I wish this wasn’t the first post of 2015. I wish there wasn’t a reason for this post at all.
You’ve probably seen the name and story of Leelah Alcorn, the teenage girl who committed suicide when her parents refused to accept that she was transgender. After being forced into conversion therapy with Christian psychologists who called her selfish for not accepting the gender assigned to her at birth, Leelah posted a suicide note on Tumblr that begged for a change in the way we treat transgender youth and laid the responsibility for her death directly at her parents’ feet. The suicide note went viral, sending shockwaves through the LGBTA+ community and reaching mainstream media in way that shone stark light on the child abuse perpetrated against transgender children and teens by their parents.
That Alcorn’s suicide note has been so widely read is nothing short of astonishing; many victims of suicide leave no explanation of their actions, or their posthumous statements are read only by close family and friends. In making such a personal, vulnerable moment public for the world to see, Alcorn left a powerful legacy. There would be no erasing and denying her identity, no matter what her parents put on her tombstone or told their community. Her suicide letter has become a beacon of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation, encouraging the world to reach out to transgender teens at risk.
Teens who, writer Sarah Ditum asserts, will use Alcorn’s suicide as a template to humiliate their parents. In her piece for The New Statesman, “If you believe trans lives matter, don’t share Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note on social media,” Ditum worries that the world-wide dialogue Alcorn began breaks important journalistic standards and will cause stress for Alcorn’s family:
Along with a sense of basic dignity and respect for the grieving family, they are the reason that journalists should always take into account the Samaritans’ best practice media guidelines.
The lack of basic dignity and respect that caused Alcorn to take her own life isn’t a concern for Ditum, who dismisses Alcorn as an unreliable source in her own death:
The guidelines tell journalists to “avoid the suggestion that a single incident […] was the cause”: the report doesn’t discuss any possible underlying causes, but presents the reported hostility of Alcorn’s parents to her trans status as the sole contributing factor.
Ditum goes on to further doubt the veracity of Alcorn’s account of the experience that caused her take her own life:
“Consider the lifelong impact that a suicide can have on those bereaved by a suicide,” says the Samaritans; Alcorn’s parents are mentioned only as villains, based on a single source, and their grief is not acknowledged.
No outside source could bear witness to Alcorn’s mental anguish better than she could, but Ditum dismisses her as an unreliable narrator.
Ditum fears copycat suicides, not because the loss of another transgender child is a horrifying and unacceptable prospect, but because the abusers of these teens might be cast in what she perceives to be an unfair light:
The message an unhappy, isolated trans kid can take away from this is that death will bring you all the validation you’re missing in life. Your last words will be republished around the world and your parents will be punished for their failure to understand you. The reports even include a proven method you can follow.
Her concern isn’t for future suicide victims, but the prospect that they might be given a voice in death. She defends the Alcorns from the public scorn they’re facing on social media and in the press, saying:
And there’s another disturbing aspect to the public reaction: Alcorn’s parents, and specifically her mother, have been directly harassed by those who blame them for the death of their child. It is hard to imagine much worse that burying a child, but to lose a child by suicide must bring an almost unbearable degree of self-reproach to the loss.
Considering the fact that Alcorn’s mother persists in describing her daughter as her son “Josh” and referring to her with he/him/his pronouns, it seems unlikely that “self-reproach” is a term that has even a passing acquaintance with the Alcorns’ grief vocabulary. They deny that their daughter committed suicide, stating in a Facebook status update that their son “Josh” was accidentally struck and killed by a vehicle during an early morning walk.
Ditum ignores these facts in favor of lavishing sympathy upon Alcorn’s abusers and offers what appears to be a thoughtful, philosophical view of the nature of life and death in the media:
Human are messy, overlapping things, however we live and die. We are tangles of love and mistakes. All of us are more complicated than the flat symbolism of the martyr, and all of us deserve to be seen in our full untidiness – the kind of untidiness that would never make for neatly consumable news copy.
Yet one important component of this story is missing from Ditum’s piece, and that is Leelah Alcorn herself. Instead of recognizing her as the “tangle of love and mistakes” and the “complicated” human being that she was, Ditum reduces Alcorn and other suicidal transgender teens to petulant brats throwing fatal tantrums in manipulative bids to ruin their parents’ images. The impact Ditum fears is not that more transgender children will kill themselves, but that the parents of these abused children might come off as unsympathetic in stories where they are, incontrovertibly, the cause of their child’s death.
Leelah Alcorn asked the world to see her as a woman, as a person, and as someone worthy of being loved just as she was. Sarah Ditum asks the world to see her as a liar and wants us all to stay silent out of mock concern for transgender lives. Perhaps a better title for Ditum’s piece would have been, “If you really want to inspire transgender youths to commit suicide, here’s a how-to guide.”