Friday, 2 January 2015

To save trans lives; listen to Leelah


Sometimes it is necessary to revisit the history of anti-trans cultural processes in order to make sense of the present. That is certainly the case in relation to the furore following Leelah Alcom’s tragic death by suicide. The cause of her death, according to her suicide note, seems to be her parents’ decision to subject her to a “Christian/reparative therapist”, (also known as “conversion therapy”) this “therapy” is, in effect a form psychological torture. This would explain her report in her suicide note of the decision of her parents to isolate her from all her friends and prevent her from accessing social media. Her parents did not want a trans child, and failed to give her the unconditional love every child needs. The problem is that these kind of talking therapies are still widely used in large swathes of North America where right-wing “Christian” ideologies influence the way trans people are perceived, and where trans children are routinely disowned by their parents.

The problem is that it is not just self-styled “Christian/reparative therapists” like those Leelah was forced to see, but “regular” psychiatrists who practice what can only be described as psychological quakery. Significantly these “treatments” are also widely advocated by Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), indeed as long ago as 1979 Janice Raymond advocated such therapies; 

“What I advocate, instead of counselling that issues in a medicalisation of a transsexual’s suffering, is a counselling based on “consciousness-raising”. (Raymond, J, 1979 The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male p181)

This “consciousness-raising” turns out to be exposure to a kind of TERF-ideology designed to make its victim feel guilty for being trans and as such supposedly contributing to women’s oppression. A kind of guilt trip on steroids. Not unlike the “Christian” and medical versions on offer in the Bible Belt today. Another such advocate is Julie Bindel who said, in the BBC Hecklers debate in 2007; 

“Sex change surgery should not be available ...We can offer talking therapies to people who identify as transgender/transsexual”

“[surgery] is now becoming more and more acceptable as a solution to a problem that could well be fixed by talking therapies, but we’re not doing enough of it.”

Now to Sarah Ditum’s article in New Statesman arguing that the media should not have published Leelah Alcom’s suicide note and should have taken more care in reporting her death. She cites the Samaritans’ guidelines for reporting suicides. Her reason for this; that it is likely to result in “copycat” suicides. 

The problem with this is that I suspect that is not her prime motivation for writing this. In my opinion there is more to it, and that goes back to her opposition to the National Union of Students’ policy of no-platforming Julie Bindel. Yes Ditum wrote this article arguing that Julie Bindel should not be no-platformed and that this amounted to “silencing”.

Of course when you factor in Ditum’s support for someone who advocates “talking therapies” that puts a different perspective on the issue. It leaves her open to the charge of wanting not only to silence Leelah but also those trans people and allies who, like myself, have been campaigning against the use of talking therapies for trans children. 

Let’s be clear the TERFs have a great deal riding on this issue. They are a group implacably opposed to the existence of trans people and their only ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of trans people existing is to ‘cure’ us through talking therapies. Evidence not only of the failure of talking therapies but of the fact that even attempting to subject people to these therapies is harmful in the extreme is terminal for TERF ideology. 


Finally it is important to look at the Samaritans’ guidelines on reporting suicides in context. As I said above the context of Leelah’s death is one of the use of dangerous, and theoretically unsupported treatments like “reparative therapy”. This is a treatment that has probably cost untold lives in the past and ruined the lives of countless more trans children. If we do not get to discuss the damage caused by this “treatment” now then when? Unfortunately the way the media works, as Ditum well knows, is that most of us have no control whatsoever over what gets to be news when, and as such Leelah’s suicide, and her dying wish that her death changes things with a clear and coherent suicide note left for all to see on her Tumblr, is an important opportunity to save further unnecessary death and harm from this psychological torture. In any case one of the most important things to come out of this has been the #reallivetransadult hashtag, created to replace the less credible “it gets better” project. So the trans community has already taken the threat of further suicides seriously and acted on it, days before Ditum’s NS article.

As someone who has tried to argue against trans people’s use of the term TERF and the prefix “cis-“, it looks to me as though Ditum is simply trying to shut us up. In fact Ditum is starting to resemble a sort of feminist Nigel Farage; always wanting everyone else to shut up, her attempts to silence trans people either by not enabling discussion of issues raised by Leelah’s death or by trying to deny us the language with which to express out subjectivities.

Leelah’s death is different, it was quite clearly caused by other people’s actions, it describes only too vividly, the lives of young trans people in many countries. Recently statistics were produced suggesting that a very high proportion of America’s homeless young people are trans. We know that there is an accommodation problem for young trans people here in London. This is caused by parents disowning or rejecting trans children, indeed recent figures have shown that trans children being rejected by their parents is a massive problem. Leelah's story is the story of thousands of trans children and young people who suffer at the hands of their families and local communities. Her suicide note is important because it illuminates the way parents fail to give trans children their unconditional love, and the suffering this causes. With over 60% of young trans people attempting suicide not publishing Leelah’s note is not going to increase this risk, it is already extremely high. Indeed publishing it, if we act on what it says, is going to reduce trans suicides.



If you are feeling suicidal, in the UK call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90. In the US the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860If you are under 24 the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-7386 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline on 1-800-273-8255

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