Why did we let Leelah Alcorn die? And why do we choose a set of beliefs over the love of our own? Over the love of a real, breathing human filled with value and affection and intelligence? I want to know.
I was raised Catholic. Pretty darn Catholic. Both sides of the family, church on Sunday, Catholic school from preschool to eighth grade. I was enthralled by a young priest, and joined the youth group for a year after graduation, though I was very happy at the public high school by then.
After I found my feet among the rest of the misfits and expressive kids in high school, and had thoroughly got all Salvation Army and north side of Chicago with my wardrobe, I moved on. Still, if somebody asks me today if I have a religion, I have to consciously think before I answer, “atheist”.
Maybe I’m not really an atheist. But I do believe I’ll decompose, that we all decompose, and that’s about it. Nothing. I’m good with that.
I mention this because all the indications were there for me to feel that there might be some chance I could have felt a modicum of intolerance when it comes to people of a sexual persuasion other than my own certifiable heterosexual brand of being.
Most Americans, if not the connected world know that on April 8, US President Obama made a national call for an end to conversion therapies that attempt to reverse the natural inclinations of those who are lesbian, gay and transgender. I would say, about time. But I am a straight, white woman from a first-world country who has had little to stand in my way.
All I can say is that as a nation, to deny the reality of a person’s defining qualities seems pretty monstrous to me.
The announcement was too late for the litany of those in the LGBTI community who felt that suicide was a better answer than any other option in their lives. It is a tragedy, and 17-year-old Joshua ‘Leelah’ Alcorn felt compelled to take her life in late December 2014. Though she had identified as a girl at only age four, her Christian parents would not accept her as anything but the boy they had borne.
The punitive measures Leelah’s parents took to discourage her direction to transitioning, and the imposed social isolation crushed the young soul beyond, what she thought, was repair.
In her suicide note, she wrote:
I’m never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say “it gets better” but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.
It breaks my heart. This was a human being in pain. The only thing standing between her fulfillment was our fear. She walked out in front of a semi-truck and was killed.
It hurts to even post Leelah’s photo knowing she is dead. The same is true for the young person on the left, Ashlyn Haffner.
Leelah’s death was soon followed by 16-year-old transitioning Ash of North Carolina, who was allegedly bullied so badly, she felt no alternative.
Nobody defined homosexuality to me as a child. It was the 1970s, and I know my mother taught tolerance of people of all sorts generally, but in those days, the word gay was never brought up.
My school, St Giles, was far too conservative to visit sexuality of really any kind at all.
All the same, I often think about how I have formed my own opinions today. I had an uncle with a friend named Marty that I only found out later was gay. Tragically for Marty, he was in love with my uncle who was not gay. Yet he was able to master his affections and the two were friends for many years.
I remember when the pair of them would babysit for me when I was a little girl. I remember walking between in them in the early 70s, my hand held on both sides, barefoot and going off for a walk.
Marty died of AIDS.
Later, I knew an older boy who was friends with my best friend’s sister and her boyfriend. Those were in the days of Atari, and my friend and I would sit on the floor of her living room, playing tennis or Space Invaders.
Behind us on the couch, her sister would cuddle with her guy and the second boy was on the other end of the couch. I recall distinctly asking him one day, ‘Don’t you feel left out?” but he said, no, he was just fine.
And a lot of fun, He would play with me and my friend, tickling us and making us laugh. He was one of my favorite people when I got to see him. I didn’t know what gay was then either, but I liked him, and that was that.
My life after high school where I befriended several kids who were already out, or came out later. Onward to university and immersion in the art world. There, sexuality was the last thing you’d consider in a world that was all about self-expression. Graduate school the same. People are people.
That doesn’t mean I understood how hard it was for those in the LGBT community. I was naive. For a brief time in high school, I sort of dated a sort of effeminate guy I met at a club. It was brief because I think he wasn’t really sure whey we were dating.
He was a lovely, kind young guy who wore camisoles and rosaries and seemed into dating. I was a pretty funky dresser myself, but the longer I knew him, the more the camisoles made sense. I kept getting mixed messages and our relationship was pretty platonic.
He used to set fire to new houses under construction in his family’s subdivision. He had issues, I knew that, but did not know how to help. I just knew we weren’t going to work out. He was conflicted and in trouble.
Sadly, my third dorm roommate in undergraduate school was probably the kind of girl who would have been affected by people avid to change her innate sexuality.
I spent my sophomore second semester with her. I had long wanted to move into that particular dorm, filled with creative people and intellectuals. It adjoined the all-women’s dorm where I’d spent a year and a half, and though I worked in the food service for both dorms, I was done with all girls, all the time, all that catty bitchiness and sorority nonsense.
I first met ‘Anna’ with her friend she introduced as ‘Mandy’. Mandy was at least ten years older, and I did get a vibe when I met them. They were very close, and clearly Anna was the shy one where Mandy was chatty. I liked her. They were both nice.
I found out pretty quickly that Anna and Mandy were a couple. It was unspoken but I didn’t mind. Within days Mandy began sleeping over in Anna’s narrow dorm bed.
At first, there was no sex, just co-habitation. Again, I didn’t care. As long as I could get some sleep, that was fine. Soon, they would wait until after midnight when they thought I was asleep, and they would make love.
There was a sense of denial that any relationship was actually occurring. This was of course a little difficult since our beds were three feet apart in the room. And I was getting really, really annoyed.
Anybody who has shared a dorm room with a roommate who has a partner will understand. There was no notice, and since I was not supposed to know Anna and Mandy were a couple, they did not sit me down and ask if I could give them some private time together every once in a while, or even if I minded Mandy sleeping over. I am not very confrontational, and I felt that there was a level of fragility in this situation that I didn’t want to stir up.
If they had asked me if I minded giving them some space to be together, I would have said, hell no. I didn’t care. I could have chilled out on the couches in the lounge or stayed late in the studio.
But I did care being woken up by the sounds of them going at it for a few hours at a time. Then Mandy would rise at 4am to shower then return to our room to blow dry her hair, again, three feet from my bed, so she could leave for the hour and a half drive back to her hometown and work. Then Anna would be up an hour later repeating the performance.
I was getting seriously sleep-deprived and I get seriously cranky when I am woken.
But I couldn’t talk about it with Anna. Her wall of denial was so tall and strong, if I said anything, she would act like she had no idea what I was talking about. She would play her Christian rock, with her side of the room decorated with posters emblazoned with religious platitudes and kittens, have sex with Mandy the same night, then and act as though nothing at all was anything less than purely heterosexual in her life.
No matter I said I was fine with their relationship. Anna was very reserved, very firm and just insisted she and Mandy were just friends. I tried.
Well, this played out for a couple of months, and I’d had enough. I was trying to stay at my studio as late as possible to respect their privacy, but no matter how late I got in, creeping in quietly with all the lights off, once they thought I was asleep, they would get busy, and I would wake up.
I went to the RA and found out switching rooms was not possible. Everything was booked up. I said I could care less if Anna was sleeping with a woman or a man, but I felt that it was only courteous to work out some roommate agreement that would allow for me to get some consistent sleep.
The RA talked to Anna then we both met confidentially with the head guy in the dorm. Nothing was resolved. Anna was adamant that there was no relationship, I pleaded I needed sleep. We came to an impasse, and Mandy kept sleeping over. I stayed later and later at my studio.
Right before spring break, my dad came down from Chicago to pick me up. As you do with your folks, we had lunch and I remembered I had forgotten something in my room. My dad dropped me at the door of the dorm and I ran upstairs.
I was not prepared for what I found. I heard music playing so I tapped on the door. Anna opened it and was dressed in a satiny robe and a mustachioed older man was sprawled out on her bed. The room stank of sex.
I had a whiplash ‘whoa there’ moment, blindly grabbed what I needed, excused myself and booked it.
I did see him again, but I also saw Mandy. By that time, I had no idea what the hell was going on but I just counted down the time for the end of the semester. Thankfully, he never stayed the night. He freaked me out.
I was 19, and looking back, I was being very insensitive. As far as I felt, Anna and Mandy were together, that was fine, but wasn’t there roommate etiquette? I couldn’t see that for Anna, it would have been frightening and confusing. I lacked an understanding at that age that for some people like Anna, admitting even to themselves that they were gay or lesbian would be like climbing Mount Everest.
In a way, despite their clear closeness in the dorm and in public, despite their sexual relationship in front of me, a relative stranger, I think I outed her and that was pretty horrible if I did. Maybe. I don’t know. It was not up for discussion.
If Anna had been unconditionally loved and told that whatever choices she made were ok from day one, and she would not only be feel from judgement, but supported, maybe what happened would not have happened. We could have talked openly on the first day about her relationship with Mandy and worked out arrangements for them to have private time.
Most of all, Anna would have been liberated from the prison of her own uncertainties and fears, and felt free to follow her heart. it is tragic and I sincerely hope that wherever ‘Anna’ is, she has found resolution and a happy life.
I laud Obama for speaking out so publicly against conversion therapy, especially for young people. How we are is how we have always been.
And I ask again, why do we discard love over dogma?
-The featured image is beautiful Leelah Alcorn looking young, and full of promise.