Standing Up For Leelah

[Content Note: discusses harassment, family rejection of transgender teens, suicide, trans* erasure, and silencing tactics commonly used to stifle discussion of these matters ].

I find more and more recs for articles written by Arthur Chu in my feeds lately. This post prompted by reactions to the Tumblr’d suicide note left by transgender teen Leelah Alcorn is a particularly strong piece: Cover-ups, Concern Trolls and Suicide. Chu starts by talking about the “friendly advice” women have received for years to stop publicising the rape and death threats they regularly receive online.

[T]his advice presumes that death threats are rare and abnormal. That the threats and harassment are being carried out by one single “deranged individual” and that they can be stopped as soon as the professionals step in and locate the one bad actor. That the danger is of somehow putting the idea of harassment and death threats in more people’s heads to create “copycats” where there previously weren’t any.

When we talk about “politicizing” an issue like death threats, the presumption that the problem is a localized, personal problem and that publicizing it makes it political.

But what if we’re in an environment where threats are endemic and constant? Where the force generating those threats is a widespread, self-sustaining, and virulent social movement? When the problem is already political, when the intolerable situation is the status quo?

Then that would be a different situation. The important thing wouldn’t be the impossible, futile task of reporting each and every individual harasser to the authorities like a perverse game of Whack-A-Mole and wait for them to act (which they rarely do). If the problem is a social, cultural problem then the only way to respond to it is likewise social and cultural—which requires a collective, cultural response. Which is impossible unless people talk publicly rather than letting each crime be its own isolated incident.

If this is the case, then telling people to shut up about the problem and wait for the professionals to handle it sounds downright wrongheaded. Disingenuous and destructive, even. Almost like—surprise, surprise—the people helpfully telling you to keep a lid on the bad shit happening to you and the people perpetrating that shit are one and the same.

Yep, it’s been established for a while now that Don’t Feed The Trolls Is Bad Science as an effective strategy against online silencing tactics.

Why is this on my mind now? Well, thankfully, very few mainstream media outlets, and certainly none that I think of as on the political Left or as feminist allies, are out there sharing GamerGate’s helpful advice to women on the Internet to shut up about getting threats.

But a ton of people I respect have been sharing Sarah Ditum’s article trying to put a lid on the story of Leelah Alcorn’s suicide.

I mean, it’s the same song and dance, step by repetitive step.

Read the rest. Chu eviscerates Ditum’s faux concern and details every twist and turn of her revisionism of Alcorn’s parents’ rejection of her transgender identity, her trivialisation of transphobia as a cultural phenomenon that kills, her obfuscation of her own history of anti-trans opinionating. On the evidence Chu presents it’s hardly possible to accept that Ditum truly believes that #translivesmatter, it seems clear that she just wants trans advocates to shut up about transbigotry.

Look, maybe you think that Leelah Alcorn—and trans people like her—are just people suffering from a mental illness that will pass with time and treatment. Maybe you think that trying to “cure” trans people of who they are is a reasonable choice unworthy of condemnation—as Ditum apparently does. Maybe you think shutting up about the problem and letting things go on as they are will cause trans people to eventually “get better” on their own.

Then fine, take Ditum’s advice. Undo that retweet. Unpublish that story. Do as Tumblr has done and scrub her last words off the Internet—erase everything she wanted the world to hear. Let her parents publish an obituary mourning “Joshua” and casually erase the fact that a “Leelah” on the Internet ever existed—something that happens to God knows how many trans suicide victims already, every day.

One of the commonest fears that trans* people I read online have shared is that their families will erase their trans identity when they die.

If there is in fact a societal problem and we do in fact need to “fix society” as Alcorn desperately pleaded for us to do, then Ditum’s concern over the message this reporting sends to vulnerable trans people is beside the point. They’re not the ones who need a message sent to them. They don’t need to hear the debate over how bad growing up trans in America is and whether or not killing yourself is a valid option when transition seems impossible. They are already infinitely more qualified to have that debate than we are. They already know how bad it is.

image text macro of a candle with superimposed text: #FixSociety Leelah Alcorn 1997-2014 #StandUpForLeelah

(Source: Tanaisha Hollingshead, posting to Leelah Alcorn Vigil Working Group on Facebook for all to share)

Paraphrasing Chu here to avoid a wall of blockquotes: if we don’t shine the light of publicity on tragedies how can we examine the causes? How can we learn how to stop it happening again?

One of the things that following Ditum’s advice to stop sharing and discussing Leelah’s suicide note would do is to stifle support for the petition to finally ban the long-discredited “conversion therapy” which Leelah Alcorn’s parents forced upon her. Who would that benefit, exactly? How would that honour Leelah’s memory and her wish for a future where “transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights”?

Leelah Alcorn very carefully and deliberately sent a message about the negative societal norms that she found impossible to live with, and asked the rest of us to fix them. I can mourn and regret her death and wish that she might have found a different way without colluding in the suppression of her message, without pretending that her suicide is just an isolated incident of personal tragedy rather than yet another example of a massive epidemic of transgender suicides amid a massive epidemic of families rejecting and erasing the trans identities of their relatives. I can even feel sympathy for her parents’ grief at the loss of their child without aquiescing to their continuing erasure of their daughter’s womanhood that Leelah named as the major cause of her hopelessness – they took society’s toxic rigidity about gender roles as their guide because that’s what their community expected, and the exclusion and ostracisation of those who don’t comply with community expectations is how societal inertia is perpetuated. Their determination to erase Leelah from their memories of Joshua is likely to be as much fueled by guilt as by continuing denial. Unlike Ditum I don’t think their (highly conditional) love for their child is a good enough excuse to stop talking about how they failed their daughter: it’s simply an explanation of their behaviour that iterates exactly what Leelah wanted us to fix.

I’ve never understood how anyone can conclude that it’s possible to create positive change without discussing the negative norms that need changing. The oft-heard assertion that critical examination of societal factors contributing to personal tragedies is some form of political exploitation simply never rings true to me. It always seems that what’s really going on is that they don’t think the norms truly need to change, but they don’t want to admit it.

Categories: gender & feminism, parenting, social justice, technology

Tags: , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Moderator note: This thread is designated TERF-free. Not that this is particularly different from any other thread here on HaT, but I fully expect this post to draw more TERF attention than usual.

  2. Taken in contrast with the people shown in Being Me, it’s really hard to suggest that it’s being trans*, or talking about it, that causes suicide. It’s the response from people they love and depend on, and society at large that causes it. I completely agree, Not Discussing It never fixed any problem ever.

  3. If Leelah had been gay, she would have been told “it gets better”.
    I was very depressed after reading her letter. I really don’t know if it does for trans people.
    I understand the concerns about not encouraging copycat suicide, but Leelah’s letter is a cri de Coeur which really needs to be heard. Let children be who they need to be.
    We bear our children and give them a name, and then we watch them become the people they are. Letting our children make choices and decisions is hard: we know better! it’s a risk! I don’t understand! Moving from being the person who tries to keep you safe and makes decisions for you, to being the person who worries about whether your decisions are right is a tough one for parents. Too many cultures and religions endorse parents controlling their children into adulthood: we aren’t taught to respect our children.
    We need a ceremony like confirmation, where the family celebrate the young adult and they confirm their name or choose a new one. It would help teach parents to let go.

  4. @eilish – you might be interested in the #RealLiveTransAdult hashtag which has been going on Twitter today. It’s been organised by trans people to provide a similar kind of hope/outreach as “it gets better” for gay youth.
    And many thanks to tigtog for the “Don’t Feed the Trolls” link, I was looking for exactly that for another forum I’m trying to smarten up 🙂

  5. I just had a nasty run in with an horrible transphobe on a game forum I visit. I reported the thread and asked for it to be closed, and guess what? They deleted it!
    That’s awesome.
    I am really pleased to see LGBT issues getting support so emphatically from the mainstream.
    Moar plz?

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