On International Women’s Day the other Wachowski sibling, Andy – until yesterday, has also, like Lana, come out as transgender under the name Lilly. She had prepared for this moment, but also seems to have been pushed by a Daily Mail journalist – now that bit isn’t news or surprising, although it is denied by the newspaper who claimed to be “courteous at all times” and “baffled” by the accusation. It is sad and intrusive. It is more invasive than investigative journalism. It’s also dangerous and unethical, like ‘outing’ someone in a witness protection program because of the high rates of trans suicide – almost 50%. The Mail has distanced itself and defended accusations that it ‘outed’ or hounded trans teacher Lucy Meadows, as quoted by Lilly in her statement below.
Lana had been transitioning during the 2000s but first went public in 2012 when she revealed that she too had considered suicide in her teens because of her gender identity.
Gender binary – Two little boxes
Lilly describes the enforced binariness of gender as oppressive and a false idol:
“Being transgender is not easy. We live in a majority-enforced gender binary world. This means when you’re transgender you have to face the hard reality of living the rest of your life in a world that is openly hostile to you.”
“But these words, “transgender” and “transitioned” are hard for me because they both have lost their complexity in their assimilation into the mainstream. There is a lack of nuance of time and space. To be transgender is something largely understood as existing within the dogmatic terminus of male or female. And to “transition” imparts a sense of immediacy, a before and after from one terminus to another. But the reality, my reality is that I’ve been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol.”
Lana wanted to “transcend the limitations of two little boxes” and the flat-earth pseudo-simplicity of binary bathrooms and their policing:
“I see few things as beautiful as my community and all the miraculous ways we transcend the limitations of two little boxes, blurring and even erasing the distinctions that legitimize and support the belief in all equalities of gender… I understand. I really do. I know how important these rules and regulations, these binary bathrooms are to your understanding of the world…” – Lana Wachowski, at Equality Illinois 2014 Gala, accepting Freedom Award
Without putting words into their mouths, I think it is safe to say they are both ‘out’ as not only transgender but have left the binary gender matrix behind too.
Take the pill, leave the Matrix
The Wachowskis’ ground breaking films are both escapist and challenging. Lana says that what they were trying to achieve in the Matrix trilogy was:
“…a shift, the same kind of shift that happens for Neo, that Neo goes from being in this sort of cocooned and programmed world, to having to participate in the construction of meaning to his life. And we were like, ‘Well, can the audience go through the three movies and experience something similar to what the main character experiences?’ So the first movie is sort of typical in its approach. The second movie is deconstructionist, and it assaults all of the things that you thought to be true in the first movie, and so people get very upset, and they’re like ‘Stop attacking me!’ in the same way that people get upset with deconstructionist philosophy. I mean, Derrida and Foucault, these people upset us. And then the third movie is the most ambiguous, because it asks you to actually participate in the construction of meaning.” — Lana Wachowski,Movie City News, October 13, 2012
Red Pill, Blue Pill
The Red Pill represents reality, often raw and painful, whilst the Blue Pill is the illusion, the delusional space we inhabit to avoid confronting reality:
“After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” – Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)
A decade ago, one of the first trans* (explicitly a male crossdresser) autobiographies I read was called Alice in Genderland by Richard Novic, MD – yes he is a Doctor, psychiatrist and psychotherapist. He describes his gender journey as like falling “headlong down a rabbit hole”, like Alice.
Other Worldly Queerness
Lilly also quotes from José Esteban Muñoz’s writings on queerness:
“Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world.” – José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009)
Several of the Wachowskis’ films including Jupiter Ascending have been about other worlds. Their private worlds have now been shattered and they are now both in the public domain, but I hope their ongoing transitioning(s) are respected and lauded, not hounded and sensationalised.
Lilly Wachowski’s full statement
Lilly Wachowski‘s statement in her own words to Chicago’s LGBT paper the Windy City Times:
“SEX CHANGE SHOCKER—WACHOWSKI BROTHERS NOW SISTERS!!!”
There’s the headline I’ve been waiting for this past year. Up until now with dread and/or eye rolling exasperation. The “news” has almost come out a couple of times. Each was preceded by an ominous email from my agent—reporters have been asking for statements regarding the “Andy Wachowski gender transition” story they were about to publish. In response to this threatened public outing against my will, I had a prepared a statement that was one part piss, one part vinegar and 12 parts gasoline.
It had a lot of politically relevant insights regarding the dangers of outing trans people, and the statistical horrors of transgender suicide and murder rates. Not to mention a slightly sarcastic wrap-up that “revealed” my father had injected praying mantis blood into his paternal ball-sac before conceiving each of his children to produce a brood of super women, hellbent on female domination. Okay, mega sarcastic.
But it didn’t happen. The editors of these publications didn’t print a story that was only salacious in substance and could possibly have a potentially fatal effect. And being the optimist that I am, I was happy to chalk it up to progress.
Then last night while getting ready to go out for dinner my doorbell rang. Standing on my front porch was a man I did not recognize.
“This might be a little awkward,” he said in an English accent.
I remember sighing.
Sometimes it’s really tough work to be an optimist.
He proceeded to explain he was a journalist from the Daily Mail, which was the largest news service in the UK and was most definitely not a tabloid. And that I really had to sit down with him tomorrow or the next day or next week so that I could have my picture taken and tell my story which was so inspirational! And that I really didn’t want to have someone from the National Enquirer following me around, did I? BTW—The Daily Mail is so definitely not a tabloid.
My sister Lana and I have largely avoided the press. I find talking about my art frustratingly tedious and talking about myself a wholly mortifying experience. I knew at some point I would have to come out publicly. You know, when you’re living as an out transgender person it’s … kind of difficult to hide. I just wanted—needed some time to get my head right, to feel comfortable.
But apparently I don’t get to decide this.
After he had given me his card, and I closed the door it began to dawn on me where I had heard of the Daily Mail. It was the “news” organization that had played a huge part in the national public outing of Lucy Meadows, an elementary school teacher and trans woman in the UK. An editorial in the “not-a-tabloid” demonized her as a damaging influence on the children’s delicate innocence and summarized “he’s not only trapped in the wrong body, he’s in the wrong job.” The reason I knew about her wasn’t because she was transgender it was because three months after the Daily Mail article came out, Lucy committed suicide.
And now here they were, at my front door, almost as if to say—
“There’s another one! Let’s drag ’em out in the open so we can all have a look!”
Being transgender is not easy. We live in a majority-enforced gender binary world. This means when you’re transgender you have to face the hard reality of living the rest of your life in a world that is openly hostile to you.
I am one of the lucky ones. Having the support of my family and the means to afford doctors and therapists has given me the chance to actually survive this process. Transgender people without support, means and privilege do not have this luxury. And many do not survive. In 2015, the transgender murder rate hit an all-time high in this country. A horrifying disproportionate number of the victims were trans women of color. These are only the recorded homicides so, since trans people do not all fit in the tidy gender binary statistics of murder rates, it means the actual numbers are higher.
And though we have come a long way since Silence of the Lambs, we continue to be demonized and vilified in the media where attack ads portray us as potential predators to keep us from even using the goddamn bathroom. The so-called bathroom bills that are popping up all over this country do not keep children safe, they force trans people into using bathrooms where they can be beaten and or murdered. We are not predators, we are prey.
So yeah, I’m transgender.
And yeah, I’ve transitioned.
I’m out to my friends and family. Most people at work know too. Everyone is cool with it. Yes, thanks to my fabulous sister they’ve done it before, but also because they’re fantastic people. Without the love and support of my wife and friends and family I would not be where I am today.
But these words, “transgender” and “transitioned” are hard for me because they both have lost their complexity in their assimilation into the mainstream. There is a lack of nuance of time and space. To be transgender is something largely understood as existing within the dogmatic terminus of male or female. And to “transition” imparts a sense of immediacy, a before and after from one terminus to another. But the reality, my reality is that I’ve been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol.
Now, gender theory and queer theory hurt my tiny brain. The combinations of words, like freeform jazz, clang disjointed and discordant in my ears. I long for understanding of queer and gender theory but it’s a struggle as is the struggle for understanding of my own identity. I have a quote in my office though by José Muñoz given to me by a good friend. I stare at it in contemplation sometimes trying to decipher its meaning but the last sentence resonates:
“Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world.”
So I will continue to be an optimist adding my shoulder to the Sisyphean struggle of progress and in my very being, be an example of the potentiality of another world.
“reacting to a changing society which recognises that some children have gender dysphoria and do not wish to lose their emotional gender identities at school.”
Trans Education & Tolerance Needed
Increased education of trans and gender variant issues needs to follow, especially in younger years where up to half of all schools are still ignorant of issues. Calls for the PSHE curriculum to teach about transgender and non-binary awareness are regularly sounded and it may be that after the recent evidence-based trans enquiry the Government is finally listening.
A conservative estimate of transgender prevalence would suggest that around 10 pupils or more at the 900-student school might identify as trans and potentially even more as non-binary. The number ‘out’ within the school would depend upon the age of ‘coming out’ and the safety to do so at school. Up to 48% of trans teens attempt to take their own lives, and around 80% consider suicide. Around 80 primary school pupils a year are taking gender transition further and seeking the help of NHS services such as the Tavistock and Portman Gender Clinic.
“People say that schools should be tolerant places but I think that we are more than that. We encourage everyone and anyone to be who they are or who they want to be. I am really proud that I have been educated in a school where there is no concept of the norm, of conformity and of the expected way to be. Everyone has supported this move and I think that there is a real sense of unity, from the headmaster to the youngest 3rd former, about this idea. I also know that students who are gender fluid or for any reason, decide to change the uniform that they wear, will be accepted, supported and encouraged by the whole school.” – Headmaster Richard Cairns
Abolishing Gender Distinctions
Whilst its headmaster would love to see “the notion of boys’ and girl’ schools abolished altogether” having a uniform policy that covers the needs and requirements of any pupil including transgender and gender-fluid is a major step forward in equality and diversity.
Pupils can now opt for a skirt and jacket or trouser and blazer combo, which is not explicitly tied to gender. At least one pupil has taken the college up on the offer and other families have expressed interest in the school’s new policy.
“It ties in with my strong personal belief that youngsters should be respected for who they are. If some boys and girls are happier identifying with a different gender from that in which they were born, then my job is to make sure that we accommodate that. My only interest as headmaster is their welfare and happiness.” – Headmaster Richard Cairns
Whilst Head Master, Richard Cairns, was named “England’s Headmaster of the Year” by Tatler magazine in September 2012, he has recently come under fire for suggesting that single-sex education, particularly girls’ schools, puts them at a disadvantage and is “unrealistic”. He argues that co-educational environments benefit boys and girls providing a gentler, more tolerant, atmosphere. If tolerating a more flexible uniform policy increases the freedom of trans and genderqueer pupils to be themselves, then it is to everyone’s benefit. Indeed, for trans people being in a single-sex school is an additional layer of hell they have to endure, as social transition is nigh on impossible.
There is so much one could say about fear, one could write a book about it, indeed one is. So often fear runs, if not ruins, our lives. It did mine for 40 years. Learning to embrace fear, take the risks anyway, and have a walk on the wild side, was in part down to being ‘outed’ and then choosing to stay ‘out’ rather than retreat back into the closet of fear and self-loathing. I’ve been told I was lucky to be outed rather than face the fear of coming out! You learn to swim or run quickly when thrown to the sharks or wolves.
“fear is not something that I let rule my life, but gratitude is.” – Lana Wachowski
Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway
One of the most powerful books I’ve never read was the above titled volume by Susan Jeffers. Well I got as far as reading the front cover and never looked back. Nine years ago, in therapy, I paid approximately £15 a word to hear from my therapist at the end of each hour the two words, “Why not?” I spent each hour in fear and not a small amount of self-loathing, she responded, in essence, with “do it anyway”. Feed the fear – and you’ll end up paralysed and do nothing at all.
“The way to develop self-confidence is to do the thing you fear.” – William Jennings Bryan
The Power of Now
Eckhart Tolle’s book was also influential and similarly unfinished-unread. My ‘now’ took years to find and only a moment to nearly kill off. It took all my courage to attempt suicide nearly 4 years ago. I was “in the moment” and exhausted of surviving not thriving. Each day it took all my energy just to keep going. Albert Camus wrote that:
“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” – Albert Camus
I’d given up trying to be normal, I had no energy left for the mask, vulnerability was easy, I had no defences left, and only one last resort.
Walk on the Wild Side
In 2015 Lou Reed was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a second time as a solo artist, the first time was as part of Velvet Underground. It was also the year that the “he [who] was a she” from his most well known Grammy Hall of Fame song -“Walk on the Wild Side“, Holly Woodlawn, died. From the appropriately named album, Transformer (1972), produced by David Bowie the song literally walked on the wild side, risking public outcry and censorship by referring to taboo topics such as transsexuality, male prostitution, colour and oral sex. Whilst British censors missed the references or ignored them, the US released an edited version of the single minus the oral sex reference. I want to live an unedited life!
Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.
Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She says, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’
He said, ‘Hey honey, take a walk on the wild side’
Candy came from out on the island
In the backroom she was everybody’s darlin’
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’
He said, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’
The lyrics describe several of the colourful individuals who frequented Andy Warhol’s New York studio including transwomen and actresses Holly Woodlawn (who died this month after appearing as Vivian in two episodes of the Amazon television drama series Transparent about a family with a transgender father), Candy Darling (d.1974 aged 29), and Jackie Curtis (d.1985 aged 38). Warhol was an inspiration and mentor to Reed.
The title “Walk on the Wild Side” comes from a 1956 novel by Nelson Algren of which, he remarked:
“The book asks why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives.”
The New York Times Book Review said of it: “His hell burns with passion for heaven.” It was also the source of Algren’s “three rules of life“:
“Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”
Rules to live by: Don’t be afraid of anyone
Lou Reed’s widow of a 21-year relationship and musician in her own right, Laurie Anderson, gave a speech on his behalf this year and quoted their three rules to live by:
Don’t be afraid of anyone
Get a good bullshit detector
Be really tender
“One. Don’t be afraid of anyone. Now, can you imagine living your life afraid of no one? Two. Get a really good bullshit detector. And three. Three is be really, really tender. And with those three things, you don’t need anything else.”
The Cat in the Hat, Dr Seuss
So much irreverent wisdom comes from Dr Seuss, not the least of which is this:
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” – Dr. Seuss
The most important bit of which is “be who you are“, sometimes “saying what you feel” can be worth some discretion and discernment. A past girlfriend taught me a lot about authenticity and learning to be myself has been the best journey of my life, and I’ve travelled extensively, and not without the odd international incident in the Middle East and Africa!
Whilst mid-life crises often afflict us in our forties, it is said that life begins at fifty. “A massive 92% of women in their 50s say they’re happier than they’ve ever been“. At 50, we’re over halfway and have learned hopefully to let go of the things that held us back thus far. For me, having led a double life until 40, it feels like I’m having a second bite of the cherry. If football is a game of two halves, then I’m in the mid-match break about to kick-off the second half.
“What would you be like if you were the only person in the world? If you want to be truly happy you must be that person.” – Quentin Crisp
New Year’s Resolution, New Me
I turn 49 in 2016, I’ll have been on female hormones (my male ones never worked anyway) for 6 years and I’ve finally plucked up the courage to go under the knife (6 Feb 2016) for what some would erroneously call cosmetic surgery – for many trans people, it’s life saving surgery. It’s actually a labioplasty not the usually requested vaginoplasty, and it’s probably not for the reasons one may suspect.
It’s more about a letting go of something than gaining anything new. But it’s the letting go, that was holding me back, leaving me in a literal “no man’s land” limbo the last decade.
One of my several psychiatrists (I’ve been married to one, and had four, along with a couple of psychologists) once said to me:
“You are the most reluctant transsexual I’ve ever met!”
I’ve tried everything from Christian deliverance and healing, denial, suicide, to sex and body workshops, self-development work, and yet more therapy and therapists, to avoid being me. I’m not expecting surgery to change me, rather to free myself up from some unnecessary encumbrances, literally! I dealt with the emotional baggage some time ago, now for the physical baggage. I expect to be travelling lighter from now on.
3 Rules of Life: Be Real, Be You, Be Free
“Sorry for being me but I have great difficulty being anybody else” – Spike Milligan
As Oscar Wilde never said, instead it appears to have been some millennial advertising slogan, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken”. What Oscar did say was:
“One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead” (1882)
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” (1890)
Well, I tried the mask and he lied. Dropping the public persona and allowing the vulnerable inner me to step out and lead my real life. It has been undeniably scary but a ride nonetheless, and the journey is only just beginning. 2015 feels like it is the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end of my old life. 2016 will allow me to move forward with a bit less of my body and a whole lot more of me.
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.
It is with great sadness, therefore, that I’ve seen reports of yet more trans suicides in America, not dissimilar to Leelah Alcorn who took her life at the end of 2014. That at least three trans teens took their lives, in the US alone, during February, is a measure of how far LGBT education still has to go.
Another 13 year old trans boy, Damien Strum, ended up in a psych ward after also trying to take his life. Although the facts surrounding this particular teen are somewhat hard to confirm and any privacy should be respected.
On Instagram, Damien had shared, like Leelah Alcorn had, about wanting schools to provide better gender education “of all the other genders”. Leelah has said, “Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better“.
A blog post entitled “Let Him Dance” is subtitled “Protecting Gender Expansive Youth” and encourages us that:
“We need to stop viewing gender as a binary, because some young people don’t have those easy answers, and they deserve to feel safe and confident in themselves and the people around them. No matter what. Gender is a spectrum. It’s not black and white. There is no ‘opposite’ gender; the binary concept fails to capture the rich variation that exists within gender identity…Every single young person who is fighting to define themselves — trans kids, queer kids, gender fluid kids — need to be protected. They need to belong.”
Over LGBT History Month I had several opportunities to speak in schools, a university and elsewhere educating and raising awareness of LGBTIQ experiences. I especially drew attention to young people’s LGBTQ identities, often asexual, bisexual, genderfluid and outside the binary or with newer MOGAI (Minority Orientations Genders and Intersex) labels that many older gay, lesbian and trans people might struggle to recognise – indeed, I had to research many of them myself.
“I need to know that I am loved and accepted and believed in, and that life has a point and I will find it someday. That’s just getting harder and harder to believe.” — A gender-expansive youth documented by Human Rights Campaign
Zander Nicholas Mahaffey, 15, Georgia
Zander, born Sandra, by his own admission, was a young trans teen, male identified, so a boy. He was just 5’2″ in height and that bothered him. As with many young queer tumblr generation teens he was clued up on his self-identified labels, describing himself as “panromantic-asexual”:
“my name’s zander. I’m trans and here to win. 15|He/Him|GA|♓”
Tumblr Suicide Note
If you’re still reading this it’s probably too late for a trigger warning about suicide (not to mention sexual assault). Having attempted to take my own life on more than one occasion I’ve no problem reading about this, and see writing and talking about it as essential, not something to avoid, but I understand that it can be triggering for some, more often than not the siblings and families left behind.
That said, what follows is some parts of Zander’s suicide note, that like Leelah Alcorn’s was timed for a delayed tumblr release:
“I don’t know why I’m writing this now, it just feels like a good time. I’ve kept holding off from doing this since it’s probably gonna be long. It’s surreal right? And if I publish this (or don’t delete it from my queue, I should say) then that means I’m dead.”
“Dad, I’m sorry but your “little girl” isn’t a little girl. I’m a boy, in my heart. And no, that doesn’t mean I want to play football.”
Apart from gender dysphoria, a lot of Zander’s pain seems to stem from a known person sexual assault and family psychological abuse that he describes.
He left behind several messages for friends and romantic partners, telling them they weren’t to blame. In amongst one such note, he wrote:
“I’m weak, I’m battered and bruised and I’m tired of fighting.”
I know that feeling. Sometimes suicide is not about the sum total of life to date, but the last straw, the exhaustion of struggling to survive another day, with no let up in both internal feelings and external circumstances. Often, it is no single thing, but a combination of factors, and a feeling of powerlessness to change them and the solitude of facing them alone.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough, that I gave up. But I just couldn’t, I couldn’t take it anymore. I am a hypocrite, I’ve talked many of people out of suicide before but yet here I am. Or, here I was.
I’m not noble, I’m not really trying to make this mean something huge. I’m just a coward who wanted to cut my strings and be free from my troubles. Here marks the end of Zander, a meme enthusiast and, friend? I guess.
I can’t say I’m not a little bit afraid of dying, but we all are. It’s the fear of the unknown. Perhaps there is another world waiting for me, perhaps I will be reborn into something, or maybe I’ll just stop existing. Maybe I would be a ghost that would be cool don’t you think? I have no clue, like with everything else in my life I’ll just wing it.
So this is the end? I’m over 3,000 words now. Time will go on, hopefully no one will be too bothered from me for too long. Just continue as you normally would be, that is what I want.
I’m selfish, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry that I only think about myself in this situation. I know there’s going to be people hurt and devastated by this. And I’m so, so, sorry about that. I don’t know what else to say. I’m just so tired, I’m so tired and I just want to go to sleep.”
I recognise so many of those feelings, as much as suicide helplines exist, empathic Samaritans, even closest friends are out there, the darkness of dysphoric depression, ache of social anxieties, are best understood by those that have been there. Family and domestic and sexual violence issues are something more broadly faced and understood. But nobody can be there for you 24/7 – and if anybody is, it would probably be your family, not much help if they are part of the problem and not part of the solution.
The American Institute for Suicide Prevention found that 46% of trans men and 42% of trans women have attempted to take their own lives. Furthermore, 57% of transgender people were found to have been denied and excluded by family members. 50-54% experienced bullying in school.
In the UK 48% of trans people under 26 attempt suicide (2014) and some 43% in Canada (2012).
Whilst Leelah Alcorn found herself misgendered in death by close family, the funeral service, school and some news media outlets, a more aware Zander had probably learned from her situation and thus writes to two friends, Gabby and Katie:
“I want to ask of you both (especially you, Gabby) is to make sure if there are any memorials for me I want you both to make sure my right name and pronouns are used.”
Sadly, but not unsurprisingly, the family chose to use birth names and pronouns in the funeral and tombstone arrangements, as confirmed by a teenage friend present at the funeral. It seems supportive families of trans children are still the exception not the rule.
In response thousands took to twitter with the hashtag campaign #HisNameWasZander. Friends and supporters also put together a memorial blog on tumblr.
Melonie Rose, 19, Maryland
Also last month, Melonie Rose, aged 19, a transwoman of colour, took her own life. Rather than rewrite what someone has written so well already, check out Dominick Evans’s report here. Dominick is a trans man and friend of Hunter, another trans man friend of Melonie’s, from whom much of the information about her life, death and misgendered memorial are drawn. #HerNameWasMelonie
Ash Haffner, 16, North Carolina
After years of bullying, particularly after cutting his hair short and changing his name legally to that of his male gender identity, 16-year-old Ash Haffner stepped into traffic, like Leelah Alcorn, and ended his life on 26 February.
Ash’s mother told WSOC-TV that “Ash started enduring the most bullying when she cut her hair short.”
Whilst his mother was supportive of his transition she admitted to struggling with pronouns and still called him ‘she’ but did refer to him as Ash rather than by his birth name of Ashlyn.
“Please be WHO YOU ARE… Do it for yourself. Do it for your happiness. That’s what matters in YOUR life. You don’t need approval on who you are. Don’t let people or society change who you are just because they’re not satisfied with your image.”
Some people have warned of the risk of copycat suicides and suicide clusters but more worrying is the similarity of lived experiences of transphobia and family struggles to accept – conquering these, “fixing society” as Leelah Alcorn called for, would bypass any likelihood of contagious exit strategies.
Research on the possible factors leading to multiple suicide events has concluded that it is not media coverage in general but certain specific elements, which the Washington Post has reported on here, although calling it a suicide epidemic is unnecessarily alarmist.
The focus should be on creating supportive environments at home, school and in society, not creating a blame culture on social media – the very place that is often the only place some trans teens can go to for support – although it can often be a place of online bullying too.
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.
“Ross” is a short video telling of the trials of being an FTM teen in a school and family environment.
Gender identity can be a matter of life and death, not an academic gender critical ideology, but a real lived – and sometimes died, gender dysphoria. #TransLivesMatter
Helplines in the USA
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Project Lifeline: 1-866-488-7386
Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860
Historically, during the UK’s LGBT History Month, Stonewall (England and Wales) has announced that after months of meetings and “extensive consultation with over 700 trans people” that it will now actively campaign for trans rights and educate across the whole of LGBT.
“This change marks a significant moment in Stonewall’s history…This is an exciting but huge undertaking – we recognise that we are not instant experts, and will work closely with the trans community to achieve real change for LGBT people.” – Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall
Just as Stonewall plays historic catch-up and apology, others are debating the inclusion of more letters in the LGBT alphabet soup. So it was good that Stonewall also had engagements, one of which I was present at, with people who are intersex and/or non-binary, whether they identified as trans or not.
Ruth said: “We recognise that there is no universal experience of being trans”, so it is good that the trans* spectrum rather than stereotype is being explored.
At present, intersex inclusion is some way off, but engagement continues to take place, and Stonewall will help facilitate intersex campaigners and ensure that it itself says nothing about intersex without reference to UK intersex organisations and individuals first.
Another long standing grievance with Stonewall has been bisexual silence and thus tacit erasure. This too, has been addressed this month, with more conclusions to follow.
“Stonewall no longer needs to maintain a strict distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity….[but] we would have to work hard to make sure that people understood the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation.”
In an interview with PinkNews, to be published later today, Ms Hunt said:
“I am absolutely committed to creating a world through Stonewall where everyone has the right to be themselves, where everyone can be who they want to be, and I think that the artificial divide between trans and sexual orientation hasn’t been particularly helpful in the kind of disagreements that we have had, so I wanted to move it forward.”
LGBT, Bullying, Education and Schools
Perhaps, now, with Stonewall’s help weighing in on Government and education, we might see an improvement to sex education and anti-bullying training and measures that are inclusive of trans and gender non-conforming individuals, and not just homophobic bullying awareness. Indeed, anti-transphobic bullying campaigns and education about gender dysphoria needs to take place at an age before even sexual orientation becomes an issue, since gender identity is often felt by age 7.
Responses to the news
Meanwhile, some in the gay and lesbian communities have questioned the addition of trans. For instance, in the Pink News article comments:
“I’ve just cancelled my monthly donation to Stonewall as it’s clear they now have more money that they need. Gender and sexual orientation are wholly different.” – Steve
Other leading gay and lesbian figures including Paul Burston and Julie Bindel have previously commented that they can’t see the need of campaigning and including trans, and that at best lesbian and gay should stick together or indeed also work independently of each other. They regard LGBT as a letter too far and any other letters beyond that as weird and ridiculous.
Divided we fall, united we stand
Many of these changes are down to the hard work and great mediating of CEO, Ruth Hunt, who made these engagements a prerequisite of taking on the job after Ben Summerskill stepped down. She spoke to the Guardian on the first day of that new job:
“We are at quite an important tipping point in terms of trans equality, and we are looking at how we can best support and maximise that tipping point… Any change needs to be led by the trans community… we are very open to taking whatever direction will be in the best interest of [that] community” – Ruth Hunt
In just over 6 months she has begun the fulfilment of those promises, and today is indeed historical – but never needed to have been. Trans were among the first participants in LGBT rights and demonstrations since the Stonewall Inn riots, but were sidelined and erased from early gay rights history. Correcting that now, is long overdue, but nonetheless appreciated.
“This change marks a significant moment in Stonewall’s history. As a community we can achieve much more by standing together.“ – Ruth Hunt
This is very definitely a step forward and step away from the past. Some historic grievances may have to be laid to rest and a trans/bi-Stonewall amnesty declared to see this as a good thing for all, particularly as Stonewall are a narrow remit organisation involved in education, government and business equality monitoring and lobbying, not a support organisation or legal advocacy one, thus there is plenty of room for grassroots trans organisations to continue the great work they are doing.
Free Speech or Hate Speech?
This comes at a crucial time in the UK since twitter storms, blogs and facebook arguments are raging over trans rights to self-identify and the question of whether it’s free speech or hate speech to question that right and trans access to cis-gender spaces. (‘cis’ means non-trans, and is not a word I personally like, nor is accepted by many ‘cis people’ who simply consider themselves non-trans and comfortable with their birth sex identity.)
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.
Third/Non-Gender passport options could be debated in the UK Parliament following a lengthy campaign by people outside the male-female gender binary who feel erased and discriminated against.
[UPDATE – Government “considering” changes to gender identity laws, passport and driving licence changes. Maria Miller, chair of the Commons Women and Equalities committee, said a person’s sex was “not relevant” on official documents, and it created an “unconscious bias” in job applications. Gender details on passports also do not assist with identification, she added. The committee will publish a report on transgender discrimination in January 2016. In an interview with The Times, Miller said gender stereotyping can be as “damaging” for men as women.]
A motion was tabled yesterday (5 June 2014) in the UK Parliament to allow non-binary M/F passport gender markers in the UK, to aid those that identify as non-gender, non-binary, agender, bigender, or intergender – or simply hate gender construct labels. The internationally allowed X marker already allows this, not as some compulsory trans or third gender marker which could be used to reduce people’s rights as citizens, but as a self-selected optional marker for those that feel they do not fit the only 2 options given in UK and most nation’s passports. Australia and New Zealand accept the non-gender specific X passport as do India, Nepal and Pakistan. Canada is debating change; Malaysia are allegedly considering removing gender from all passports. Argentina makes switching between Male & Female easy, without legal-medical requirements for trans, intersex, genderqueer, or anyone else for that matter – a move, it has been announced, that Denmark looks set to follow.
This motion is essentially a re-tabling of previous attempts, but taking advantage of a new Parliamentary session – it will need hundreds of signatures to even trigger a full debate.
“Although there is very little prospect of EDMs being debated, many attract a great deal of public interest and frequently receive media coverage … In an average session only six or seven EDMs reach over two hundred signatures. Around seventy or eighty get over one hundred signatures. The majority will attract only one or two signatures. An EDM is not likely to be debated even if it gains a large number of signatures.” Parliament.uk
The move follows LibDem sponsored Government reviews into this since 2011, and yet progress had stalled. The new early day motion has been sponsored by Julian Huppert (LibDem) and is supported by Jeremy Corbyn (Labour). Non-gendered Christie Elan-cane has long fought for non-gendered passports and had her case taken up by MPs such as David Blunkett (Lab), Liberal Democrat MPs Lynne Featherstone and Simon Hughes and Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP.
Some of the last 3 years’ history on this has been blogged about here.
One might think that just two options M/F on passports prejudices just trans, intersex and genderqueer people but if part of a family then gay, lesbian and trans are also affected as the designated parents on child passports. Some countries, including the US have thus adopted gender-neutral parenting option on children’s passports, not mother/father but parent 1/parent 2.
The words “mother” and “father” were being removed from American passport applications and replaced with gender neutral terminology, the US State Department said in 2011. The UK and Australia were said to be following suit.
Legal documents that reflect a person’s gender – or non-gender identity are a basic human right. Denying them, restricts, travel, identification, and citizen rights such as voting or access to welfare benefits.
“The denial of existence is the worst act of discrimination by the gendered majority against the non-gendered“ – Christie Elan-Cane
Elan-Cane prefers ‘per’ in place of him or her and the honorific title Pr, short for Person, neither Mr nor Ms. Shouldn’t we all be entitled to be seen as persons first, and not primarily gendered categories?
Facebook now has some 50+ gender options, why do we need any on official documentation? The military does not use gender as a means of identification, just name and rank. Height, eyes, and finger prints should be sufficient on biometric passports. Gender, race and identifying marks are invasive, insufficient and inappropriate. Nationality, for the sake of legal travel rights and repatriation. But I cannot see how gender matters.
[An early version of this article first appeared here.]
Update on “X” Gender not specified UK Passports
During the current April-May 2015 General Election campaign, several parties, initially just the Greens and LibDems, but now both Ed Miliband (Labour) and David Cameron (Conservative) have pledged to re-examine X-Gender passports:
“The Conservative leader also said he would consider following Australia and New Zealand in introducing ‘Gender X’ passports for people who do not identify as male or female – after Ed Miliband also pledged to review the issue in his PinkNews Q&A“
IDAHO day, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia
May 17, each year, is IDAHO day, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, since 2009 called IDAHOT to fully incorporate Trans people. I’ve always prefered the longer IDAHOBIT to include Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia and Transphobia, not to mention the little people with hairy feet from Middle Earth!
May 17 was the day that homosexuality was removed from the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1990. IDAHO day first took place in 2005 with activities taking place around the world including the first ever LGBT events to take place in the Congo, China, and Bulgaria.
In 2009 Transphobia was added to the day’s remembrance and activism although, unlike homosexuality, trans activists are still campaigning to have Gender Dysphoria removed from the various mental health classifications (ICD10/11, DSM-IV/V), though France was the first country to do so that same year. In May 2012 Argentina passed a radical groundbreaking Gender Identity Law depathologising trans and providing medical access for all without psychiatric hoop-jumping. Argentina should be watched and observed to see if its model becomes one that could be followed by other nations and allow for the safe and full depathologisation of transsexuality.
ILGA LGBTI Report
Times have changed and things improved since the removal of the criminal threat and mental health stigma from homosexuality, at least. If a recent ILGA LGTBI report is to be believed, Britain is the best place to live if one is lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or intersex.
Launched to mark IDAHOT day, the ILGA Rainbow Europe Map “reviews the standing of European countries against essential legal benchmarks for LGBTI equality, while the Annual Review of the Human Rights Situation of LGBTI People in Europe 2014 provides an analysis of trends and an overview of key political and social developments country-by-country.”
For many there were improvements, such as same-sex marriage (although not in Northern Ireland) and for some to the East of Europe, such as Russia, a deteriorating situation of LGBTI freedoms and protections.
Apparently, the UK has the best laws (the 2010 Equality Act was pretty groundbreaking), rights and freedoms, even better than the Netherlands, Spain, or Scandinavia. This is partly down to some nations being gay and lesbian positive but then failing on trans and/or intersex, and usually totally ignoring and hence erasing bisexuals.
Homophobic & Transphobic Hate Crime
Here in the UK, homophobic and transphobic crime seems to be on the rise, although this may just be perception and/or data inflation, since increased numbers may just be better victim reporting and police recording, rather than increased incidence of hate crimes or incidents. We’ve been tackling racism for decades and it doesn’t go away over night. Just ponder the upcoming European elections and the 30% vote share that UKIP the party of xenophobia are likely to gain. Fear of difference is still endemic everywhere.
A recent NUS report into the experience of gay and trans students demonstrates that schools and colleges are still not safe places for LGBTI people. Only 20% of trans students feel safe or accepted in higher education. 20% of LGB+ students and 33% of trans respondents experienced at least one form of bullying or harassment on their campus, making them 2-3 times more likely to drop out of education, affecting future job prospects, and mental health and wellbeing.
Trans students are 2.5 times more likely to have a disability in addition to being transgender. They are, furthermore, the group at the greatest risk of suicide with 34% attempting it and up to 80% considering it. Thankfully, the UK is better than many other places and these figures are greatly increased elsewhere, e.g., the USA, Eastern Europe, etc.
Other Rights Still Not Equal
The right to bodily integrity of people with Intersex conditions (people with differences of sexual development, sometimes unhelpfully termed “disorders”, DSD) is an issue still being fought for. Just because gay rights are seemingly “in the bag”, same-sex weddings won, does not mean trans or intersex people have the same or equal benefits, nor does it mean that any LGBTI person is free from bullying, hate crime or prejudice in the workplace.
Equality itself is not yet equal, either between different strands of the diversity umbrella of protected characteristics nor across different countries in the EU, Commonwealth, or world. Some 80 nations have laws that still criminalise homosexuality, some with the death penalty. Just because a civil rights battle is part-won in one country does not mean that is everyone’s experience, either at home or abroad. So days like IDAHOBIT, regional and national LGBTIQ Prides, are still needed to remind us of how far we have come, and… how far we still have to go to achieve equality, acceptance and freedom for all.
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.