Transgender teen, Leelah Alcorn, blamed her parents for her suicide. What can we learn from this tragedy?
Last week another transgender teen, Leelah Alcorn, took her life because, she said, her parents rejected her. LGBT activist, Dan Savage, has called for charges to be brought against Leelah’s parents and even suggested that Leelah’s siblings be removed from the home. Are her parents really at fault? What about other LGBT kids in Christian homes? Are they also at risk because their parents are Christians? Is it that simple?
One thing is true, LGBT children growing up in conservative Christian homes with conservative Christian parents have a difficult time coming out and finding acceptance.
One thing is true, LGBT children growing up in conservative Christian homes with conservative Christian parents have a difficult time coming out and finding acceptance. The ill-informed, uneducated, anti-gay rhetoric spilling from church pulpits, Christian airwaves and celebrity evangelists does nothing to help a child learn about unconditional love. The debunked ex-gay/reparative therapy movement is still touted as a pillar of truth and offered as an alternative to parents in place of their children’s inevitable unholy lifestyle.
Do parents have to go that route?
The answer is no, but just as there is no simple one-size-fits-all answers to how Christian parents can/should deal with their LGBT kids, let’s take this a step further.
When I was growing up in my conservative Christian home, I knew nothing of the outside world. It’s not that we didn’t have a TV or a radio. In fact, my dad was the first person in our small Pentecostal Church to get a TV, inspite of the ire he drew from the pastor. Albeit, this was the 1970s and the biggest controversy on TV was all-black comedy shows that the networks were afraid no one would watch.
As I grew up, I followed in my father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. I became a minister. By the ‘80s and ‘90s there was much more controversy. The church was in a full culture war with the LGBT community by that time. While I had the opportunity to learn more about “the other side,” the battle lines had been drawn. We Christians had our point of view, based on the infallible and inerrant Word of God, while the non-Christians were blinded by the devil, reading science books and aligning themselves with the ungodly in Hollywood. There was certainly nothing, I reasoned, that the Godless could tell me.
I did what many Christians do today. I holed myself up with people who believed like I did. I read only what supported my beliefs. I watched TV and news shows that reinforced what I already knew: the world and its evil ways, directed by the devil, are trying to take me down. I believed it with all my heart. I lived guarded, always on the lookout for the subtle and shifty ways of my invisible nemesis.
When Leelah told her mom she was transgendered. It didn’t go well. Leelah’s mom told CNN, “We don’t support that, religiously. But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.”
How can she say she loved her child unconditionally and “no matter what,” while simultaneously saying, “We don’t support that, religiously”?
And here’s where we get stuck. How can she say she loved her child unconditionally and “no matter what,” while simultaneously saying, “We don’t support that, religiously”? It’s the dichotomy in which many Christians live, as did I.
My faith told me to love unconditionally, yet to revile sin. Support the sinner, but despise the iniquity. Sin is sneaky like that. If I love someone too closely, the devil could get in and, before I even knew it, I might find myself condoning an ungodly behavior. Once the sin of homosexuality or transgenderism enters, there is no telling what havoc might be wreaked!
Unfortunately, though my faith taught me pithy statements like: love the sinner and hate the sin, or show compassion without compromise, it never taught me how. So Christians learn to love from a distance, without involvement, relationship, or personal connection. I learned to love with conditions, and they were conditions I truly believed God placed on all mankind. We were all called to live holy and differently than the rest of the world. If we didn’t live as I understood it – as the evangelical church teaches it – God will be displeased and bring unbearable consequences.
The problem with people like Leelah’s parents and other LGBT kids’ families isn’t a lack of love. It is, in their minds, love for their children’s souls that cause them to reject their children’s identity, send them to reparative therapy, and force them into living lonely, loveless lives, just to save them on the day of judgment.
Evangelical Christianity has created a systemic problem. It is a religion that has become so consumed with irrational fear it is a death trap for anyone caught in its snare.
Evangelical Christianity has created a systemic problem. It is a religion that has become so consumed with irrational fear it is a death trap for anyone caught in its snare. People are trying to hold on to an ideology of gender stereotypes, political power, and hierarchical structure more reminiscent of the 1950s and the American dream than Christianity’s unique brand of grace.
Evangelical Christianity has positioned itself as a political power to deny human rights to a segment of the population it deems unacceptable to its angry God. It is no longer a religion that cares for the poor, helps the homeless and offers hope, but instead demands rigid obedience in unspoken, yet certain, terms to its adherence. Not for the sheer purpose of control, as this would be “unchristian,” but because of its love for the sinner.
Are Evangelical Christian parents killing their LGBT children? Fortunately, some have escaped the rat race, realizing their children are more important than the commitment to their religion and their churches. Others have mindlessly and negligently sold out, listening to the rhetoric of their pastors, swallowing the Kool-Aid because they don’t know any better. Until, their worlds are shaken, perhaps through the deaths of their own children, they may never take another look at what they truly believe.
As a parent, my heart goes out to the parents of Leelah Alcorn. They did what they thought was right with unimaginable consequences. Unfortunately, there are no manuals that come out of the womb with kids. You don’t know what kind of kid you get until later and there is no way to prepare for what happens.
Leelah’s death was tragic. To blame her parents is overly simplistic. What we know for sure, however, is that we have a long way to go in our society in learning about and accepting LGBT people. However, it would be irresponsible to ignore the role of religion in this conversation. Until there are reforms in religious ideologies, these tragedies will continue.
For help, reach out to your local PFLAG.
Photo – flickr/Mel Green
Killing your child as a means to change their gender. That plan has holes in it. As does, hating, violence of any form, humiliation. In order to impact these life centered discussions, love, and tolerance should take center stage.
My devout evangelical Christian father always told us kids he would disown us for 2 reasons: marrying outside the white race, or being “queer” as he put it. After my mother died at age 79, my father at 80 years of age took up with a man and severed ties with all his children and grandchildren out of devotion to another man. We all would have been better off had he been able to marry a man 50 years later, and my mother been free to bear the children of a man who truly loved her instead of hiding behind… Read more »
I read her suicide note. As straight female I totally identified with her. During my adolescence I “hated” my mom, felt out of place with my family and thought that life would never get better. I don’t think her parents were as understanding as they could have been but parents rarely get it right with their kids all the time. I feel for these parents because their child is gone and they can never change what happened. I understand that teens who are gay or transgender have issues are compounded during this age but Leelah was going through adolescence with… Read more »
This type of response is deeply problematic. Having parents who who refuse to acknowledge something so basic as your gender – insisting that they know better than you what gender you are – and who claim that they know for sure that who you are is something that God abhors, who subject you to widely discredited and damaging aversion therapy; having the kind of parents who, even AFTER YOU COMMITTED SUICIDE and made it clear that it was about their lack of acceptance, refuse to acknowledge your gender or call you by the name you prefer, taking pains in their… Read more »
I am not at all dismissing her story and I am sorry if you felt like that. But it is also hard not to take her age and hormonal changes into account. Her parents did not understand her. They will probably never understand her. That is a pity. You have no clue about my lived experience. But I can identify with her words totally because I wrote a very similar note to my own mom. Years later she read it to me and I marveled how much I had changed and how much I had not. I have no doubt… Read more »