Leelah Alcorn: 1997-2014

January 12, 2015 at 5:15 am 4 comments


Credit: NBC News

Credit: NBC News

It’s not easy being 17. I remember. And I’m sure it’s inconceivably harder when you’re a 17-year-old transgender girl whose parents cannot endorse your transgender self-identification because of their theological commitments. This is why Leelah Alcorn stepped out in front of a tractor-trailer on December 28, committing suicide.[1]

As a Christian, it probably comes as no surprise that I cannot in good conscience morally support the transgender lifestyle and movement. Indeed, I call Leelah, born as Joshua, “Leelah” not to endorse her lifestyle, but out of compassion for her as a person.

I find it fascinating that so many in our day and age reflexively use their emotional affections to define the core of their beings. In defining my identity, I define it first redemptively – I am a child of God, bought by Jesus’ blood – second, creationally – I am fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image – and third, vocationally – I am a husband to Melody, a father to Hope, and a pastor in Christ’s church. My emotions and desires simply do not enter into the way I define myself in any primary or particularly formative way.

But for Leelah, they did. And her emotions became a source of deep anguish for her. On her Tumblr page, she chronicled her agonizing journey in a heartbreaking note:

When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.

My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.

Responding to your son or daughter if they come out as transgender the way Leelah’s parents responded to her – if this is, in fact, the way Leelah’s parents responded to her – is not the wisest way to proceed. I would also hope that Christian counselors would offer guidance that is more thoughtful than what Leelah characterizes her therapists’ guidance as being. By the same token, it is hard for Christians to say nothing when, according to Scripture, our created gender is part of our identity as God’s image bearers: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).

What, then, can a Christian say?

In Acts 8, Philip is on his way to Gaza when he encounters “an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians” (Acts 8:27). In this day and age, it was common to emasculate high-ranking public officials so they could devote themselves completely to their civic duties and be free from the concerns that marriage and family inevitably bring. Thus, this eunuch traded his identity creationally as a male for his identity vocationally as a public official.

Importantly, the very next line says, “This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship.” This man, it seems, was a believer in the God of Israel. But his worship at the temple would have created quite a stir, considering the injunction of Deuteronomy 23:1: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.” My guess is, this man was turned away at the door. And yet, he did not turn away from his faith: “On his way home [he] was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet” (Acts 8:28). This is where Philip enters the picture:

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so He did not open His mouth. In his humiliation He was deprived of justice. Who can speak of His descendants? For His life was taken from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. (Acts 8:30-35)

The passage the eunuch is reading is from Isaiah 53:7-8, a prophecy of the suffering and death of Christ. Interestingly, when Philip explains to the eunuch this passage of Scripture, he does not stop there, he only begins there – at least according to verse 35. Thus, as the two of them continued studying together, they would have eventually come to Isaiah 56:4-5:

This is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who choose what pleases Me and hold fast to My covenant – to them I will give within My temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.”

Places in God’s kingdom, the prophet reminds us, are reserved even for those who alter their created gender identity. Because of what Jesus does in Isaiah 53, this eunuch is welcomed into God’s family in Isaiah 56.

Certainly, God created us male and female for His good purposes. And despising how God created us as male and female is sinful. But this does not mean God does not love people who are conflicted in their gender identity. Indeed, this is perhaps the saddest part of Leelah’s story. Leelah grounded her identity on something shifting: how she felt about who she was. When her emotions about her maleness became conflicted, and when she could not find the emotional endorsement she desperately desired from her parents, she sank into despair and took a terrible, irreversible, and heartbreaking course of action. Grounding our identities redemptively, however, can give us hope. For no matter how we may feel about ourselves, a redemptive identity reminds us we are loved by God. Period. God’s love does not shift like our emotions. Which is why His love is a great place – and a safe place – to find who we are.

I wish Leelah would have known this. It may have saved her life.

_________________

[1] Gillain Mohney, “Leelah Alcorn: Transgender Teen’s Reported Suicide Note Makes Dramatic Appeal,” ABC News (12.31.2014).

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. chrispaavola  |  January 12, 2015 at 8:23 am

    Thanks for sharing the timeless Christian message in a fresh and enlightening manner. Well written, brother.

    Reply
  • 2. monkeytwohands  |  January 12, 2015 at 10:54 am

    You make a very large assumption and judgment here when you use the phrase “transgender lifestyle”. You assume that such a gender conflict is entirely an individual’s choice and a sinful one as a consequence. I would think that without years of training in at least one medical field followed by years of research in this specific one you have no real idea whether gender conflict is of sinful or practical origin. You assume it is of sinful origin only, based on no evidence whatsoever, purely on your own assumptions. Following that logic I could assume that certain people had chosen a “down syndrome lifestyle”, or a “congenital heart defect lifestyle”, or “sudden infant death syndrome lifestyle”; the possibilities are endless and I have no medical background to tell me otherwise. There are plenty of people in the world who have trouble coping mentally with the result of very real and physical medical conditions, some identified, some still unidentified. Let’s not forget the centuries of mistreatment of the mentally ill, assumed to be afflicted by sin and locked away, physically abused, disregarded and sometimes killed because of an assumption like the one that you have made here. The assumption in that case was wrong; it was rather a profound lack of medical knowledge combined with an ignorant rush to judgment. How can you know, without prescient knowledge only available to God, that you are not judging transgender people on the same misguided terms?
    I spent 8 years of my life volunteering on a suicide hotline and talked to hundreds of people suffering anguish from a myriad of problems they had encountered in life. Whenever I spoke to someone struggling with gender issues it never once occurred to me that the person on the other end of the line had made a choice to be how they were, based on the anguish they were in. They were usually torn apart by their condition in life and often at the same point as Leelah was, pushed there by other people’s reaction, other people’s assumptions, other people’s judgment. It was a state of mental health no one would choose to inflict on themselves.
    You quote Leelah’s journal as she says: “When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was”. I recognize this from phone calls in the past on that hotline. Unfortunately that sense of relief was usually crushed, in the same way Leelah’s was by the assumptions and judgments of others, sadly usually the very people who they should have been able to rely on for love and sympathy. I would sit there simply listening and asking questions,as we were trained to do at Samaritans hotline, and that was often a great source of relief for callers; being listened to by a fellow human being without any trace of assumptions or judgments.
    I applaud your compassion and concern for Leelah and her plight but at the same time as you express this you make all the same assumptions and judgments as those who made her feel as if life was unbearable. And you do it without knowing if your assumptions and judgments are correct; you CANNOT possibly know, with your limitations as a human being, as a person not trained in the specific medical areas that apply to this. There are people researching to find out whether this is a practical medical situation, for example http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20032-transsexual-differences-caught-on-brain-scan.html#.VLPyD3urFs8 links to an article about significant differences in brain matter found post-mortem in transgender people. I’m not saying I think it is definitely a medical matter and nothing else, but I know for damn sure that I am not qualified to do the research and make those judgments so I’ll let those who are do their job and hold off on my assumptions and judgments instead. Maybe that’s what Leelah should have been hearing from those who were meant to love and support her instead of being told that she had definitely, without doubt, chosen a sinful and wrong path when they had no real way of knowing this was the case.

    Reply
    • 3. Anda Healer  |  January 12, 2015 at 5:44 pm

      *standing ovation*

      VERY well said. Thank you. ^_^

      Reply
  • 4. Kim E.  |  January 12, 2015 at 11:29 am

    As a mother of 4, 2 being teens, I can pretty well assume that Leelah’s parents were doing the best they knew to do to raise their child in the admonition of the Lord and with unconditional parental love. I don’t think it was the parents, clergy, or Christian counselors who should be faulted and certainly didn’t do anything criminal. Maybe, just a kind word from a friend or a stranger would have been enough to have her hold on a while longer to get some of her depressive thoughts sorted out. http://youtu.be/8_gJ68kksWE Teens generally take advice from peers better than parents or counselors anyway.

    Reply

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