On December 28th Leelah (Josh) Alcorn committed suicide. In the Tumblr note she scheduled to upload after her death, Leelah implies that her parents’ strict rejection of her identity was one of the factor that led her to this decision.
I’m not a parent, so I don’t want to ignorantly hand out parenting suggestions. However, I do want to start a dialogue about this story in the Christian community.
Instead of offering my own naive words of advice, I’ve pulled out three quotes from Leelah’s note to focus on. Each of these three points highlight things Leelah seemed to deeply wish that her Christian parents would understand.
1. You can’t force your child to accept your beliefs
“They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight christian boy…”
I love what Jamie (the very worst missionary) once said on this topic. In her post titled “Not All Pastor’s Kids Are Christian. Sorry.” she talks about her own experience as a pastors wife, parenting a child who now identifies as an atheist. While Jamie expects their children to act respectful towards her and her husband (and their chosen profession), when it comes to their faith she only asks her children to be honest with her in their journey towards truth. She doesn’t ask them to pretend to be something they are not:
“Believing in Jesus? Receiving His redemption? These are not commands to be given by a father and obeyed by a child. They are a loving invitation from God to his people, every last one of His people, and He is patiently awaiting their reply…”
2. “Corrective” Therapies don’t work
“My mom started taking me to a therapist but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.”
The more research I did on Leelah’s story, the more terrible stories I came across written by people who had survived their own “treatment”. Websites like Beyond Ex-Gay and Truth Wins Out have pages dedicated to sharing the stories of treatment survivors. I’ve also included a video of one survivor story below because I feel like it sums up the kind of spiritual and emotional trauma many survivors experienced.
3. Isolating your Child Can be Dangerous
“So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.”
I’ve often been told that when a child becomes a teenager their friends become more influential than their parents. I can see how that might be terrifying as a parent. But really, we were all teenagers once, so we shouldn’t need studies to tell us how vital friendships are to adolescent development and mental health.
Just in case some of us have forgotten, I’ve included a quote from The Public Health Agency of Canada’s summary of several studies on the topic of adolescents and friendship below:
“Young people need friends: they are a protective factor against emotional and behavioural problems, and having friends to talk to promotes emotional well‑being.”
Leelah’s parents didn’t just isolate her from her friends at school, they also took away her computer and phone, and “forbid” her from using social media.
I’m not going to pretend the internet isn’t a terrifying place. There is a whole other level of grossness available on the internet that I wouldn’t want my kid to have access to either. But it’s also a vital tool in most of our lives that isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. As frightening as the virtual world can be, it can also provide support and community for kids when they aren’t able to find it anywhere else. For example, Transexual adults were quick to reach out to Trans teens using the #RealLifeTransAdult in the wake of Leelah’s death.
As someone who strives to support the LGBT loved ones I have in my life, I have my own biases on this topic. As I mentioned above, I’m also not a parent, so I can’t even pretend to be qualified to give actual parenting advice. I am a Christian, however, and someday, I hope to be a parent. So what I said above about starting a dialogue, I really mean that. The Christian community can’t afford to quietly ignore these issues while we lose kids like Leelah.
If you are a parent, particularly a Christian parent, I would love to hear back from you on this topic. How would you respond if your child told you the kind of things Leelah wrote about in her final letter?
I saw a comment on this issue elsewhere that simply asked parents “Would you rather your child be gay/trans or be dead?” because the level of violence aimed at LGBTQ kids – from themselves as self-harm or suicide – or from elsewhere as bullying and abuse, is so much higher than it is for straight and cisgender kids. That’s just fact, and if it really comes down to it, what would be worse: accepting your child as is (as a sinner even), or burying them?
However, of course that comment came from someone outside of the christian community, and as someone raised inside it, I realize that when posed to truly conservative parents, they would argue against it simply being one or the other. I’m sure Leelah’s parents felt that they were doing everything in their power to save her: something that blinded them to the very real danger they were putting her in.
When I started writing this comment, my infant daughter was on the couch beside me, cooing and wiggling. I’m back to finish it now after she got fussy, and I needed to give her a snuggle so she could nap. Right now, she only wants to sleep in my arms, and let me tell you… it’s an incredible feeling. That this vulnerable little being feels safest with me…safe enough to completely relax and sleep… it’s amazing. And while I realize that she won’t always like me – that she’ll be a surly teenager before I know it – I always want her to feel safe with me, in my home. I know that I can’t truly KEEP her safe, but I never want to be a source of danger.
Leelah obviously did not feel safe at home or with her parents, and she took the only way out that she could find. And it’s so incredibly tragic.
I am a parent, and my kids are in the thick of the teen years now, so the issues of social media, sexuality and peers is a hot topic for me. But I believe that if you deny something (anything, really) or try to snuff it out, it just goes underground. Stuff doesn’t go away, we are not “cured”, we just learn to hide it better (and we certainly don’t tell our non-sympathetic parents about it).
Fear is a huge issue for parents. Fear that children will “go to hell” because they don’t share their parent’s beliefs. Fear that we did something to “make them gay”. Fear that we will look bad and people will criticize us because our kids aren’t perfect Christian children. Fear is a powerful motivator, and most people don’t even recognize that they are in the grips of it. My own fear (well, one of them) is that my children will blame me for who they are. “I’m ___ because you yelled/swore/got angry at me.” Because I do yell, swear and get angry. On one hand I know I am hurting my children, on the other hand I am reacting out of my own hurt and frustration. Being a parent is HARD and I have my own childhood and upbringing that I am working through. But there’s nothing like having kids to force you to look at your own stuff! I also feel that it is our woundings who make us who we are, and it is not our job as parents to keep our children from pain. It is our job as parents to love our kids through the pain — and be humble enough to own the pain that we cause.
How much of how Leelah’s parents treated her was out of fear? No Christian parent wants to admit that their child has become “an abomination” (according to that one verse in the bible). That’s like the worst thing ever! I’m sure Leelah’s parents were desperate, and thought they were doing their best for her, by taking her away from what they considered negative influences (fear again). What’s so sad is that they didn’t/couldn’t climb into her pain with her. I’m sure they were agony over the situation, but had no way to process their own pain, and thus obliterated Leelah’s.
My goal as a parent is to maintain relationship with my children, despite who they have sex with, hang with, and what they believe. Of course I hope that they choose wisely, but if they don’t, well, we’ll figure that out too. Perhaps it is true that as teenagers their friends become more influential than their parents, but I don’t think that’s an absolute. If I am honest and humble in my dealings with my kids (and continue to apologize when I screw up) and keep open communication, that is influential as well. Every time I say “I’m sorry” for my behaviour, it deepens my relationships with my children. And my kids will tell you, their mom isn’t scared to have the tough conversations! (Which is a little embarrassing for them, but hey. They gotta know the stuff.)
I’m sorry, what was the question? I may have got a little sidetracked …
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