My facebook feed has been full of posts about Leelah Alcorn, a teenage transgirl who committed suicide by stepping out in front of a semi on the highway. I have a friend with a trans child who felt this story hit her like a physical blow in the chest. It shows that the alternative of a dead child is a very real possibility when parents do not support their LGBTQ children. For me, it reminds me of Guy Sterling, a friend in high school. He committed suicide, too, after being thoroughly rejected by his family and peers for the crime of being gay in small-town Texas.
When I think of stories like Leelah’s and Guy’s, I can’t help but think about what the parents are probably feeling. They’re terrified by the Protestant vision of neverending hellfire and damnation, terrified that their only child will be lost to them forever, convinced that they can save their child if they only try hard enough. They believe that if they “give in” and accept their LGBTQ child, they’re condemning their child to that eternity of suffering. It’s not a lack of love. It’s an abundance of love combined with what their religion is teaching them. We can’t fight that by just saying they don’t love their child. They do. They love their child so much they will do anything for their salvation.
Sometimes what parents do to try and “save” their children ends up looking to the child like persecution, control, and rejection. This isn’t limited to LGBTQ children. It doesn’t always end in suicide, thankfully. It still can leave horrible scars to the mind and soul, scars that are very difficult to heal.
I was raised Protestant. I was baptized twice, first as a Baptist, then again as a Presbyterian. I went to church with friends, sung and even toured in youth choirs, dated the occasional evangelical. When I discovered Wicca and witchcraft at age 15, the country was in the grip of what would later be known as the Satanic Panic. My mother was terrified for me, I think. She doesn’t like to talk about it now, but I know she had books in her room with titles that ran along the lines of “Satanism and Your Teenager.” When I brought Buckland’s blue book home, so engrossed in my discovery that I couldn’t put it down, she insisted that I never bring that book in her house again, that evil book with the giant pentagram covering the back cover. When I told other family friends that I was a witch now, and they came to her terrified that I had sold my soul to Satan, she begged me not to say things like that. When I moved in with Brian before we got married, all the books on Wicca that I had left behind in my room mysteriously vanished.
My mother was trying to save me. I was learning and embracing a new-to-me religion that called to my very soul, spoke to my connection with the world.
15 is also the age when I went to college. After my two years with TAMS were up, I had made many friends among the regular college students, friends who would still be there at UNT after all my TAMS classmates left for farther horizons. I wanted to stay at UNT, continue on as a regular college student and pursue a CompSci degree. Several of my friends were moving into an apartment for the summer, and I wanted to join them. It took a gentleman’s agreement between me and my roommates, since at 17 I could not sign the lease, but they let me in. I got a job so I could pay my share of the rent. I had a car. I had a bank account, albeit one many miles away in Austin. I was determined to live like any other college sophomore or junior in that town of music majors.
Granted, I was also an undiagnosed Aspie. I had never worked out self-regulation skills to help me handle things like chores and cleaning. My hygiene was probably questionable. My possessions were a mess. My job was, ironically, working in the daycare at a church, of all places. I had a pet snake that I actually didn’t know how to care for. My bank account got bollixed because I had to mail in deposits, and I mistimed writing checks on the deposits and had a series of bounce fees. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the computer, either working on typing in my Book of Shadows or hanging out on IRC, in #wicca or #hottub. I struggled with depression, knowing I was different but not yet understanding how and why. I had a lot of life skills yet to learn, and I was going to have to learn them the hard way.
It’s a good thing I didn’t find out I was bisexual until several years later. That could have been the fatal straw, added on to everything else at the time.
My parents wanted to save me from that. They wanted to bring me home, take care of me, send me off to college again to be the successful <insert money/power career> they dreamed of. They saw all the problems and wanted to fix them, wanted to fix me. I saw them trying to control me, trying to cut off my choices, not listening to me. It came to a pretty dramatic climax that summer.
Somehow, though, my mother was able to get around that. I don’t know how, but she’s still my mother. She calls me and listens to me, comes to visit for holidays, goes out to the movies or the casinos with me. She came to my first wedding, made my wedding cake. She came when I was pregnant, came when I was having babies, held all my babies. She came to my second wedding, the one I held mostly to share with my father.
My father took it all as a personal affront. He said my actions were the same as me saying I didn’t want to have anything to do with him anymore, despite my insistence to the contrary. He has spent the last 22 years treating me mostly as an acquaintance rather than a daughter. He doesn’t visit unless I’m on his way to someplace else, or unless somebody is dying. He didn’t come to my weddings, although he goes to his girlfriend’s children’s weddings. He did not hold my babies. He has never visited for the holidays; he spends them with his girlfriend’s family.
Something in what my mother did holds the secret here. Somehow, despite her belief that I was going down in flames and in need of rescue, she was eventually able to accept me as an independent human being capable of making my own decisions, choosing my own path, accepting my own consequences. Somehow, she was able to continue being my mother even when she disapproved of my actions. There’s more than love there. There’s some kind of strength needed to love something so much you can let it go, so much you can continue to give love and support no matter what.
We can’t just tell Leelah’s parents they don’t love her, because they do. We have to find a way to teach how to love somebody and let them go, no matter what. I don’t know how to do that when Protestant Christianity or other restrictive, eternal-damnation religions are involved. Do you? Do you know how to tell somebody that their religion is wrong, or that they must ignore their sincere beliefs, ignore everything they hear from their Bible and their church and their community?