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Being Transgender Is Not a Sin: What Christians Must Learn from Leelah Alcorn’s Tragic Death

PHOTO: Leelah Alcorn posted this photo on Tumblr with this caption: "I don't take many selfies because I hate how I look as a boy and I rarely get a chance to dress as a girl, so I'm only posting 5, but this year was a big year for me.

PHOTO: Leelah Alcorn posted this photo on Tumblr with this caption: “I don’t take many selfies because I hate how I look as a boy and I rarely get a chance to dress as a girl, so I’m only posting 5, but this year was a big year for me.” Source: Lazerprincess

 

On Tuesday night, we took our youngest son to see a movie. We drove home along the stretch of interstate where it eventually became clear that a young woman had committed suicide early Sunday morning, just two days prior. I couldn’t stop thinking about how dark and desperate one’s despair must be to drive you to actually step out in front of a tractor-trailer on purpose.

Within hours, her death was connected to a suicide note posted on tumblr, in which she wrote out exactly what kind of despair drove her to end her life.

Leelah Alcorn is transgender. She was born with a male body and named Joshua by her parents. But her suicide note states that since age 4, she’s known she was a girl inside.

Her parents are understandably reluctant to speak publicly. After all, they are grieving the death of their child. However, Leelah’s mother Carla did speak briefly to CNN on Wednesday and confirmed some of what Leelah wrote in her suicide note.

Carla said, “We don’t support that [transgender], religiously. But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.”

We don’t support that religiously.

The Alcorns are among those Christians who don’t believe that transgender exists as a legitimate identity. From Leelah’s note, it appears that her parents did their best to shut down her insistence that she is not a he, including forcing her to attend “conversion therapy” (also known as “reparative therapy”).

I have seen and heard this adamant refusal to admit the existence of transgender, intersex, and asexual individuals. It’s right up there with a refusal to recognize homosexuality as anything other than a sinful and perverted sexual choice.

Why? Why can’t Christians wrap their heads around the idea that a person could be born into a body that doesn’t reflect who they really are on the inside?

Conservative Christians teach that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, sin entered the world and broke things. This is how they explain the origin of birth defects, natural disasters, cancers, and the inability to live a perfectly righteous life – violence, lying, stealing, promiscuity, etc. They say we’re born with a preference for sinful living, but we’re also born into bodies prone to disease and a world bent on self destruction.

This leaves a few possibilities when we consider sexuality and gender identity. But for some reason, conservative Christian churches consistently categorize non-straight sexual behavior and gender identity as a sinful choice.

If this is where you land, please hear me out. I’m treading carefully because this is such a delicate subject and it gets at the heart of who people are.

First, we must agree that transgender is a real thing. It isn’t “all in their heads.”

Second, I want you to consider the possibility that being transgender, in which one doesn’t identify with the gender assigned them at birth (aka the moment when the doctor exclaims “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy”), could possibly be a part of living in a broken world with bodies that don’t cooperate with oneself.

This isn’t the perfect solution, but hear me out for a minute.

Consider the baby born with heart defects or the child diagnosed with autism. We easily recognize these as manifestations of living in a broken world (though you can find strains of Christianity that do blame every illness, injury, defect, and bad thing that happens on sin or lack of faith).

Can you imagine having a doctor tell you that your child has cerebral palsy or Asperger’s or Down’s Syndrome and responding, “We don’t support that religiously”? At best, it’s flat-out denial of a physical reality. At worst, it’s tantamount to saying it’s your child’s fault. Something didn’t work right during the child’s development from fertilized egg to embryo to fetus to newborn.

Jesus himself said that birth defects aren’t caused by someone’s sin. His disciples pointed out a man born blind and asked Jesus who sinned, the man or his parents, to cause his blindness. Jesus told them no one sinned.

In a perfect world, people would never be born in the wrong body or in a body that doesn’t cooperate, but this isn’t a perfect world.

Now, here’s where this analogy starts to fall apart. In an earlier draft of this post, I wrote, “Being born with a physical gender that doesn’t match who you are inside is no different than being born with heart defects. Transgender isn’t a sin, nor is it a choice, nor is it fake. It’s one more example of the brokenness in this world that we all have to live with in one form or another.

But I reached out to a group of friends who include Christians who identify as other than heterosexual and/or cisgender for feedback on this post. They pointed out that this still states that being transgender means you’re defective. While it’s an improvement over saying that transgender is fake or that it’s a sin, they told me it is still damaging.

I have a lot to learn. I know that many transgender individuals wish to or choose to “transition” so that their physical body matches their inner reality. To me, that sounds like someone who would say that their body didn’t match their selves and they wanted it to. Maybe the word anomaly or defect or “product of the fall” isn’t the right way to describe it, but having our insides match our outsides matters to many of us. Others insist that just as we find incredible and beautiful variation in nature, the variations in gender and sexuality among humans are similarly natural/normal/acceptable. Maybe those who choose to transition wouldn’t feel the need if we accepted transgender as another variation of normal. I don’t know. Maybe the difference in perspective is part of the beautiful variety within human beings.

Christians, we must deepen and better inform our understanding of gender identity. We’re killing people with our ignorance, our belligerence, and our refusal to educate ourselves. Leelah’s story is a tragic example of how utterly we can destroy a fellow human being when we get this wrong.

Here are a couple of resources recommended to me:

You can do something else, too. Sign the petition to enact Leelah’s Law to ban transgender conversion therapy.

I Don’t Love Christmas

Christmas ornaments of Elli

I met Terry 17 years ago, when Scott and I first started dating. Terry and his wife were Scott’s roommate’s parents and had unofficially adopted Scott into their family. As Scott’s fiancé, they opened their arms and hearts to me too.

I used to tease Terry each November because as holiday decorations appeared with more frequency and intensity, so did his grumbles. His favorite shirt was Oscar the Grouch saying “Bah humbug.” I couldn’t figure out how someone could not like such a happy sparkly holiday.

When Elli was born, I had to shift my expectations for the holiday. We got VERY pragmatic. We did what worked for her, we learned what she hated (she found live music overwhelming and deeply upsetting), and we adjusted. We were too busy keeping her alive to notice what we were missing. For the most part. Occasionally, the reality of Elli’s challenges would punch me in the gut, like when our church’s children’s choir would sing. Seeing them always put Elli’s challenges into stark relief — she lost so much when her heart stopped beating. But mostly, we enjoyed the modified activities and the memories we made with the kids each Christmas.

I don’t know if Terry has always disliked the holiday (I’ve never asked). But today we have more in common than our love of Scott. We’ve both lost our oldest daughters, and I’ve joined him in my aversion to the holiday.

I have to think there’s a connection.

The Christmas season is fraught with expectations, isn’t it? We have all these manufactured images of happy intact families, beautiful decor, sumptuous feasts, bountiful gifts, and glowing snowy scenes. And for those of us who celebrate religious events during this season, we feel pressure to have some ecstatic spiritual experience. But our lives aren’t like that. Even if you haven’t lost someone to death, divorce, or distance, real-life relationships are messy and unpredictable. Budgets ebb and flow. Ornaments break. Lights burn out. Food gets burnt. God goes silent.

I think the Christmas season was easier when Elli was still with us, because we tossed out all the expectations. We recognized her limitations and ours, and we adapted.

I guess that’s what I need to do again. I need to recognize that holidays will always include an element of grief, and I need to expect and embrace it. This will be our sixth Christmas without Elli. It’s also our first without a couple of much-loved grandparents — both Scott and I lost grandmothers this year.

One of my former colleagues told me about the Christmas after her brother died. She said her parents tried to skip the holiday, flying the family to a beach somewhere to escape the painful memories and the aching chasm of his absence.

She looked at me hard when she said, “Joy, it didn’t work. You can’t skip holidays. It was terrible.”

So we don’t skip it, bad as I want to. Every year, I push myself to drag out the boxes and hang things up knowing they all have to come back down in a month. We shape our activities around our kids just like we used to. (Well, with an exception. This year, one of the kids has been relentless that she wants us to do Elf on the Shelf. I posted about this on Facebook awhile back, but I can’t do it, y’all. I just can’t do something like that every single night for a month.)

I still have hope that this season will be spiritually meaningful, not just depressing, sad, and exhausting. And I think maybe I’m finding a thread to hold onto when I think about Mary’s pregnancy — the waiting and discomfort, fear and weariness, pain and failure to meet her society’s expectations (she was pregnant before marriage, you know), all the unknowns she and Joseph must have felt so keenly. It’s exactly how I feel this year. Maybe I can love Christmas after all… just in a completely different way.

A lesson in internet debate from my 7-year-old

“WHY?” His voice was angry, his body taut. “Why are you taking it away for so long?”

I said nothing. Kept driving through the misty rained last-night streets towards school. Two of the three of my kids missed their school buses. One of them forgot a band instrument. I was still in gym clothes, though I hadn’t worked out yet. The day was screwed from the start.

“Where is it?”

He huffed. “In my backpack but…”

“Take it out and put it here.” I pointed to the table between the front seats of the van.

“Nooooooo!” More huffing and angry shifting from the boy in the back seat.

I sighed. This was going to be a long ride.

“Please. Give me another chance. I only missed the bus once. Why haven’t you ever taken my brother’s iPods when he misses the bus? Why?”

“Put the iPod here.” I pointed again.

Round and round he went. Repeating himself louder and more urgent each time. Demanding answers, a shortened consequence, mercy.

I just drove, silent. And I thought to myself, “why aren’t you answering? Articulate it.”

…”he doesn’t want to know why. He wants to debate me.”

This happens online and in person all the time. Someone asks you a question, not to understand, but to argue. They are looking for weaknesses and misspoken words to exploit.

I am trying to make a personal rule not to argue with or debate my child. He needs to grasp that some things are nonnegotiable.

Most of the time with him, he demands that I answer to him for my decisions. He demands answers because he is trying to find a hole to exploit.

This is why I rarely argue a woman’s place in church anymore. It’s why many won’t respond to questions about race or gender or sexuality. The way you ask if, or the timing of when you ask it, tells them you aren’t listening. Your mind is made up and you want a fight.

Next time someone doesn’t respond well to your question, ask yourself, “Am I asking to learn and understand? Or am I asking to argue and debate?” If the latter, don’t act so surprised when others shut you down. Drop it. Walk (or click) away. Come back when you are ready to listen and learn.