Listening to Leelah: Continuing the Conversation

burning red candle with black...
burning red candle with black...

Living in the greater Cincinnati area, new stories, conversations and editorials have been featured on the struggles and death of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn. In the comments under these online postings, many responders desired the conversations to halt or claiming that the story is insignificant. Unfortunately, those engaging in these conversations often used negative words to describe Leelah.

It reminded me of a situation from 2007 when I lived in Largo, Florida, and Steve Stanton was our city manager. I was acquainted with Stanton from my days employed at a local not-for-profit within the city. Stanton was a dedicated employee and leader in the community for over 17 years.

The local media broke the story of Stanton's true gender identity and forthcoming transition before she had fully prepared to come out. As the community was stunned by the news, many people in this suburban town refused to allow Stanton to remain manager of the city. Based on her faith perspective, one of the city commissioners demanded for Stanton to be fired.

At the hearings, people from various perspectives came to speak for Stanton's continued employment or for her removal. A pastor from a local church stated "If Jesus was here tonight, I can guarantee you he'd want (her) terminated. Make no mistake about it." With a 5-2 vote, the Largo commissioners chose to end Stanton's employment in February 2007. Soon after, Stanton began to publicly identify as Susan Stanton.

For me, the story of Susan opened my eyes to the discrimination that many transgender people experience - even in 21st-century government jobs. It was truly the first time that I saw how horrifically unjust religious people can be regarding gender identity.

People like to continue to believe that our current gender is our primary characteristic for defining who we are: male or female. No one is allowed to identify outside of gender norms, and those who identify with another gender are often considered perverted or immoral. They become the twenty-first century's unclean, expendable or somehow subhuman.

The words of the New Testament gives greater insight to identity in Christ. Galatians three notes that there is "no longer male nor female," expanding the confines of traditional gender roles, identities and expressions and releasing people from gender norms. This text also empowers people who identify with neither gender or multiple genders simultaneously. Additionally, the story of Philip and the eunuch in Acts eight gives us the powerful example that no one is excluded from the Kingdom of God. Even though the Ethiopian eunuch would have been deemed unclean, Philip was called by the Spirit to baptize this child of God.

Jesus came to fulfill the law, and in doing so, never condemns the eunuchs in Matthew 19 nor does he call them unclean. According to Jesus, some are born that way, some have become eunuchs physically or spiritually by their own accord, and some had no choice in the matter and were made eunuchs by others.

Eight years later, I would like to answer the pastor who said that Jesus would want Susan Stanton fired by this: Jesus never said that nor did he allude to ridding our society of genderqueer people.

When our society continues to consider anyone who does not fit within the boxes of gender "norms" unclean, whether they are transgender, express their gender outside of cisnormative, genderqueer, etc., then our society contributes to the hate crimes and suicides of many of God's children.

According to the Williams Institute and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

"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..."

To those people who claim that they are "tired of hearing about it" and want to "move on": understand that many of us are privileged in the ways our gender identities and physical selves match. We can turn off the news and never have to think about gender identity. But Leelah couldn't turn this off, give it a rest and move on. And that is why Leelah took her own life.

Indeed, we can't move on yet. From what I've seen in the media, we aren't leaving stories of the transgender experience behind. From President Obama mentioning transgender persons for the first time during any State of the Union address to the new Amazon Prime show Transparent winning a Golden Globe for best comedy program, conversations are blossoming throughout our country. The urgency to continue discussions about the transgender experience is present because, someday, many of us will lose a loved one who is transgender, either through suicide or hate crime. Maybe some of us already have lost someone close because they couldn't believe society would accept them as genderqueer.

Those of us who identify with the gender in which we were assigned at birth can not understand the transgender person's struggle. Because of the complexity of the human body, mind and soul, the physical self does not match the emotional or spiritual self in some people. As fellow humans, it's important to recognize that when a person identifies with gender(s) other than the one in which they were assigned at birth, it's not an immoral act. They aren't somehow more depraved than anyone else. However, they are enduring struggle that those of us who aren't transgender will never understand. Taking time to listen to and appreciate their journey instead of casting judgment will build a community of compassion.

Leelah stated in her final 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." Even though some time has past since their stories, let's continue to make sure their stories are heard until all people are treated with equal dignity. In memory of Leelah and our loved ones who have died, and in honor of Susan and those who come out each day as a transgender person, let's try to treat people of all genders, no genders, multiple genders and of various gender expressions as fully human and made in God's image.