Friday, January 2, 2015

Some Advice to Allies Following the Suicide of Leelah Alcorn

Having listened to a bunch of conversations about Leelah Alcorn's suicide, I wanted to provide some advice to cis gender allies who would like to help advocate for children and adults who wish to gender transition.
Leelah Alcorn committed suicide because, rather than respecting her gender identity, her family rejected it, isolated her from friends and the internet, and sent her to "Christian therapists" who told her a trans identity is a sickness she must cure by faith and prayer. Her despair was built of familial rejection, societal transphobia, the pain of not being allowed to live in her identified gender, and a lost hope that she would be able to transition before puberty and her body's masculinization.
It's this last item that I want to talk about with you. Like other trans-identified children, Leelah wanted to have access to puberty-blocking drugs. (Yes, they are considered safe--doctors regularly prescribe them to children who don't identify as trans, but are experiencing "precocious puberty" at a young age. And yes, all they do is postpone puberty, which will resume if they stop taking the drugs. The fear often cited by those unsupportive of allowing children to live in identified genders other than that they were assigned at birth--that it's just a phase which they may grow out of--shouldn't justify denying trans children access to puberty-delaying medications, because if a child actually did decide not to transition, they could just stop taking the meds and their puberty would resume.) By using hormone-blocking meds, a trans child can avoid experiencing their body changing in ways that undermine their sense of self--something most trans people alive today have experienced, and can tell you is very painful.
I have heard some very well-intentioned allies arguing for trans children's access to transition services--supportive therapy and hormone-blockers--in the aftermath of Leelah Alcorn's suicide. I appreciate that advocacy a great deal. But there is an aspect of some of what I've heard that I've found very problematic, that I want to raise with you here, and that has to do with discussions of "passing."
First of all, the term itself is one I find highly problematic, as I have addressed before on this blog. In short, we usually use the word "passing" to refer to a person hiding their true identity. I am not "passing" as a man. I am not "really" a woman who is performing a successful deception on the public. I *am* a man. By reiterating the term "passing," well-intentioned cis allies re-entrench cissexism--the belief that cis people's gender identities are authentic and unquestionable, while trans people's gender identities are a performance open to question, and in some way fundamentally deceptive.
It is true that most people who identify as trans men or trans women would like to have bodies that conform to our society's ideals of what men's and women's bodies look like. Those ideals are currently based on cis bodies. Binary-identified trans people typically wish to have bodies similar to cis people's for one or both of two reasons. The first is internal--the thing we call dysphoria. People who identify as women, whether cis or trans, often feel uncomfortable with having substantial amounts of facial hair, for example, or with having only one breast, and would feel the same if they were living alone on the proverbial desert island. They want their bodies to conform to some basic female norms--again, currently defined around idealized cis female bodies. Thus, a trans girl who starts to grow a beard at puberty is very likely to experience psychological discomfort with that. That's bodily gender dysphoria.  And just as when a cis woman has a mastectomy, we view surgical recreation of the missing breast as a medically-justified reconstruction rather than cosmetic, we should view removing breast tissue from a trans man's body as medically-justified, not cosmetic.  It's a way to treat internal gender dysphoria.
But another reason most binary-identified trans people today wish to have bodies similar to those of cis women and men is social: the huge impact on our lives of transphobic gender policing. Visibly trans women in particular are subjected to huge amounts of social stigma, street harassment, job discrimination, bathroom panic, and sexualized violence. This social mistreatment of trans women is transmisogyny, and it is intensified in interaction with race/ethnicity, and with other characteristics such as disability. But even those of us with the privileges of being white and male suffer disrespect and sexualized violence when we are visibly trans gender. Wanting to avoid disrespect, discrimination and violence is rational, and we're told the way to do this is to gain access to hormones and surgery and voice training and other services so that our trans status will become invisible. We're told that we must "pass" as cis people to avoid transphobia.
Now, it is true that Leelah Alcorn wanted access to testosterone blockers so that her body wouldn't masculinize at puberty, and as an adult trans woman, she could have a body that would look like that of a cis woman. Probably, she wanted that both due to internal gender dysphoria, and to avoid social gender-policing shaming and violence. As an ally, it's fine and right that you should want to voice support for Leelah and for trans kids everywhere, and to explain why access to puberty-postponing medication is important.
But please, please, don't do it by saying something like this: "A trans person needs to pass in order to be successful. If they don't pass, their lives will be horrible. So they need all sorts of medical treatments starting before puberty."
Please bear in mind several things. First of all, the vast majority of the trans people you'll encounter today have had no access to puberty-postponing drugs. So most trans men you'll meet developed breasts and hips, and most trans women you'll meet had their voices change, their shoulders broaden, their facial hair start to grow. If you say "unless you start transition before puberty, your life will be pathetic," you're consigning all of us to a dustbin of gender tragedy.
Secondly, bear in mind that violence and mockery are not "caused" by being visibly trans gender. They are caused by transphobia. The end goal of reducing the appalling rate at which trans people attempt suicide will be met when we embrace visibly trans people of all genders. Normalizing the idea that only those who live in a binary gender and appear cis gender by valorizing "passing" is counterproductive.
I am certainly not asking allies to stop acknowledging the extreme stigma aimed at visibly trans people, especially visibly trans women of other marginalized statuses, such as trans women of color. What I'm asking is that you frame that stigma and violence as problems rather than as facts of nature. Don't naturalize the idea that trans people must "pass" to be "successful." Instead, acknowledge the force of gender-policing violence in our society, but frame it as a problem we as a society must fight. Our goal should be to live in a society in which trans bodies are not seen as deviant, ugly, lesser, or in need of massive medical revisions. A visibly trans body should be embraced as no less valid than a cis person's body.
Yes, it's good to advocate for trans children's right to be treated with love, respect, and medical transitional support. But I would frame this in terms of reducing internal gender dysphoria, not in terms of some requirement that trans people get tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical interventions if we are to be respected.
I appreciate the advocacy of all of our allies. And as my allies, I hope you will work to dismantle the ideology of "passing" rather than entrenching it in your advocacy for our access to transition services.


  1. Presumably you have read her Reddit account? nostalgiaprincess. You'll find more info on that account if you haven't already checked it out including the last post on there about her Christmas day presents:

  2. Thanks for writing this. I 100% agree with you about the need to avoid the term "passing".

    The reddit post linked to above is heartbreaking. :-(

    P.S. You should blog more often!