Let’s be honest about the “perfect” LGBT teen suicide

Leelah Alcorn

I really wanted to start the new year on an upbeat note, with a nice post about the wonders of unusual sexualities, or a silly one at the least. Fate however decided differently, as the first important sex news of 2015 was about one tragic death. Of course I could have turned a blind eye to it, as many fellow journalists did worldwide. The biggest lesson I learned from my passion for kink, however, is that you must face the bad and the good alike and always be honest in their face – so here we are. This is a post about unpleasant realities: bear with me, as I really believe it’s worth it.

Update – On January 2nd, the parents of the victim had the webpages mentioned in this post removed, but many copies can be easily found online.

On December 28th, 2014 a person named Leelah Alcorn died in Cincinnati after deliberately jumping in front of a passing semi-truck. The reason of the suicide was eloquently explained in a scheduled note that popped up on Alcorn’s Tumblr after the fact. To sum it up: Leelah, born Joshua, couldn’t stand being denied sexual transition anymore after 12 years of anguish over «being a girl trapped in a boy’s body». Alcorn was just seventeen years old.
The note makes clear that the source of such a devastating despair were first and foremost the parents of the deceased, painted as religious fundamentalists who put their spiritual beliefs before the concrete needs and cries for help of their child. The statements released by the Evangelical Christian couple before the automatic message denounced them seem to support the description, and they made sure to stress how they «don’t support that, religiously» even in mourning and while being criticized by the international LGBT community and most of the media. It looks like this sad story couldn’t be better clear cut.

In fact the tragedy is so easy to understand that the blame train launched immediately on a wild ride, with more and more cars joining it as the commenters are coming back online after the holiday break. Beloved LGBT advocate Dan Savage was the first to suggest (rightly, in my humble opinion) that the parents should be prosecuted, but pretty much every activist jumped on the bandwagon using Alcorn’s suicide as an opportunity to turn the attention to their favorite sexual minority’s cause. And how could they refrain from that when the suicide note explicitly begged «for it to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up”»?
Leelah was young, had a pretty face and nice manners: you couldn’t ask for a better posterperson, and the end justifies the means, as the famous quote goes. I myself famously despise religious bigotry. How easy would it be to kick those arrogant, insensitive bumpkins while they are down – and maybe sell a book or two while I am at it. Still, remember the thing about honesty I wrote above? I’m sorry, but for all the compassion I feel for the poor Ohio kid, I can’t keep quiet about another side of this story that nobody seems to be willing to mention.

Read Alcorn’s touching last message to the world, and you cannot but notice the purple prose of the growing pains of any teenager. The certainty of being unloved by everyone, of having no real friends, of being ugly and grotesque, and already beyond any hope of ever reaching happiness no matter what – there is no need to elaborate, as we have all been there. In fact, we all know how real and crushing that pain felt: thinking of it as adults it may now seem just a laughing matter, but as adolescents everyone of us felt just as much of an unredeemable outsider. Having uncommon sexual desires only makes it worse; almost all LGBTs and kinksters suffered occasional suicidal thoughts while growing up.
Scrolling through the pink social networks pages of Leelah Alcorn the viewer is subjected to an endless barrage of “girly” iconography almost too stereotypical to be believed. The obsession for anime-inspired female and fashion standards is as evident as the absence of more realistically attainable role models; the immersion in the online discourse about transgenderism is complete and pervasive. It only takes a few minutes of rainbows, retweets, kittens and kawaii girls to instinctively think of the clichés about raging hormones, or to put the blame on the virtuality of “today’s kids” digital lifestyle and the immaterial online “friends”  also explicitly denounced in a passage from Alcorn’s note. Yet that is not the full story either.

To understand what this death really means you have to realize that sexuality doesn’t work like movies and legislators insist on portraying it. Far from being some sort of badge that you are magically assigned the day you turn 18 (or 21, or whatever the legal age is in your country) placing you squarely in Team Het Males or Team Het Females and defining you for the rest of your life, it is the result of a constantly evolving and very complex set of influences. Some of them are of course biological, but many more are exquisitely cultural. Underestimating the latter is especially absurd, since normally all of us can remember what shaped our own inclinations. Social interactions, imitation, fiction, role models, peer pressure, age, opportunity, porn and countless more items contributed to our current sexual identity – and they still do, although in time we generally become less plastic, find our ideal combination and settle for it.
Even if you really can’t remember what influenced you, it doesn’t really take much to recognize this phenomenon in action, especially on a larger scale. Think of the British predilection for caning resulting from the recently abandoned but centuries-old tradition of institutionalized corporal punishment in schools. Think of how the strictest Muslim countries, gender segregation is mandatory, show the most interest for gay sex. Conversely, think of Japan and its predominantly senior population fetishizing youth in a nationwide Lolita complex. Talking about children: think of how the pedophile hysteria fueled by the media raised the interest in a criminal behavior that was statistically irrelevant before 1985 and grew it into a global epidemic making up 80% of the “dark Web” traffic. I could list many more examples, but this is a good one to ponder since, as every parent knows, prohibiting something is the safest way to make it irresistible.

How desirable would it be “forbidden” sex to the child of parents pathologically obsessed by deviant behavior? Using the memories of my own formative years surrounded by the prurient hypocrisy of 1970s Italy – one of the most devoutly Catholic countries in the world – as a clue, I venture Leelah was pretty intrigued too. That would be just a natural reaction to the cultural environment – but as we saw above, there is yet another factor to consider.
Just like with any First World teenager, a big chunk of Alcorn’s life was spent online. And why not? When real life feels like an inescapable prison, seeking refuge on the Internet is a perfectly sensible solution. The Tumblr shows how the kid naturally gravitated toward the kind of resources, groups and imagery that best supported an ideal transgender lifestyle. Again, a reasonable behavior indeed. Except it wasn’t.

It is impossible not to notice how the combination of adolescent inner turmoil, repressive environment and tantalizing escapism created a dangerously explosive mixture. We’ll never know for sure, but the setup looks eerily similar to the conditions that lead to the spike in BDSM-related accidents among the readers of a certain book trilogy or to abused gay youth. Tease an unprepared person with visions of a temporarily unattainable erotic ideal, and he is bound to recklessly jump into it as soon as he can – or find another dramatic release.
«My death needs to mean something» wrote Alcorn, «Someone […] say “that’s fucked up” and fix it». Dying at 17 sure is fucked up, so this is my little contribution to try and fix the causes of such a tragedy. The solution, however, is not that «Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better» as Leelah wrote – or at least it is not the complete solution. I hope that this post showed how, if we honestly look at the issue from an unbiased point of view, we cannot ignore the faults on every side of the story. Sure, of course society needs to be taught about sexual diversity, tolerance and integration. Of course religious fundamentalism must be openly denounced as a terrible evil even when it isn’t brown-skinned and rambling about “holy” wars. But this is not enough.

For a real solution, gender issues must be taught in the larger context of a realistic sexual education, free of political or religious agendas and true to how life actually works instead of its edulcorated, criminalized or medicalized representations commonly used for this purpose. For a real solution, parents must be as sexually educated as their children. For a real solution, we must suspend the childish insistence on politically correctness and clearly state that some “sexual drama” is plainly idiotic. Case in point: there is no fucking possibility in the world that Leelah Alcorn actually had transgender urges at the age of four. At seventeen? Sure, why not. At ten? Maybe. But sexual dysphoria at 4 is just not biologically possible: either it was a lie, or it was traumatically induced by the parents through a really diabolical and prolonged process. This leads us to the last and possibly most important ingredient in a real solution.
What seriously needs to be taught in schools and in families everywhere is critical thinking and information management. We live in the XXI century: everyone and their kids can instantly access all sort of information just by tapping a couple of icons, and we cannot keep ignoring the necessity of skillfully separating real facts from bunk. If Leelah Alcorn had been taught the importance of not cherry-picking online resources and of comprehensively searching for facts, he would have spent a little less time on Japanese miniskirts Tumblrs and a few life-saving moments more on nonreligious suicide prevention resources; listened less to childish “tranny youth” websites and possibly heard the wisdom of the It gets better program, actually helping LGBT youth worldwide instead of drowning it in self-serving drama. Of course this is not only about gender issues, but applies to the whole spectrum of non-normative sexualities.

Just in my small practice, I am tired of seeing foot fetishists whose lives were destroyed by decades spent ogling specialized websites that only made them more and more socially challenged simply because they had never found out that there are real-life events where they could easily find their soul mates. I am devastated by the stories of so many self-destructive women and abusive men who damaged themselves through unhealthy forms of pathological sadomasochism just because they weren’t aware of BDSM and its ability of funneling their behaviors into safer, self-defusing sublimations. All it takes to fix this sexually fucked-up society is honesty and intelligence. Will you help me spread the word?

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