listening to the living and the dead -- ruminations on
I debated for a long time about whether or not to write about Leelah1. In part because I loathe the prurient media fascination in recent years with trans kids and also because the things I have to say are going to be difficult, uncomfortable, and could bring me a lot of harassment. Trans women of colour (twoc), dear friends of mine and people I care about, have received death threats and endless online harassment for talking about some of the topics I’m going to cover in this post.
I can’t ignore Leelah’s entreaty: “Fix society. Please”2.
I also can’t ignore the fact that, on Twitter at least, people have been demanding #JusticeforLeelahAlcorn without any clear notion of what this means or what it entails. In a general sense, true justice for Leelah would involving fixing society, just as she asks us to do. But as I’ve been articulating on my own Twitter account, for the past few days, this hashtag and most discussions only focus on one part of her story. The easy part.
This part, of course, is the abuse she endured at the hands of her parents. Most calls for ‘justice’ in the Twitter hashtag mainly involve parents accepting their children, religion bashing, and similar remarks. At least this is the comments from the mainstream/cis society.
The response from the trans community has likewise been disappointing in how much it misses the mark and refuses to engage with narratives and comments not only expressed within Leelah’s suicide note but that have been articulated by trans women of colour since we started the entire modern ‘gay rights’ movement3.
This post/essay/etc will be an exploration into what justice for Leelah Alcorn might actually look like and some of what is needed to ‘fix society’.
My gender/sexuality is bakla. But, of course, I need to render this into a coherent identity so that most people reading this can comfortably ‘categorize’ me in their heads. In Anglo terms, I use ‘trans pinay,’ which means that I am a Filipina and trans. While I recently decided to stop using ‘trans woman of colour’ to frame my identity, I’m going to momentarily step back into this framework for the ease exposition.
That covers who I am… but of course, many people will want to know why they should bother to listen to me, since the world is such that twoc should only ever be visible in death (or porn, I guess). I am a writer and blogger. I wrote the book, decolonizing trans/gender 101, among others. I founded the publishing house, Biyuti Publishing, as a way for living twoc/tpoc to express our voices (usually eschewed by most mainstream media). Hopefully these are enough credentials to satisfy most.
Criticisms of responses to Leelah’s suicide
By and large, it is unsurprising to me that the mainstream has largely focused on Leelah’s abuse at the hands of her parents. I’m equally unsurprised that most people are attributing her abuse to religion, rather than the general culture of transmisogyny4 we live in.
The problem with this focus on religion is that it elides the fact that religion, in this particular case, was the excuse used by Leelah’s parents to justify their abusive transmisogyny. However, it is not the cause. Already there are think pieces explaining how transmisogyny has no real basis in either the Bible or the teachings of Christ. The focus on religion also elides the reality that many secular parents are just as transmisogynist as Christian parents can be.
The problem is transmisogyny, not religion. Justice for Leelah, in this case, means dealing with that, not condemning Christianity as a whole.
The responses from the trans community are just as troubling and off-the-mark as the mainsteam focus on religion. There are two, in particular, which trouble me: #RealLiveTransAdult and the stories from late transitioners. At present, I’m only going to get into #RealLiveTransAdult, since the problems with the ‘I transitioned late and I’m okay’ will be covered in a later section.
#RealLiveTransAdult is a hashtag that popped up on Twitter as a way, it appears, to give hope to young trans people that – and this phrasing is intentional – it gets better.
Why is this a problem?
Leelah writes in her note: “People say ‘it gets better’ but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.”5
In reading stuff written in the tag, this is the overwhelming impression I get. That the hashtag really is ‘it gets better’ for trans people6.
Beyond the fact that Leelah says for herself that this isn’t a useful message to young trans girls in her situation, the hashtag is a problem because it presents individual narratives without any real call to action. Leelah was in crisis. The message that (maybe) it would get better literally did nothing to save her. Just as it is unlikely to save any trans girl currently struggling with the same problems.
Moreover, while these positive stories feel good and are heart warming, they don’t really help the trans people for whom things have not gotten better. I would be one of those people. Overall, I wouldn’t exactly say that things have become worse since I was Leelah’s age, but they certainly aren’t better.
And they won’t get better until we actually fix society.
Why didn’t Leelah have hope for the future?
One additional problem of the responses to Leelah’s suicide, beyond the fact that few people are actually listening to her, is that most of them fail to address a critical component for her suicide: hopelessness.
At the moment, I’m struggling with major depression that is resulting, in part, from a realization that my current career is dead likely to do with my transition. I am suicidal. I think about dying every day. I wish I were dead every day. I was literally searching for resources a week ago because I thought I might have to check myself into a hospital to save my life.
For me (and for Leelah, from what I understand from her note) a big part of this is hopelessness for the future. It is my feelings of hopelessness that usually push me from a general “I wish I were dead” to a more specific “let me actually start planning how I can die”. Because present hardship can be endured if one has the belief that someday it will get better. Lose this belief and then… why bother trying to endure?
The thing is, is that Leelah tells us herself why she had no hope.
Late transition and Cisnormative standards of beauty
When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart. The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life.7
As mentioned earlier, one response from the trans community has been people who’ve transitioned later in life trying to communicate (to youth) that late transitioning isn’t a bad thing. This focuses on the “the longer you wait, the harder it is to transition” aspect of her hopelessness, which is meaningful… to an extent.
What I haven’t seen anyone really address is the cisnormative8 aspect of “I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life”. I’m sure this is something that cuts many trans women reading this because of the ways that it mirrors a common phrase – ‘man in a dress’ – often invoked by people wishing to deny trans women our womanhood. It is also a really common punch line in a lot of media.
Women are subjected to a great deal of stringent requirements for what it means to look like a woman. This is compounded for trans women because we have to not only deal with the general (impossible to meet) beauty standards set up by models and actresses, but we have to deal with the ‘real’ women aspect of it all.
But why is this reaction from the trans community disappointing? Well, as part of the world that needs fixing, we actually tend to be far harder on each other for the ways that we fail to live up to cisnormative beauty standards. And we also, in general, fail to actually interrogate these standards in an attempt to dismantle them.
I know trans women of colour who are constantly misgendered and bullied by white trans women for being too brown, for being too fat, for being too disabled, etc and so on. Too many trans women will be like Calpernia Adams and Andrea James whose sole purpose it is to enforce cisnormative beauty standards.
Standards which are more dangerously enforced by cis society.
It is not by accident that the misery of trans girls is brought to mainstream attention only when a young, white, slim, and apparently able bodied, trans girl commits suicide. When Mark Aguhar killed herself in March 2012, few beyond her immediate circle noticed or cared9. Sure, she was older but she was also an artist who’d shown work in galleries. She was also fat and brown and not even remotely close to embodying the cisnormative standard of beauty.
In generaly, neither the cis nor trans communities are really willing to address or deal with the enforcement of cisnormative standards of beauty that at once robbed Leelah of hope but also ensured that, in death at least, her life matters (and matters more than the deaths of the trans people whose distance to cisnormative beauty is even greater).
The issue of cisnormative beauty standards isn’t just about being pretty. This is something expressed by Leelah: “I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy”10.
The issue of desirability and trans women is really contentious. This is the sort of thing that, when discussed by trans women of colour I know, leads to death threats and continuous online harassment.
Outside of porn, which treats trans women’s bodies as fetish objects and not as human individuals, there is no real represention of trans women as being desirable and worthy of love. The abject, pathetic trans woman is a common trope in media.
However, trying to have an honest and open discussion that challenges the transmisogyny of many people’s sexual and romantic ‘preferences’, is a risky affair online. As noted, the (nice) general response is “I simply don’t find trans women attractive because of penises” or something similar. At worst, this leads to (and this is very common from lesbians and feminists, when this is articulated by trans lesbians) accusations that trans women want to require that everyone have sex with us, whether they want to or not (basically accussing us of being rapists for wanting people to not be disgusted by our bodies). And, of course, the death threats.
Tie into this, the reality that a lot of Black and/or Latina trans women in the US are murdered every year by intimate partners who ‘discover’ that they aren’t ‘real’ women.
How, exactly, are we to offer hope to young trans girls that one day they might find love, romance, companionship, or whatever their hearts yearn for?
How comforting is it, exactly, for trans girls to hear cis people talk about how they would love a theoretical trans child but never talk about how they might love or date a real live trans adult? Or how cis people will never talk about the fact that when some of them are intimate with trans woman of colour, the result is often violent and can be deadly?
But this, especially, is one part of Leelah’s note that cis people do not want to deal with and won’t. Despite the fact that this very much is one part of society that needs fixing. I mean… we can’t even have these discussions in the LGBT community without trans women getting death threats and being accused of being rapists.
Leelah also writes, “I’m never going to transition successfully”11. Like before, this is also about cisnormative standards of beauty. However, it goes deeper than this, since the sentence precedes Leelah’s painful expressions of body dysphoria: “I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound”12. Because the issues contained in this aren’t limited to just the fact that women aren’t beautiful when we have large feet, big hands, adam’s apples, deep voices, have facial hair, etc and so on.
But rather that, in a very real sense, if you have these things, you cannot be a ‘real’ woman. This is also what Leelah refers to when she talks about being perceived as a ‘man in drag’ for all her life. It is about the embodied reality that trans women aren’t real, should they have this combination of physical characteristics.
Take a look through the comments that the model Amiyah Scott gets on her instagram account some time13. Easily one of the most beautiful women on the planet who, other than being Black, hits pretty much all the cisnormative requirements for beauty, and yet… Every single picture she posts has people misgendering her and denying her womanhood.
The despair of trans women goes so much deeper than just whether or not we are beautiful or ugly. It also goes much deeper than just Leelah’s parents refusal to recognize her girlhood. In so many ways, this is a world that tells trans women that we don’t really exist because we aren’t and will never be ‘real’ women. And this is, ultimately, a denial of our humanity.
As noted in the previous section, this denial of womanhood has very real (often violent) consequences for Black trans women like Amiyah Scott.
Giving meaning to death
Leelah says “My death needs to mean something”14. Combined with her demand that we ‘fix society.’ Addressing these concerns is what true justice for her will look like.
And, of course, based on above and what robbed Leelah of her hope, how do we move from these general, social problems into effective real change in the world?
We will start off easy – except that this one action appears to be impossible for many people – listen to what trans women, trans girls, are telling you.
The thing that has had me filled with rage and sorrow for the past few days isn’t just that Leelah killed herself, but that few people really appear to be listening to what she has to say about her life and death in her suicide note.
I made my critiques and analysis in this essay format, using normative grammar so that people who don’t normally take me seriously, might take me seriously for this one post. Why? Because people don’t want to listen and will use any excuse to discount what I’m writing.
Also distressing to me, is that not a single part of Leelah’s narrative, as expressed in her note, is unique to her (in broad strokes, her story, of course is unique to her because it is hers alone). Trans women, especially the trans women of colour I know, have been speaking up about these things for a long time.
One of the most frustrating thing about having to even write this, is knowing that I have blog posts on this blog that cover some of these ideas. Other trans women of colour have talked about every aspect I’ve discussed here. None of this is new.
But no one is listening. They aren’t listening to Leelah, despite all the attention her death is getting and they sure haven’t been listening to any of the living, breathing trans women of colour.
One of the reasons why I’ve been careful to talk about cisnormative standards of beauty and why this section has ‘girlhood’ not ‘womanhood’ is because people, both conservative and the left, refuse to believe that trans girls have a girlhood. Or, in more technical language, that we were socialized as girls.
Really read Leelah’s note and try to see how her comments about her body not being able to live up to some idealized idea of ‘woman’ is not really all that different from the experiences of cis girls. It is these same toxic elements of sexism that lead so many girls to develop eating disorders15.
All of this matters, especially for the mainstream media, since so many stories about Leelah use the wrong name. Just as story after story about trans women are sure to use the birth name of trans women and to remind readers that, once upon a time, we were actually boys. And, thus, raised as boys.
This very basic denial of girlhood, of course, is inextricably linked to a denial of womanhood.
This is an especially toxic idea that, unfortunately, is heavily mobilized by cis feminists as a way to deny trans girls/women access to women’s services. Likewise, this idea is also used by conservatives who induce bathroom panic about the dangers of allowing ‘men in dresses’ to use women’s washrooms.
All across America, at this very moment, there are schools systems re-evaluating their policies on trans children and far too many of them are coming up with solutions that force trans girls to use gender neutral facilities, rather than using the girls’. All of which is happening out of this very basic belief that trans girls aren’t girls.
So what can you do?
Get involved in your local school district and try to ensure that, when they attempt to create policy for trans students, that all trans kids can use the facilities of their gender (inclusive of having neutral facilities for non-binary children).
This is one concrete step you can take that will make a big difference for trans kids.
Also… advocate for exactly what Leelah asks for: “Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better.”16
This is kind of a big one. But it is goes much deeper than just giving access to trans people (including kids) access to health care. Because the nature of this access matters a great deal.
One of the big elements of Leelah’s note are concerns around transition. One of the good parts of the late transition stories is that they are clearing up common misconceptions. And this kind of education is exactly what we need. In schools, as Leelah asks. But also out of schools. We just need it.
In the US, there are only a handful of states that prohibit insurance providers from excluding trans health care from their policies. Most insurance plans treat transition related health care as ‘cosmetic’ and do not cover them. This? Is a really big problem as it creates a large barrier for many trans adults in the US, since the individual cost of transition can get quite high, depending on what the individual wants.
Contact your representative and get them to start pushing legislation that prohibits this kind of medical discrimination.
But this isn’t the only problem. There are also lots of medical barriers for transition. In that the WPATH standards of care place an absurd burden on trans individuals who wish to medically transition. You should also push for an informed consent model.
Trans women and domestic violence
This will be a thorny issue for most but as I mentioned in an earlier section, the issue of intimate partner violence is really important for trans women. As noted, many Black and/or Latina trans women in the US are murdered by their intimate partners.
Many more trans women experience intimate partner violence and abuse that, fortunately, does not result in death. Yet, we are consistently left out of not only statistics gathered about women and domestic violence, but we are completely invisible in pretty much all mainstream movements that attempt to address the violence women experience.
Moreover, most services for survivors of domestic violence do not serve trans women. And this denial of care is just as much the fault of feminists as it is the fault of conservatives, since both (for different reasons) will continuously deny that trans women are women, and thus should not be allowed to use these services.
What can you do?
Get involved in your local support services for survivors/victims of domestic assault and get them to include trans women in their services. To actually and really change their policies so that trans women who deal with intimate partner violence actually have support and service that they can use.
Leelah writes in her closing paragraph of her suicide note that “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights”17. Notice the true force of this statement: that trans people are treated like human beings. It seems like such a small thing… and yet it is a fundamental part of the trans experience that few of us have our humanity recognized.
A society where trans girls are human means one that allows us access to gender appropriate facilities, like women’s shelters or, yes, public restrooms. One that does not deny us health care or, that when we can access it, puts up so many absurd and often insurmountable barriers. One where each of us is granted enough agency to actually know ourselves and our genders and have others treat us like the humans we are.
A world where trans girls can grow up to find love without the threat of violence. Where the girls with beards, man-hands, barrel chests, and so on can be seen as the beautiful and real women that we are. Where talking about sexual desire and fetishism of trans women doesn’t result in death threats and harassment. A world where not only do parents love their trans kids but where cis adults aren’t viscerally disgusted by the notion of dating a trans woman.
This is the world I want to live in. This is a world where a young girl like Leelah, struggling with abusive parents, might find enough hope to stay alive until she can get away.
And it is a world that, at the very least, starts with listening to trans women when we talk about our lives, experiences, and selves while we are still alive. But also one where people afford us dignity when we die.
This is not the world we live in today. And we will never get there so long as people, cis and trans alike, refuse to engage with the difficult, complex, messy parts of a society where trans girls aren’t treated like humans and everything that this entails.