a term meaning effeminate male used by Westerners of some tribal members encountered. More recently, the preferred term is Two-spirit, but some tribes went beyond three to several gender expressions, roles and identities. The Mohave Indians had the terms Alyha (Male-born) and Hwame (Female-born) for their Two-spirit identities. “Two-spirit natives comprised a distinct social class within most of these tribal communities; for example, among the Hidatsa of the northern Plains, two-spirits were observed at no less than fifteen to twenty a village and typically pitched their tipis together in a group.”
Similarly, among southern Mexico’s Zapotec there were the Muxe/Muxhe possibly a variant of the Spanish word for woman, mujer, describing people born male but who behaved as female in role, dress or sexuality. Because the word described effeminacy across gender or sexuality it accounted for some 6% of the population in some studies.
Modern Western/Antipodean/Americas Gender Identification
Argentina, Australia and New Zealand all allow passports to be stamped with the full range of internationally allowable options: Gender – | M | F | X |. Despite it being explored and to some extent encouraged by the Liberal Democrats, the UK Passport and Identity Service seems to have mothballed any likely change in Great Britain. Although as of June 2014 it has now been tabled for another Early Day Motion in Parliament, though is perhaps unlikely to reach debate stages.
In Europe, Germany has recently allowed “other” as a temporary designation on birth certificates to allow families to delay decisions on children born with intersex differences. The Netherlands are considering a third category to protect trans people during transition.
All gender designation is ultimately sexism. However, in an imperfect and unequal world some level of gender designation for protection can benefit in the here and now. Ideally gender neutral bathrooms would be the norm, but how to protect the vulnerable? The sooner all nations accept fully equal sexual relations, parenting and marriage between two or more persons of any gender, the sooner we can dispense with legal gender designation.
More important than third or more genders, reinforcing the binary, opposing the binary, gender sexism, is the simple inalienable human right to self-identify. Restricting identification, whether legally or culturally, to just two genders goes against human respect and rights especially when medically there are dozens of conditions that can make typical birth-sex identification impossible, quite apart from gender identity issues and/or gender non-conformity. Celebrate diversity and difference and the right to self-identify, as Radhakrishnan has said: “It is the right of every human being to choose their gender” – and that includes “Other” and “None”, in my opinion.
This post is an extended edited version of an article that first appeared here.