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Leelah Alcorn: A Shakespearean Tragedy

In the classic Shakespearean tragedy the protagonist(s) are basically good people faced with circumstances that expose and exploit an underlying problem that leads to the death of one or more of the protagonists. The very term Shakespearian tragedy is one that invokes the idea that we are all subject to forces and events that control and often destroy our lives, and these are forces over which we have no control.

In my day there was a great deal of talk about “the generation gap” between the WW2 generation and their children, the baby boomers. It has become apparent to me that we are experiencing a new generation gap between those same baby boomers and millennials. This gap is seen in many ways, but none more graphic than issues of gender and sexuality. This is not just happening in the USA, but it is one of the key components of the rise of the authoritarian, religiously inspired far right across the globe. Last week a party with roots in neo-fascism took over Italy with sex-negativity as a core part of their platform. In Russia, Vladimir Putin uses sex-negative rhetoric to oppress his people at home and to justify his effort to “erase Ukraine from the map.” The same is happening in Poland, Hungary, and Brazil. And of course, here in the US, the efforts to roll back sexual freedoms is a core part of Trump’s MAGA movement.

The tragic story that I can’t get out of my head is driven by this generation gap, but has been translated into a story of good versus evil.

The story is about Joshua “Leelah” Alcorn. Five years ago, her suicide note was posted on Tumblr. Evidently, she posted it in her cue before going out and walking in front of a tractor-trailer. At the time I made the effort to look through the rest of her blog which was taken down within days. I also read through a great many posts regarding the incident, but only one I saw from someone who actually knew him. I say him because it was from a co-worker at an amusement park from this past summer and, at that time he presented himself as male.

When I read Leelah’s suicide note, I read it with all my years as a counselor & social work program director as a filter. What I saw was a fairly typical 17-year-old with a poor relationship with her parents. As I would teach all my new staff members, one must understand that such a statement is not empirical reality, but rather the speakers (writers) attempt to get the hearer (reader) to embrace their point of view. However, even with this approach, several things stood out to me. One was the extraordinary lengths that Mr. & Mrs. Alcorn had gone to try to get help for their child. The fact that Leelah spelled out in her final words how she had engaged parents who tried to help her, they must have poured a great deal of resources into trying to help. This stands in stark contrast to the much more common complaint of teens that their parents just don’t care.

The note spells out with some bitterness that these sources of help were all “Christian” and therefore “biased”. In this Leelah was quite correct, but the word bias does not capture the problem in its entirety. Bias indicates a tilt one way or another but what, at seventeen, Leelah just could not know was that all counseling begins with certain assumptions about the causes of mental/emotional problems. In this particular issue, almost all “Christian” counselors start from a position that gender dysphoria is a serious disease and must be treated in childhood and early adolescence before it becomes a lifelong disability. The idea that one can have mental wellness and have a gender identity different than one’s biological sex is not even entertained. This is not bias, rather this is an apriori opposition.

Young people, particularly the kind that have been heaping hateful scorn upon the Alcorn’s as evil and hateful parents have grown up with a postmodernist view that people are what they want to be, no matter what the empirical evidence may say. But to people over 40, particularly social conservatives, the whole idea that “girls” and “boys” are not defined by their biological sex is utterly ludicrous. They would point to our mammalian cousins and point out that gender roles are fixed and nearly universal in socialized mammals. Interestingly many of the same people who will make this argument for empiricism, in this case, will take the “social construct” model when it comes to other issues, such as claiming the world is only 6,000 years old despite the geological and archeological evidence to the contrary. No matter how many nasty Facebook or blog posts to the contrary, they will not accept that for a boy to think he is a girl makes him one.

From what I gather, Leelah’s parents were not post-modernists and believe gender dysphoria was a disease that was causing their son’s depression and needed to be cured. It appears they expended a great deal of effort and likely money to help their son. Despite Leelah’s expressions of hostility, there is no evidence they were anything less than loving and there is no justifiable reason for saying they were anything but. Leelah’s hostility toward particularly her mother is not uncommon at this age and to condemn all parents with angry kids as being evil would be highly unjust.

Were Joshua/Leelah’s parents perfect? Of course not. None are. When I taught parenting, the first thing I told the young moms and dads was that parenting was the most difficult life task, nothing comes close. And to think you will be a perfect parent is to be self-deluded. Parents, at best, do the best they can with the information they have. I propose that Leelah’s parents had done their best. It did no good for self-righteous zealots to call them names, to send nasty Facebook messages or to write nasty blog posts about them. Their life is shattered in a way that only a parent who has lost a child can understand. Those trolls who sent hate mail soon forgot about Leelah, but his parents will live with the loss of Joshua every day for the rest of their lives.

Was Joshua/Leelah well served? Of course not. Could her suicide have been prevented?

Maybe. I say maybe because we have no knowledge of other issues. Depression is a tricky beast and sometimes it is driven by external circumstances, but often it is not. What the suicide note does not say is that she was also seeing a psychiatrist who had prescribed meds. No counselor or therapist has 100% success at preventing suicide attempts. And we do know that for those under eighteen, antidepressants can have the effect of increasing suicidal ideations. Personal experience and research studies confirm, that simply going to a therapist will not necessarily help. The sad reality is that many forms of therapy have no significant positive impact on depression and some even have been shown to make it worse. While it is convenient to blame all this on Leelah’s parents, such attacks assume they were experts to begin with and could choose a therapist that would actually help. They weren’t so they had to rely on the support system they had in their lives. Unfortunately for all involved, they were not pointed to the right kind of therapists.

Additionally, even if they had not chosen a conservative “Christian” counselor, there is no way of knowing if Leelah simply would have expressed a different focus of anger and despair in the suicide note. There is a very high comorbidity between suicide and gender dysphoria. There are a great deal of potential reasons why that might be, but to nail one down in any particular case is very difficult. What we can say is to attack the parents for doing everything they knew to do to help their child is both unfair and counter-productive.

Thus we have the tragedy of Leelah.

There were no winners in this story, only losers. Importantly, there were no villains, only victims.

The true “villain” isn’t a person, but a sex-negative ideology that is amorphous and is much more difficult to attack. The creation of specific villains does nothing to help this family or others who suffer from depression and/or gender dysphoria but is the work of charlatans who seek to use this tragedy for their own ends.

We who seek to make a better, more sex-positive world, must not fall prey to the desire to punish those who are harmed by sex-negativity. If those of us who are committed to a sex-positive world are not going to set the example, then who will?

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