Leelah Alcorn: a harsh lesson in tolerance

I want this to be my personal blog, not a façade. That means letting you in, whoever you are, to see what I think. Really think. About all kinds of issues, including, more rarely, sensitive ones where your views may differ from mine. 

It’s the last day of 2014: for many minorities, nothing changed in the last 365 days, or at least not for the better. Last night, Twitter flashed the words ‘Leelah Alcorn’ at me and gradually I started to learn about her tragic death. And I noted, not for the first time, how apparently easy it is to be cruel in 140 characters – to quickly write a few words and press ‘Tweet’.

Twitter is a great way to observe popular opinion in action as people are carried away on a wave of words on a trending subject. Often they are inspired to add another 140 characters to the tsunami, saying much the same thing. The few dissident voices are likely to draw a savage attack if they’re not lost in the crowd. And heaven help you if the wave falls on you.

WordPress is a different beast. I’m very much a newbie, but already know I can anticipate a diverse, more considered response from the blogging community. I like that. In the calm before the storm, yesterday’s very innocent post on gardening tips for happy plants started with what was my idea of a New Year’s resolution for everyone:

‘to live 2015 happy with who we are – happy that we’re not all the same…’

I doubt anyone really noticed those words, but they were important to me. Our differences are what make life rich, unpredictable, progressive. And I think we should acknowledge that more often and celebrate what’s special about us. So of course, I accept Leelah’s right to be herself – and find I have to comment on her life and death if I am to write at all today and remain true to myself.

Her right that I take for granted – to be female – was being taken away by a society never really able to legislate effectively for exceptions to the rule. It often takes a tragedy for us to learn, for opinions to start to realign with a deeper, more enlightened understanding of our complex world.

The British are famous for giggling at anything ‘rude’: our embarrassment hides all kinds of ambiguities and doubts. I’m convinced that gender education needs to have the subtlety to deal with more issues than it currently encompasses. And I’d agree with campaigners that attempts at gender ‘re-education’ should stop. Can I imagine anyone persuading me I was really a man? Would it be in any way helpful if they could put doubts in my head or change my mind about this?

Society should relook at the age of consent for gender reassignment, given the effects of change when hormones really kick in are life-long. Leelah felt she couldn’t afford to wait until she was legally old enough to take action: it would be too late by then. Every bodily change she noticed would be another betrayal of her natural drive for self-actualisation.

I propose that any young person who feels trapped in the wrong gender and has parents whose form of love prevents them helping, or even makes things worse, should be able to call on an independent panel of expert, caring responsible adults to help them legally make life-changing decisions. People who understand that taking no action has irreversible, life-changing consequences during puberty. People who have valuable experience of the issues and no agenda except to understand and help.

And I gently suggest that every one of us, no matter how tolerant we are, should try harder, do more to help alternative voices be heard. Accept that we are dealing with ancient, deep-rooted, biological instincts we may not completely understand. Not just dismiss the unusual or surprising, or respond with a knee-jerk of fear to things that are difficult to explain or comprehend.

Accept that we are all born in communities and cultures at a particular time and try to understand how this quirk of fate constrains all our views. See if we can transcend our own contexts to think for ourselves – and never underestimate how difficult this can be.

Enjoy our individuality but remain open to the different views and perspectives of others, especially if they can help us move towards a gentler, happier society. Understand we can’t always equate the majority view with abstract truth. Deal as fairly as we can with the issues this raises.

And I wish we could all see how our words are both our best and worst weapons. Leelah’s words will resonate and have a lasting effect, at least for some of us. Did Leelah love her family, despite the last words we have from her? We tend to, no matter what they do.

I rarely feel qualified to judge other people, but it’s ironic that so many people on Twitter asking for tolerance, understanding and compassion can appear so intolerant and cruel to her parents. They have paid for any mistakes in ways most of us, thankfully, can’t imagine. And as Mara Keisling, speaking for Transgender Equality said in The Independent, ‘pointing the finger at Alcorn’s parents is unhelpful’. Her advice for us all is quite simple: we can all ‘help to prevent similar tragedies by believing those who identify as transgender’.

It’s part of the tragedy that Leelah will never know about the overwhelming support and validation from her peers that could have empowered her to believe in a better future.

How would Leelah want us to treat her parents? Many of us have read her last words but we can’t see into every corner of her young heart. I believe she understood suffering, and will have seen how unhelpful it can be. I imagine she received abuse because she was different and knew how hard it can be to find the strength to cope with contempt or disapproval. I hope she would want her parents to see her perspective, then try to forgive them. And I hope we can all find compassion for them as victims of their own context who have been carried along by what they believed was right and have paid such a terrible price.

How do we help more people to move beyond their context, be braver, part of a caring society that is less troubled by ancient ‘threats’? How do we find ways to accept and celebrate more of life’s natural variation for the sheer, raw diversity it brings?

Tomorrow is a new year. Forget yesterday’s resolutions about plants: let’s resolve to find ways to stop senseless discrimination in all its forms.

For we’re all different – every last one of us – that’s what being human is all about.

4 Replies to “Leelah Alcorn: a harsh lesson in tolerance”

  1. A very thought provoking post and I have to say it would be wonderful if we could all accept each others differences but I doubt that we as a human race ever will – not in my life time anyway.

  2. We’ll never be perfect, being human, that’s true, but we’re complex, social creatures, peculiarly well-adapted to reach out to others as you’ve done here, and that gives me hope. I appreciate you taking the time to read this lengthy post and to add your comment. Thanks!

  3. What struck me most about this post are your comments about tolerance/intolerance. I have a friend who discovered (is this even the correct phrasing) that he is gay after being married and having children. He comments frequently about gay marriage, and applauds states that join in accepting gay marriage. However, anyone who speaks out against gay marriage, or the LGBT community, or anything he does not believe or support, he calls them horrible names. So many times I’ve wanted to write him and ask him how he can expect tolerance from everyone, when he does not tolerate or accept opposing views. Oh well.

    1. I can understand how perhaps if your friend has been hurt by other’s comments he finds it hard to break the cycle and respond in a more positive way than giving back ‘like for like’.

      Perhaps it’s simply asking too much to hope that people who suffer from intolerance or oppression somehow find a way to be the most virtuous and never to oppress others – though to live in a world where we could rely on an enlightened person breaking the cycle early would be wonderful.

      Like you, I make a conscious effort not to judge others harshly, no matter how tempting it sometimes is. I’d love to live in a gentler, more tolerant society so I’m just doing my very small bit to help by adding my voice to the debate – expressing my views for others to consider and explore. Thanks for reading and adding your comment.

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