Content note: This transcript discusses transmisogyny and suicide
Presenter: Hello, I’m Deidre Finnerty. Welcome back. One of the stories you’ve been commenting on the most today is the death of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender teenager who took her own life. Leelah was born a boy but identified as a girl, and before she died she left a post on her tumblr blog, which read “When I was 16 I realised that my parents would never come around and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any kind of transitioning treatment. This absolutely broke my heart.” Now Leelah’s death and her post have started a conversation about the challenges people face when growing up transgender. So today on this programme we’ve brought together a group of people who’ve had this experience. If you’ve got a question for them get in touch on facebook.com/worldhaveyoursay
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Well, we’re joined by guests in Michigan and in London, but first let’s bring in Raquel Willis in Georgia and Elaine in Reading in the UK. Welcome to the programme, both of you, and Raquel, let’s start with you. What was your response when you heard about this story?
Raquel: Hi. I definitely initially was kind of numb. Usually, I hear these stories – which happen a lot – there’s almost a new one every week – and usually I hear these stories, and it’s just kind of like, here’s another one of our girls – here’s another one of my sisters, here’s another person that could have been me. But as I sit there, and I start think about all of these deaths, you know, there’s a line there, Elaine knows, there are other trans women who have been murdered or have committed suicide, I just break down, I couldn’t help but be distraught. And the first thing I thought was that we need to get our voices out there. People have got to hear just how devastating it can be to be a transgender person in this world.
Presenter: Well, Raquel, I’m very keen for you to tell us about your own experience. What was it like for you when you were growing up?
Raquel: For me, it was very different. My family has always supported me, but of course my identity as far as a transgender little girl, I didn’t have the words for all of that – at that point I thought it was just a sexuality thing – people just called me gay, so I was just a little gay boy. But then as I got older I realised that people weren’t making fun of me because they thought I liked boys, at that point. They were making fun of me because of how I expressed myself, how my gender was. And my mom, she was very supportive of me, we had this, I guess, behind the closet conversation, just about these different things. She knew I liked make-up, she knew I liked these things that were deemed stereotypically feminine, and that society was already pressuring me to be a way that I really don’t think I was born to be. So, I was lucky on that front but I definitely received a lot of bullying from my peers – students always bullied me, particularly little boys.
Presenter: Now, Elaine, I want to put the same question to you that I put to Raquel. How did you feel when you heard about Leelah’s death?
Elaine: Hi. Yeah, my initial reaction was anger, to be honest. Not shock – it wasn’t shocking. This kind of news comes up all the time, literally every week, more and more people – many of whom, you know, don’t get to tell their stories – many of whom aren’t really mourned by people in the way that Leelah has been mourned this time. And I was just angry. I was angry that this was still going on, that we’re still losing so many on a daily basis, to this hatred – to these feelings of despair. People thinking they have no way out and not being listened to by their nearest and dearest – or supposedly nearest and dearest – who should be there to look out for them, but actually just won’t let them be who they are, when they need to be who they are.
Presenter: And is that a common feeling. You talk there about the hatred and your nearest and dearest not understanding you. Is that something you experienced yourself?
Elaine: Yeah. My parents weren’t abusive in any way, but when I, as a 14-year-old, pre-puberty – which is quite an important thing – well it felt like an important thing at the time – went to my parents and said “Hi, mum and dad, I’m trans”; they said “no, we don’t think that’s quite right. We think you’re wrong. You’re not like those people on the TV or on the front page of the tabloid newspapers. That’s not you, you must be mistaken, it must be a phase.” Um, “And God doesn’t make mistakes,” as well, something I was told, which I saw Leelah mentioned as well.
Presenter: And how do you cope with something like that?
Elaine: It’s a nightmare, really, because you just feel so incredibly trapped, you feel so incredibly isolated. It’s like being at the bottom of a well. You can see the light way above you, but you just have no way of getting there. And there’s nothing really to help you. Especially when you’re a teenager, as I was then, you don’t have the same legal rights you might as an adult. You have parental consent to do anything. So, if your parents aren’t on your side, then you are really stuck, because you need to do these things but you’re not being allowed to. And especially since puberty tends to kick in in the teens, you’ve got the feeling of your body changing against you, and you know it’s preventable, but you can’t stop it. It just feels like your entire life, your future life is going to be wrecked because of this.
Presenter: And Raquel, is this something that you identify with?
Raquel: Oh, definitely. I definitely resonate with the sentiment that you do feel so powerless. And that powerlessness kind of infiltrates your adulthood a lot of the time for trans individuals. You just felt like the world is against you, you know. You start out with your having maybe peers against you, or maybe your family against you and then it just kind of continues into healthcare, into education, and the workplace. I mean, there’s discrimination on all fronts for transgender individuals. And to battle with that kind of external relationship with the world, but also to battle with how internally with how you’re figuring and how you figure out you who are, and knowing that you will probably never get exactly to where you want to be, just given the fact that the resources aren’t always there. So there’s definitely this kind of disconnect from who you are as a person, to how society operates.
Presenter: It sounds like a very lonely place to be. Does it ever get any easier?
Raquel: I definitely think it can get easier. I think it doesn’t get easier for a lot of people, because after you’ve been drug through the trenches a lot of times it’s really hard to ride back up, so I don’t fault people who have committed suicide, people who have kind of isolated themselves, because the world can be very harsh. And it is lonely, on the dating scene it can be very difficult regardless of who you are attracted to. In terms of having family and community, I mean, even in the LGBTQ community there is a lot of ostracisation of transgender individuals, and when you think about cisgender people in the broader society, I mean, there’s so many blocks, that it’s really difficult to get through, to get to peace within yourself.
Presenter: And Elaine, did it ever get any easier for you? The support groups? Places where you could go for support and things you missed within your own friends and family circle?
Elaine: Not really. Not to begin with. I was quite isolated. I was growing up in Nottingham, which isn’t, you know, the end of the earth, but I didn’t know anyone else around. I didn’t have anyone else. All I really had was my online connections, a community on – well didn’t have tumblr – but back then it was livejournal where we all met up and discussed our thoughts, and it was really important because it gave us an avenue to actually speak about what was on our mind and what we were struggling with, with other people who had been in the same situation, and were in the same situation. And it felt a lot less isolating in that regard, because even if we didn’t have anyone to speak to in person, we still could log on to livejournal every night and speak with other people who were in the same place. But in person, no. And it’s still been largely the case, there isn’t as much support in society as there really should be. Especially once you get past your teens and early years, then a lot of support dries up, and lot of us have to form a kind of informal community where we all support each other, in lieu of that support. But really there should be more out there.
Presenter: Now I want to bring in Autumn Mahoney in Michigan and Katy Valentine in Leicester. Welcome to the programme, both of you. Now, I’m very keen to sit back and allow you all to share your own experiences, but let’s start with you, Autumn. What was your own experience of growing up transgender?
Autumn: Well, my experience was more of – I don’t think I really fell into the traditional narrative you hear, where you know what the situation is right from a very early age. I always understood that I felt different, and didn’t seem to fit in the same way people did, but I never had really much of a way to put a name or understand what those feelings meant until I got much older. It seems that nowadays with the Internet and so many resources out there, there are people that you can look at to see that, yes, this is a possibility, that yes, you can be transgender, that yes, you can make it through this, but when I was growing up, there was just absolutely no information out there. Pre-Internet days, and not knowing anyone in person, so, I really didn’t have any way, any context to put these feelings into. And so it wasn’t until much later in my life that I was able to kind of figure that out – and go through a transition, and become much happier as a result of that, but I wish the resources that had been available were there when I was growing up, it would have made things a whole lot easier.
Presenter: Katy is that something that you recognise?
Katy: Yes. I’m very similar, I am. I mean, I’m 25 years old, and I knew from a young age that I was different, but I didn’t know that becoming transgendered was a possibility, changing to the other gender. And it wasn’t until Big Brother’s Nadia, that I realised that there was a way I could become who I was. And growing up, it was really hard for me, considering even that I’m young, there still wasn’t much support out there for us.
Presenter: Here’s a post we’ve got from Facebook. It’s from Tara. And she says “being transgender I tried to hang myself at university and survived. At the time I felt it was my only escape and I couldn’t cope. We need to show transgender people they are valued no matter what challenges they face.” And she also says that “We should respond to Leelah’s death not with hate or vengeance against the parents or against the church.” So I wanted to put that to you, Katy, and also to you, Autumn. Do you agree with Tara? What’s the right response to a situation like this?
Katy: I would say yes. We shouldn’t treat it with hate at all. And there should be more support out there for transgender people. I mean, it was such a sad moment when we heard about Leelah and the suicide. It was so awful. But it should not be treated in a hateful veangeful way. It should be a way to celebrate Leelah’s life. Even though she did obviously take her own life. Which was horrendous. We should not be going aroudn blaming people, we should be able to help people.
Autumn: I see that it’s a very sad thing that we are able to see that there are people who would treat their children in the way that her parents did. And so much of that seems to be warped by these by these really conservative Christian beliefs. I don’t think think there needs to be an attack response to that, but it’s necessary to perhaps show alternatives to that type of behaviour and beliefs. You know, there are ways of being religious or being supportive that… I guess… It seems that that should not be something that gets in the way of love between parents and their children. It boggles my mind to even consider that.
Raquel: I would like to say, I think that there’s definitely a lot of hurt going on with the parents, and this happened even before Leelah committed suicide. People like to think that owning your transition and owning your identity is selfish, but the selfish thing is to go against people and devalue people because of that identity. And there’s a lot of hurt in a lot of parents when they have transgender children or queer children in general. And that’s something that we need to tackle, because we need to learn that this is not something that’s embarrassing. This is not something that devalues you as a parent. This is something that is going to help you prove just how great of a parent that you can be. If you can get over your child not being exactly the way you thought they might have been, then you win all the kudos from me.
Elaine: Absolutely. And as someone put it on twitter, it’s a bit harsh, but it’s also true, would you rather have a child who is queer or trans, or a child who is dead? And I think one problem with a lot of parents is that they get their idea of what being trans is from society as a whole, and a lot of ideas of being trans in society as a whole are so negative. They’re always the joke brought in on the sitcom, the side gag or the comments about, and I hate using this word “tranny” – every time you hear that word, it’s in such a negative context. And it also tends to be really highly sexualised, as well, you’ve got the whole category of “she-male” porn, for example. So, when a kid goes to their parents, and says, you know “mum, dad, or whoever, I’m trans”, and the parents will immediately think of this, and think “no, no, no, you know, you’re 12. you’re not this sort of sexualised parody figure on the front cover of the Sun or whatever, you know, I don’t want you to have that.” And they think, they think maybe if they talk their child out of it they can avoid that happening to their child. But that’s not the way to solve things, we need to fix society, we don’t need to change who people are, we need to change how they’re treated, because there’s nothing wrong with who they are.
Presenter: You’re listening to World Have Your Say on the BBC. Today on the programme we are discussing the case of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager who took her own life. And we’ve brought together a group of people to talk about their experiences of growing up transgender. Tara tweeted us to say “as a Catholic and a transgender woman, I believe God gave me the gift of being a woman as much as any woman”. We’ve also got another question coming in to us on twitter, @aimsetc, and she asks “What structural change is necessary? What services need to be provided” for transgender people.
Katy: We mainly need more support out there, especially for teenage people who believe they are transgendered women – or transgendered men – and that there should be more support, especially for teenage people, because they are the one who take their lives. They’re not the only ones, but they are the very few [sic].
Elaine: We need to look at housing, for young trans girls, young trans boys, non-binary kids, but also trans men, trans women, non-binary adults, as well. We need to have that support there, because there’s an awful lot of trans homeless people, for example. I mean, with the teens, if you tell your parents you are trans and they throw you out, where are you going to go? Who’s going to look after you? A lot of people end up on the streets. There are occasionally places who will house these trans kids, but only up until 18, and then where are they going to go?
Presenter: I want to introduce you to Tori in Leicester. Hello Tori, welcome to World Have Your Say.
Presenter: Hello, Tori, I wanted to ask you how you felt when you heard about this case?
Presenter: I think we may just have just lost the line to Tori in Leicester. But Juliet Jacques in on the line from London.
Presenter: Welcome to World Have Your Say, Juliet. And I want to put the same question to you that I put to all of our guests. What was your response when you heard about this case?
Juliet: Just this kind of heartsinking and heartbreaking feeling. It’s a familiar story for anyone has spent their life versed in sort of trans issues. Personal experience. Often there are feelings that I and a lot of people I know in the trans community could relate to. It’s familiar story in lots of ways. It’s very sad. I mean, like Elaine said, it wasn’t really shocking as such, and like Raquel said, I just kind of just felt a bit numb. You’re repeatedly hit with these sort of stories and after a while it just goes num, and that’s just the saddest feeling of all. And I’m sure for Leelah, I’m sure how she felt having her identity denied by her parents, compounded by the wider culture she lived in, being aware of other trans people in similar kind of positions, it just becomes kind of overwhelming really. Yeah, I mean it’s very sad news. I’m interested to see how widely shared social media. Lots of people who weren’t trans talking about it, and empathising. Which I hadn’t seen until the last couple of years, really. So I found that quite an interesting response. So, just like the rest of your guests really, just kind of quite sad and numb.
Presenter: And what about your own experience, Juliet?
Juliet: Well I grew up in a very small town – a village, really – in the early 90s – I’m 33 now – so I realised I was trans in 1992, and it was very difficult. Like some of your other guests, I didn’t have a language to describe what was going on. I just kept wearing women’s clothes, and having my gender regulated at school and at home. If I did anything that was considered kind of feminine I got laughed at by people around me, family members, or particularly by other classmates, by teachers even. And what really me save me was the advent of the internet, which came to be in the mid to late 90s. Again, even now you’d use twitter or tumblr, and I’d just used geocities sites really, which made it clear that there were other people leading liveable trans lives, who weren’t like the people who I’d seen in films or on telly, which cut through some of stereotypes that Elaine was talking about. And there were people I could feasibly actually meet, information about support services, or places to go. And that gave me a sense of community and a sense of being slightly less alone. My family – you know, I came out as transsexual when I was 27 – my were the last people I told, I was lucky enough at that point to live in Brighton and have a fairly supportive group of friends, to know some support networks. I was working for the NHS, who have infrastructures in place, quality and diversity managers, human resources people who I could sit down to and say how can we handle this. And it was only once I’d done all those things, and was privileged enough to have them all go as well as I could have hoped, that I was able to turn round to my parents and go, you know, this is who I am, and I got the same sort of response initially. “We don’t understand and that’s not what you’re like”. And it took quite a long time to get them to the point where my parents used the right pronouns and my name I’d chosen, and everything. But because I had everything else in place, I was able to take that sort of time. For somebody like Leelah, who sounds like she didn’t any kind of outlet at all, parental rejection was so overwhelming. You know, not everyone’s that lucky.
Autumn: I think that what you said about your family were the last ones you told, that’s kind of the same situation that I was in, I had come out to everybody at my church, friends and things, and working up the courage to talk to my parents about it, even though I was 35 years old, all grown up, and had no indications that they were going to have any trouble with it, it was still the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. And to look at Leelah’s situation, where she knows she’s not supported, and is entirely dependent on them as parents, and just realise how horrible and difficult that had to have been. You can understand what would drive somebody to suicide. It’s so hard to look and see that happens to so many people. I think that this is kind of why I was really excited to see this twitter trend growing here. Seeing so many visible examples of positive trans lives. There is, as hard as it can be when you’re growing up, there’s so much potential out there. And I hope that this reaches even just one person growing up, that gives them some hope for possibility going forward.
Elaine: Yeah. If you’re listening to this and you’re trans, and you know, you may be in the same boat as Leelah, you know. I was there. I was there in my teens. I have puberty went through my body when I really didn’t wish to have it. It was horrible. It was an absolute nightmare. I made it through. Puberty doesn’t have to be the end all. You can transition at 18. You can transition at 50. You can transition at 36. You can transition at 80. You just need to transition if you know you need to transition. And it’s all valid. And you can still be beautiful. You know, there isn’t the time limit you think there is. And if you a parent and you’re listening to this, then please just let your kids know that even if you don’t think they’re trans, that would be OK for them, and that’s valid. And everyone else, ask yourselves what are you going to do to change this?
Presenter: I’m very very sorry to cut in there Elaine.
Elaine: I’m done, thanks.
Presenter: But this music coming up means we’re right up against of the programme. And thanks very much to all our guests for this fascinating discussion. World Have Your Say will be back with you tomorrow, at 18 GMT with Chloe Tilley