Why blaming Leelah Alcorn's parents only compounds the bigotry

'Transparent' bigotry can go both ways, says @meghan_daum

It's a tale of two completely different worlds. In one, the television series “Transparent,” about a middle-aged father who transitions from male to female, won two Golden Globes on Sunday night and marked a watershed moment for the transgender community.

A few weeks earlier, in another world, a transgender Ohio girl killed herself by walking into a truck. In a suicide note posted online, the teen, who was born Joshua Alcorn but identified as female and called herself Leelah, described being sent to conversion therapy and expressed her hopelessness in the face of her parents' refusal to accept her identity.

“My death needs to mean something,” she wrote.

Within hours, Leelah's suicide on Dec. 28 became a trending topic on Twitter and a cri de coeur in the LGBT community. A few weeks later on a stage in Los Angeles, “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway dedicated her award to “the memory of Leelah Alcorn and too many trans people who die too young.”

So does Leelah's death — and life, for that matter — officially mean something now?

“Transparent” is a nuanced, exquisitely crafted show, and I was thrilled to see it recognized. I was also glad to hear Soloway acknowledge that not every transgender person has the advantages afforded to her lead character, who, despite decades in the closet, has a reasonably supportive family and lives in a relatively liberal, enlightened community.

But I'm a bit wary of seeing Leelah's death appropriated into a symbol of transgender oppression — specifically oppression caused by ignorant parents.

Doug and Carla Alcorn are conservative Christians who are not only mourning their child's death but being blamed for it in some quarters. Activist and columnist Dan Savage was an early participant in the pile-on, tweeting that Leelah's “parents threw her in front of that truck” and calling for them to be charged with child abuse or even manslaughter. He wasn't alone. Funeral services had to be moved to an undisclosed location because of threats to the family.

To those of us who occupy the kind of secular, urbane world depicted in “Transparent,” it can be galling to hear the Alcorns insistently refer to Leelah as their “son” even as they are making statements like “we loved him unconditionally.” From where we sit, it's easy to accuse these parents of being woefully confused about the definition of unconditional love.

But that may, in fact, be too easy. In his insightful book “Far From the Tree,” Andrew Solomon talks about “horizontal identities,” traits and values wholly separate from our parents. Mothers and fathers tend to be more comfortable with their children's “vertical identities,” their own traits and values reflected back at them, and have a hard time with horizontal identities. But, Solomon argues, a lack of total acceptance doesn't erase unconditional love.

“Love is something that ideally is there unconditionally throughout the relationship between a parent and a child,” Solomon (who is gay and who himself underwent conversion therapy) has said. “But acceptance is something that takes time.”

In a culture that throws around phrases like “unconditional love” and “radical acceptance” as if they represented black-and-white, easy concepts, this idea is, well, radical.

Let's be real. Although the Alcorns may have been tragically misguided, there is no evidence they deliberately set out to harm their child. It likely wasn't their transphobia that led to Leelah's death but, rather, their failure to see her as a person separate from them, their refusal to recognize her horizontal self. And while you may think such a refusal defines transphobia, it's just as accurate to say that shaming the parents is rooted in the same kind of bigotry, and discomfort around difference that drove their lethal mistakes.

There's no question that Leelah's death and the circumstances leading to it are worthy of — and, in fact, demand — public rage. But along with that rage should come compassion, not just for the Alcorns but for anyone who's ever been slow to reach acceptance, or whose circumscribed worldview has clouded their understanding of somebody else's experience. Without that, the “meaning” carried by Leelah's death will probably be limited to the echo chamber of hashtags and Hollywood awards speeches. And that audience is a world away from the one she so desperately needed to reach.


Twitter: @meghan_daum

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