Leelah Alcorn’s tragic suicide has brought national attention to the oppression faced by transgender people. A seventeen year old trans female from Ohio, the highly public nature of her death – with her heavily shared suicide note and her Tumblr and Reddit activities laying bare her struggles – meant that her story has been seen much more widely than the 41% of transgender and gender non-conforming people who attempt or commit suicide at some point in their lives.1 Many LGBT activists and their allies have cast a light on the state of transgender people by looking at them through the lens of Leelah Alcorn.
“To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally “boyish” things to try to fit in.”
It would be a mistake to put all responsibility for transgender oppression on parenting. It’s true that Alcorn’s parents were abusive, denying Leelah social interaction with her friends and therapeutic intervention in favor of sending her to a bogus Christian “counseling” service that’s been rejected by the American Medical Association as medically unsound. No doubt Leelah would be alive today were it not for her parents’ negative and unsupportive attitude. But calls to imprison them, besides bowing to the logic of our country’s diseased prison-industrial complex (which no left-leaning individual, let alone a revolutionary, has any business supporting) narrowly focus on punishing one horrific act instead of addressing the circumstances in society that lead to transphobia and hate. Instead, things like the petition2 on WhiteHouse.gov to ban so-called “conversion therapy” are much better starting points.
But what’s really needed is to integrate LGBT/QI struggle into the working-class movement, realizing the workers’ movement’s historic mission to be the champion of all exploited and oppressed people regardless of race, nationality, gender and gender identity. Bourgeois gay and lesbian organizations don’t offer a path to liberation for the majority of LGBT people. Take for example the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest American gay rights organization and the “official” face of the movement. HRC is thoroughly middle-class, financed by well-to-do lesbian and gay donors and enamored with praising allegedly ‘progressive’ corporations… including the multinational banking giant Goldman Sachs, that great champion of equality!
The Human Rights Campaign was formed as a Political Action Committee to elect Democrats, not as a democratically-controlled mass organization.3 It narrowly concentrates on a legalistic strategy of supporting sympathetic capitalists (and capitalist politicians) to win same-sex marriage. Yes, marriage equality is a necessary democratic right, but HRC promotes it at the expense of the community’s vital economic needs like disproportionate homelessness (especially youth homelessness) and poverty.
The transgender community gets the worst end of the deal from HRC and other organizations committed to respectability politics. In 2007 they dropped the “T” from LGBT in trying to pass the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) through Congress, fearing that transgender people didn’t have enough mainstream acceptance to garner support. Despite the unprincipled compromise and the Democrats’ total control in Washington between 2008 and 2010, the ENDA still hasn’t passed to this day. More radical currents among queer activists recognize that, instead of bowing to current prejudices and bowing to respectability politics, the path to victory is changing minds and changing the balance of forces through struggle.
Contrast the HRC to Pride at Work, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO (the main union federation.) Pride at Work builds up LGBT participation and inclusion in the trade union movement, works toward sexual orientation and gender identity-inclusive contracts and pushes for strong protections against hiring discrimination.4 Notably, they support transition health care coverage for those who choose it. Private insurers frequently deny transgender customers coverage altogether just for their gender identity, and for those seeking transition the costs5 range from about $10,000 to $100,000. This includes regular therapy visits, hormone replacement therapy, top surgery, bottom surgery and much more. The cost is highly dependent on what an individual chooses to change physically. Not all trans people elect to undergo every procedure. For some a mastectomy is enough. The transition process is highly important and no one should be denied the ability to be the person they really are.
Pride at Work just a small glimpse of what’s needed to fight for genuine LGBT/QI liberation. All forms of oppression are working-class questions; all manifestations of divide-and-rule hurt the cause of general human freedom. The workers’ movement needs to champion the LGBT struggle, fighting for (among other things) transition therapy included in a socialized health care system and gender identity education in schools. Leelah Alcorn didn’t even realize that the way she felt was called “transgender” until she was fourteen.
Don’t let Leelah’s death be in vain. Let’s answer her call to action:
“The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
- Conversion therapy band
- A member of the radical queer group Occupy the Castro details HRC’s phony equality and its unaccountability to the people it claims to represent here: http://open.salon.com/blog/avimecca/2012/02/07/dont_support_human_rights_campaign
- In 32 states, gender identity isn’t covered by workplace discrimination law.