Over the past week, I have processed Leelah Alcorn’s death as yet one more tragic story of what can happen when transgender teens are denied access to the care they need. Leelah’s parents were conservative evangelical Christians, and when Leelah told them at age 14 that she was transgender, they responded very badly. Leelah tried coming out as gay instead in order to ease people into it, but her parents responded by cutting her off from her support network, opting to homeschool her. On December 28th, Leelah walked in front of a truck.
This story has affected a lot of people I know, especially LGBTQ individuals who grew up in evangelical homeschool families. But as I was thinking about the story again yesterday, I took a moment to consider how evangelicals will interpret Leela’s death. I was raised evangelical myself, and have often dug into evangelicals’ views on LGBTQ issues here on my blog. What struck me as I thought about Leelah’s death is that even as LGBTQ activists (including myself) place blame on evangelical teachings about gender and sexuality, many evangelicals will place the blame on LGBTQ activists.
As I was putting this post together, I scoured the internet for evangelical articles on Leelah’s death, but did not find any. It may be that the articles are yet to be written, or it may be that evangelicals are sitting this one out. Either way, what follows is based on my understanding of overarching patterns in evangelicals’ approach to LGBTQ suicides and support groups. If anyone has come upon evangelical articles on this story in particular, feel free to leave a link in the comments.
Many evangelical Christians view transgender individuals as degenerate and dangerous, a view perhaps best summarized in Michelle Duggar’s robocall last summer portraying transgender individuals as child predators. But there are also many evangelicals who see transgender individuals as “confused and hurting people” who need salvation through Jesus and Christian counseling to steer them toward satisfaction in their “god-given” genders and gender roles.
Perhaps you are wondering why this matters. On some level, it does not. These evangelicals too would see transgender teens like Leelah denied access to LGBTQ support groups and forced to attend various forms of “reparative” counseling. These evangelicals are just as much responsible for Leelah’s death as are those who view transgender individuals as dangerous predators. But on another level, it does matter.
I would love to be able to flip a switch and bring transgender individuals national acceptance and support, but I can’t. Instead, the fight for transgender rights and acceptance is a long, slow battle that still has quite a way to go. If we want to understand it is so difficult to bring change on an issue that to so many can seem so simple, we need to understand how individuals who oppose transgender rights and acceptance interpret tragedies like Leelah Alcorn’s death.
To those of us who support transgender rights and acceptance, what happened to Leelah seems straightforward. Guided by their religious beliefs, her parents refused to accept that she was transgender and instead isolated her from her LGBTQ support network and took her to counselors who told her that the body dysphoria she felt—and who she believed she was—was disordered and against God’s plan. But for many evangelicals, what happened fits into an entirely different narrative.
Let’s look just for a moment at LGBTQ suicides in general. LGBTQ activists (including myself) understand the high gay teen suicide rate as a result of bullying and a lack of acceptance. The thing is, evangelicals are aware of the high gay teen suicide rate as well, and while some may rub their hands in glee at the number of gay teen lives lost as a result of bullying etc., many others have a different explanation for the number of gay teen suicides itself. They argue that it is being gay that leads to the suicides, completely irrespective of bullying or anything else.
Here is an excerpt from a post I wrote on this topic two years ago (emphasis added):
To evangelicals, the problem is gay activism. These teens, evangelicals argue, committed suicide not because they were bullied or made to feel worthless, but rather because they were gay. Being gay is a “destructive lifestyle” that leads to high suicide rates, spiritual darkness, devastating diseases, and, finally, death. The solution is not to validate these teens’ “homosexual temptations” as gay activists would. The solution is not to tell these teens that “this is how you are and you can’t change” but rather to work to change these teens so that they can live long happy godly lives.
Many evangelicals aware of Leelah’s suicide will likely believe that it was telling Leelah Alcorn that being transgender was natural and okay that was the problem—and that what Leelah needed was Jesus, Christian counseling, and fellowship with believers. The idea is that if no one had encouraged Leelah by giving her the idea that being transgender was a thing, she would have been able to listen to and follow the guidance of her pastor and parents, and, ultimately, would have become comfortable with the gender she was assigned at birth.
In other words, evangelicals who hear of the story will interpret what happened to Leelah in a way that is completely upside down from everyone else.
Why does this matter? Quite simply, because the narratives evangelicals have constructed can make them impervious to being moved by even the most tragic case. What we see as clear and obvious evidence that transgender teens need acceptance and support they see as clear and obvious evidence that transgender activism ends lives. This is one of the things that makes progress on this issue so difficult—and that is why it matters. It is these narratives we must dismantle and deconstruct if we are to ever reach a point where transgender individuals are accepted as whole and healthy instead of derided as disordered and sinful. We have work to do.
And with that, here’s to Leelah, and making a difference.