Today in Washington, DC, there was a rally and march in the memory of Leelah Alcorn, the 17-year-old transgender girl who, a few weeks ago, killed herself because she could see no hope. Her parents' staunchly religious-based response to her coming out to them was to get her "conversion" therapy--which never works and does serious harm. Leelah went online, wrote a suicide note, and threw herself in front of a truck.
She is one of thousands of TGs--young and older--who have had similar responses to the absurdity of society's reactions to the simple fact of our existence. But for some reason, Leelah's specific circumstances and her voice have risen above the clutter, have become a clarion call for change. So across the country there have been vigils, marches, rallies in her name, and each of them wanted what was wanted in Washington: desperately needed reform. Make conversion therapy illegal, just for starters. Treat transpeople like human beings.
I live and work in the Chicago suburbs, but because I happen to know one of the rally's organizers I was asked if I would like to speak. I'm a good choice, as the first transgender teacher in the nation, a transgender parent, and the parent of a transgender child. Not a bad trifecta when it comes down to it, and it was on these subjects that I was asked to expound. Of course I agreed, so on a very cold day in DC--maybe not as cold as Chicago, but then I am not foolish enough to stand around outside making speeches in Chicago--I found myself today in Mt. Vernon Square speaking into a portable microphone to a few hundred people who had gathered in front of a library.
What follows is the speech I gave.
Our final speaker is a teacher, a writer, and a parent, who also
happens to be transgender. In 1998, she was the first teacher in America to
transition on the job, in a conservative suburb of Chicago. All these years
later, she still teaches at the same school. Please welcome Karen Topham.
I was surprised to be able to do what I did seventeen years
ago. People told me it couldn’t be done, and anyway that Lake Forest, Illinois,
was certainly not the place to try it. Lambda Legal even refused to represent
me—they said they needed to take on cases they could win. But I figured, hey, why
not? People can surprise you. And they did.
1998 was a time when LGB had hardly entered the nation’s
lexicon and T was something you drank with honey when your aunt was visiting.
No one understood transsexuals, as we were all called then. I was about to
become a member of some exotic and rare species. A curiosity. Maybe something
you saw in a zoo. I told people—and there was so much truth in this—that I
existed to make everyone’s life more interesting.
My greatest concern when I transitioned was not my job,
though it was a concern. It was the impact that it would have on my three
children. They were young at the time—13, 5, and 3—and I worried that I could
be exposing them to potential violence and to things they could not understand.
My father, whose politics stand somewhere to the right of Rush Limbaugh, and who
did NOT accept me, demanded in fact that I wait until they were out of high school
at least; he never could comprehend that my transition was the only way I could
preserve myself so that I would still be there to see
them all get out of high school.
My children, as it turned out, were fine. When I told my
five year old, she replied, “Oh! You have a girl brain? Then you’re a girl!” I
knew right then I would always have the most important relationships in my
world. And throughout their growing up, I could not imagine what life would
have been like without them. They told the world they had “two moms” and
explained that when they felt like it, and even though their parents were
divorced, my world was whole and complete.
In this way, and in this way only, I feel real sympathy for
the parents of Leelah Alcorn. The worst nightmare I can possibly imagine for any
parent is to bury a child, and that is what they have had to do. And the
saddest part is that, in this case, it was so absurdly unnecessary. It did not need
to happen. They turned their backs on their daughter’s needs because of their
strict adherence to outmoded and artificial religious beliefs.
Let me say that again: They turned their backs on their
child’s needs because of religious
Not that it doesn’t happen again and again in this world,
but really: Does that make any sense at all?
In the name of Jesus, who asked that we love even the least
among us, they caused their own child unconscionable pain. They made her hate
them so much that her dying words to them were an obscenity splattered across
the internet. And now they have an empty bedroom where a child once slept. And
no matter how much they deny it, no matter how much they tell themselves it is
not so, you know that as they try to slip into sleep each night they are
thinking that this was their fault. They would be doing so even if it were not
their fault. It’s what parents do.
And in this awful, powerful, sad case, the terrifying truth is that it was
at least to some degree their fault.
Leelah might not agree with me, might want me to pin all the
blame on her parents. But I can’t. I can’t because I know first hand how hard
it is when a child tells you this news. You see I am not only a transgender
woman, but I am also the parent of a transgender son. And when my 17-year-old,
who had been very troubled for a lifetime, came to me one evening and told me
that, no, “lesbian” was wrong, and so was “bisexual,” and a recent heterosexual
fling was just wrong
—that in truth he was actually a boy… well it’s hard to
admit this but my first reaction was anger.
This child had been reinventing personas for at least a
decade, had gone through about five names, characters and sexualities by then,
had been very difficult to understand a lot of the time, and yet I had always
accepted and offered love and support. But this time… this time seemed a
blatant copycatting of me
and it was
crazy… and I knew from my own experience how awful and traumatic a transition
can be if it is not fully accepted, and that it would
not be fully accepted, and how much pain there would be. I
did not want that for my child.
Transition was hard for my son. He was the first transgender
student in his school, and his school did everything wrong. He was made to use
the girls’ bathrooms. Only a couple of teachers ever used his chosen name. No
one but a few friends used the right gender when referring to him. He had to
fight for every bit of acceptance he got. It took him a year and a half—until
the last choral concert of his career—before he finally received permission to
perform in a tux rather than a dress. But oh he beamed that night. I had not
seen him so happy in years.
So it took a while for me to come around. Not as long as my
father, who seventeen years later has still not really come around and mostly
just pretends I am no different whenever fate thrusts us together. But when I
knew my son was serious, when I knew it was real, of course I accepted it: I
love my son; that’s what you do. And now, all these years later, he has fully
transitioned and is on hormones and, though he is still troubled by issues
having nothing to do with gender, he is healthier and more focused than he has
been in years.
As a teacher, I think I’d give myself a C- for that one.
I mean I let my own emotions get in the way of my child’s
needs, and I did not recognize that he was finally at the one epiphany in his
life that was real and true. But I think my son is a different case than most. As
I said, his problems were more complicated than gender issues. In most cases, though,
what parents are faced with is more straightforward: a child who tells them
that he or she is not the gender they thought they had. And I understand that
this might come as quite a surprise, especially if, like me, the child was
hiding it out of fear. And then, suddenly, your seemingly normal boy tells you,
“Hey, Mom, I’m a girl”? You might be excused a momentary bit of shock.
See here is the thing: that announcement was the single most important thing
has ever said. She has been building toward that moment for a long time, and in
this next few minutes lies the entire
. I know. I tried to tell my mom when I was twelve and she shut me
down. The next time I tried to tell anyone was when my universe was imploding
because of my gender dysphoria, when I was forty
So when your
child starts this
. And do more
than that. Hear
. Hear the desperation in the voice of a young person who
can no longer live a life he or she does not understand and does not feel is
right. Hear the plea when your child asks you to help make right what nature
had not. Listen to the words, but hear the pain that underscores them.
And if your child is talking to you at a point in life where
pain is still far away because he or she is too young to understand society’s
nonsense, then count your blessings, but hear the echo of the pain that will
be there if you don’t
help. Because none of this is ever
going to go away.
It won’t be easy. Transgender children tend to be even more
self-centered than cis-children. And we all know how self-centered children can
be. They have finally succeeded in being themselves, and that is everything!
And while you may be struggling with the changes, trying to keep up with
everything, your child is reveling in them and wondering why you are not just excited
for him or her at every second.
And when you screw up—because you will—it can send your child into a funk. Even
as tiny a matter as a pronoun—you may think it went unnoticed, but it didn’t--when
you screw up, just apologize and move on. As long as you are trying,
that will register. So try. It’s just a word. You’ll get it. Tell you what: you
have my permission to have a little extra trouble if your child wants to be
called “they,” because as an English teacher I concur that “they” is just weird
, but even they
is ultimately a legitimate choice, and it is a thing you
can get used to. There are far deeper
With my son, along the way were a hundred dark depressions.
Along the way were deep and suicidal moments. I understood them. I have had
You all know the statistics: 41% of TG people try to commit
suicide. Too many, like Leelah, succeed. I am part of those statistics; so is
my son. We are still here because we happen to have a loving support system,
something that Leelah did not have. But it is not really all her parents’ fault
that she did what she did any more than it is my father’s fault that I tried to
kill myself or my
fault that my son
wanted to. The fault lies in the hopelessness that is engendered when we see
where all of this leads in the society we are going to end up living in. The
fault lies in bigotry and prejudice and fear that cause people to reject that
which they do not understand. The fault lies not in God and religion itself but
in the ways people twist them to justify their own hatred and stubborn
rejection. The fault lies in antiquated laws that need to be updated NOW to
protect all of us in the workplace, in schools, in shopping malls, and (yes)
even in our own homes. The fault lies in a society that not only tolerates but
collaborates in the fears and prejudice of the least informed of its people,
providing even a police force that far too often tends to laugh at and fail to
respond properly to the needs of transgender victims of crime.
Of course, we
that society. So in a very real way, the fault lies in us.
Leelah Alcorn and so many others took their own lives
because they could see no other way out. They saw no possible way of becoming
who they knew they needed to be, and they were not strong enough to live as
anyone else. When I sat in a garage with a car running I felt the same way. I
was saved by the fortunate interference of a phone call from a friend from
church who had missed me at a meeting. I have never known why I answered that
phone, but I’ve always been glad I did. If I had not been there, I honestly do
not think my son would have made it through his transition. And that particular
domino effect is not one I care to contemplate.
If you ask me, though, I’ll tell you this:
Being the parent of a TG child is the most natural thing in
the universe. You take a child you love. Add even more love to help him through
difficult moments. Change a pronoun and a name. You know what you have?
Sadly, horrendously, this is a thing that Leelah Alcorn’s
parents did not figure out. And because of that, they will suffer for the rest
of their lives. And because Leelah’s final messages happened to capture the
attention and the imagination of social media in a way that none before her
had, we are gathering here like others elsewhere to remember her and to demand
justice and changing laws. And maybe, just maybe, this is the tipping point.
Maybe this is the one case that will be able to put a face on this nightmare
that the non-LGBT world can see, that our cis-brothers and sisters can point to
when they think about the thing they would rather not be thinking about.
Maybe Leelah Alcorn will finally be the one to help bring
about the change she wanted to see in the world. We can only hope. Because out
there are a thousand other Leelahs, scared and thinking that they are alone,
watching what happens here. And God help us all if we don’t do something that stops
more parents from learning what it feels like to know that empty room.