One question is occupying my mind on today’s Feast of the Epiphany: what does God’s rupture into humanity mean following a 17-year-old trans* girl’s suicide?
Leelah Alcorn walked onto a highway and ended her life via a truck three days after Christmas. As Christians worldwide celebrated Jesus’ birth, the Alcorns were instead confronted by their own child’s death. Leelah had written about the suicide on her blog shortly beforehand. That note, found here in full, says the following:
“The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender. I could go into detail explaining why I feel that way, but this note is probably going to be lengthy enough as it is. 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.
“When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.”
Leelah describes the Christian therapists who tried to “heal” her and the social isolation her parents imposed after withdrawing Leelah from school. Instead of liberating Leelah, the Christian faith of those who could neither love her nor understand her as she had been made by God became complicit in this young girl’s death.
In demanding that Leelah conform to gender expectations that are irrelevant to true faith, and to conform to identities that are false before herself and before God, self-identified disciples of Jesus failed to love this young child. Perhaps they were unaware that Paul writes to the Galatians that “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”? Perhaps they simply forgot that the greatest law beyond all else is love? Perhaps they were well-intentioned and good people who simply failed, as we all do?
Unlike many, I do not solely blame the Alcorns. I simply do not know the details well enough to understand their lives and their relationship with Leelah. My focus is broader: this suicide and the thousands more of LGBT youth are indictments of our Christian communities for failing to love in concrete and real ways. It is clear Leelah’s death results from harmful and intolerant messages from the church, and I agree with Melinda Selmys on this:
“Whatever our ideological beliefs about gender and sexuality may be, those beliefs should not translate into an isolated child, deprived of hope, rejected by her parents, cut off from her support networks, denied the ability to be the only person that she knew how to be. The love of God should not translate into the slaughter of the innocents. That was never His work.”
What about today’s Feast of the Epiphany amid all this? “Epiphany” means breakthrough. In ancient times, the revelation of Jesus’ divinity breaking through to all the world was seen in not only the visit of the Magi, but in Jesus’ baptism, and the wedding at Cana, instances where Christ shatters preconceptions and expectations to reveal God in new ways to new peoples. This divine rupture into human history is a most radical event.
Leelah’s suicide was an epiphany, too. It has sparked national conversations and a hashtag on Twitter, #RealLiveTransAdult, where trans* people have shared their stories and their lives before the world. People worldwide are answering Leelah’s parting call that transgender people be “treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights…My death needs to mean something…Fix society. Please.”
Now, it is time for an epiphany on trans* issues in the Catholic Church. We must help our local communities and our global church to breakthrough fear and ignorance to welcome all as God knows them and calls them. We must rupture our own prejudices and discomforts to learn more and grow in love for those we consider “other.”
Let us resolve in 2015 to making this epiphany a reality. Resolve to ensure that the next trans* youth contemplating suicide finds positive faith voices and inclusive communities. Resolve to support parents in loving their trans* children as Deacon Ray Dever wrote about so beautifully last week. Resolve to challenge anti-transgender prejudices and correcting false information about gender in our faith communities. Resolve to be open to God’s power that breaks into our world through Jesus’ divinity and remains today through the Spirit, for with God all things are possible and indeed surprise is often God’s means.
For more information on Catholic transgender issues, check out the “Transgender“category to the right.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry