Comment: I understand how Leelah Alcorn must have felt, by Emily Brothers
Out transgender Labour Parliamentary Candidate Emily Brothers writes for PinkNews on her own experiences of contemplating suicide and on the suicide of trans teen Leelah Alcorn.
“I know how you feel” can be a rather empty stock response to another person’s fear and grief – except that I did know exactly how Leelah Alcorn felt.
The teenage girl from Ohio stepped in front of a truck because she saw no way out of the pressures she felt about her transsexuality.
I have been there as I explained in a Guardian interview last weekend.
That’s why I found it heart rending to read Leelah say: “I’m never going to transition successfully, even when I move out. I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. 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. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse.”
Leelah’s words are an echo from my own despair eight years ago.
As with Leelah it was the bleak implications for my family that led me to walk into the sea eight years ago. Like Leelah I thought there was no hope. Thankfully for me the pull from thinking about my children conquered the strength of those waves.
Sitting on the sea wall, oblivious to my soaked and frozen state, I thought it would be a matter of time before returning for the final deed. Yet it wasn’t like that for me. Sure, it was tough, damn tough. Not everybody has the resilience needed, physical characteristics or behavioural attributes to bring off a successful transition in the way I have managed to achieve. That’s why ongoing mental health problems are so common amongst transgender people, particularly when they are trying to balance their own needs with those of their family.
I spoke to the Guardian about that experience in the hope that it would show anyone else contemplating a transgender journey that it can and does end happily.
It is also a message for the parents and families of the people involved. There has been criticism of Leelah’s parents who have come across as narrow minded. Whilst I acknowledge much of the outrage expressed across social media, I’m most of all left with a deep sense of sadness about what has arisen for all concerned.
With all the media negativity about difference and institutions desperately trying to hold the line on conformity through so called traditional values, we need to recognise that not everybody has my kind of resilience – what my parents would call ‘bloody-minded’. Even though they may not speak to the neighbours, for them it is still important what they think they may think. That becomes even more entrenched when austere religious views start kicking in – as they lean on old-style god-fearing lessons from the past. Eating fish on a Friday is a ridiculous tradition still observed by my parents and others, but why this religious teaching makes people good or bad is bewildering. Yet if such views are deeply rooted, it is hardly surprising that gender transition is so incomprehensible to them.
Frustrating as those views are, even with parents who aren’t particularly religious – if we want to be understood, we need to try and understand them. It cuts both ways though – that’s why I get my parents sense that they have lost a son, but I don’t get why they reject their daughter. Some years on from my transition they have been hit by the death of my younger brother from a sudden and massive stroke. I feel for their pain, losing two sons in very different ways. I try to be compassionate, even though excluded from the funeral – my feelings cast aside.
Some things in our lives can’t be controlled, but we can learn to work with the imperfections that are thrust in our direction. Bitterness and anger will certainly not help. That’s why I’m so proud of my children working through the mystifying process – so like bereavement for them. They still feel the loss of a father, but have gained a different kind of parent who is markedly happier than they ever knew before. As my son touchingly said recently, he wouldn’t want me to go through a gender-reversal because it would be equally devastating to lose Emily after such a struggle to get here. That most certainly isn’t going to happen!
Looking back at my transition, I recall feeling very alone as so many people do. Yet people around us are hurting too, often confused and with little support themselves. That’s why we try to normalise and they go back to basics, but ultimately it doesn’t work. We need to give our lives authenticity, yet they don’t have that same realisation.
I don’t expect people to know how I feel, but instead to show some empathy and kindness. So when a woman friend said to me that she couldn’t imagine wanting to be a man, I simply replied that neither could I contemplate it. Yet I lived a male role for over forty years without understanding the ‘bloke world’, but respect those who do. There are numerous theories about gender variance and transsexuality, but the cause is quite irrelevant in some ways – I’m now the woman I should have always been all those years past.
Nonetheless, science and medical research is helping to understand why some people go through the transsexual process, such as brain structures and genetics. This is why people like my parents and those of Leelah Alcorn need to move beyond creationist thinking, stop judging us for being ‘unnatural’, but instead accept us as part of life’s rich tapestry.
I would have preferred not to have gone through this journey, but instead to have been recognised as a girl from the start. That wasn’t remotely feasible, yet this is where I am today for the better. I’m the stronger for ‘coming out’ to PinkNews last month, but I still face challenges ahead. Even with all the politics and people that surround me, it is daunting, for instance, to get out there as a lesbian to find that special woman.
Grappling with gender identity issues is far too often a lonely experience. There are common threads that we all share, but distinct concerns for those of us with a disability, from an ethnic community, our sexuality or of a certain age. More self help groups are emerging and that is to be welcomed. These groups need to be better resourced, with counselling and information more readily available. The NHS should respond more effectively to the growing demand for therapy, hormone treatment and for some people, surgery.
That’s why Labour’s approach to “whole-person care’ has the potential to make a real difference. Integrating health and social care for older and disabled people is an important starting point, but we need to think more widely about how to provide seamless services to all service users. Early interventions will not only reduce suffering – that sense of being ‘trapped in the wrong body’, but provide cost benefits that will better enable the NHS to support the growing numbers of people identifying as transgender or with some form of gender non-conformity.
I’m a Trustee of Community Network – an innovative charity that seeks to combat loneliness for older and disabled people. Through telephone communities and increasingly via new technologies, Community Network provides a bridge to isolated people that improve their mental wellbeing. Funding this kind of support helps people maintain independence and contributes in keeping them away from hospital. Under Labour I trust the NHS will look seriously at the benefits to be derived from such talking interventions, not least for transgender communities.
Outcomes vary depending on our sense of identity across a wide spectrum. The next Labour Government will need to address the increasing demand for help, particularly non-surgical support. We should also build on the success of the last Labour Government that enabled me and many others to have our acquired gender recognised legally and by re-issuing birth certificates. A decade on some learning points need to be pulled together, as well as bringing the legislation in step with subsequent equality legislation and case law. Only Labour can deliver the next generation of LGBT reforms. That will need to include safeguards for UK LGBT people from the kind of conversion Leelah Alcorn’s family mistakenly thought would provide a cure.
Despite David Cameron’s laudable endeavours on equal marriage, Tories largely hate him for it and are waiting for their revenge. Together with their UKIP fellow-travellers, there are many in the wings ready to drawback from the ‘new frontier’ of LGBT liberation. You shouldn’t forget that Philippa Stroud contested my Sutton and Cheam constituency in 2010 as a rising Tory star for social justice, only to fall short following The Observer reporting that she had been involved in leading evangelical prayers to “cure” LGBT people. Teenage transsexual, Abi spoke of her experience of obnoxious conversion sessions to drive away demonic thoughts. Philippa Stroud drew on her evangelical background to write a book, God’s Heart for the Poor, in which she explains how to deal with people showing signs of “demonic activity”.
She wrote: “I’d say the bottom line is to remember your spiritual authority as a child of God. He is so much more powerful than anything else!”
Despite my catholic education God didn’t make much of an impact with all of the power the Holy Spirit is meant to possess. People like me, Abi and Leelah can only be set free with hormone therapy, surgery and empathy to align our sense of identity, not a bible and crucifix.
Emily Brothers is the Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Sutton and Cheam
As with all comment, this does not necessarily reflect the views of PinkNews.