Last month, Leelah Alcorn, a transgender 17-year-old, committed suicide by putting herself in the path of a tractor-trailer on an Ohio highway. In a Tumblr post scheduled to publish after her death, she wrote that her parents refused to accept her as a girl and took her to Christian therapists. When Leelah came out at her public school, her parents took her out of school. She became convinced that she was "never going to transition successfully," concluding, "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."
As Leelah intended, her death sparked a national conversation about the plight of transgender kids and the scanty rights and respect our society affords them. But the media narrative surrounding the issue gave reason for hope. Pretty much all mainstream reports referred to Leelah by her chosen name, rather than the name given to her at birth, Joshua. Whereas 10 years ago we would have seen outlets skeptical about Leelah's identity, perhaps calling her “confused” or “troubled,” the fact that Leelah was transgender was accepted as a given, her suicide attributed far more to her parents' (and by extension, our society's) refusal to accept her for who she was. Stories about the Alcorns referred to their conservative religious beliefs and their refusal to even acknowledge Leelah as anything but their son, and Dan Savage even suggested that they should be prosecuted for her death. An online petition for the president and Congress to pass “Leelah's Law” banning transgender conversion therapy has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures.
While Leelah's suicide certainly shows that we still have a long way to “fix society,” we may be reaching a tipping point with regards to acceptance of transgender, gender-fluid, and gender nonconforming people. Up until very recently, discussions of gender-nonconforming children centered mostly on the anguish they would face expressing themselves openly in a world as yet unready to accept them. The prevailing wisdom had long been that in order to safeguard their emotional well being, it was better to have these children express themselves “safely” in environments where they would not be subject to being bullied and teased. In 2012, prominent gender-identity physician Dr. Kenneth Black suggested steering children away from gender “inappropriate” toys and behaviors. And until May 2013, gender identity confusion in children was still classified as a “mental disorder” by the American Psychiatric Association.
But this narrative is finally being challenged: Are we doing more harm to these children by forcing them to limit their expression and conform to societal pressures?
Consider, by contrast, the controversy surrounding Brad and Angelina's eight-year-old daughter, Shiloh Jolie-Pitt. Since around age three, Shiloh has, according to her parents, wanted to be called “John,” and has expressed a longstanding preference for boy's clothing and wearing her hair short, all of which seems to be totally fine with the Jolie-Pitt family. I am referring to Shiloh as a female because Jolie herself still does. But even this decision proved controversial for several outlets, who have opted to refer to Jolie-Pitt as John and use the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” so as to, as one article put it, “respect John's decision, whatever they may end up being.” Others have criticized the couple's decision to raise “gender confused” children. Still others insist that many children engage in gender fluid behavior in their early years and it's too soon and inappropriate for us to be discussing Shiloh's sexual identity.
While the rest of us are trying to define Shiloh, her parents are simply letting her be who she is, without worry about what anyone thinks about her. Perhaps this is why Shiloh seems so content. One has to wonder if all the pages devoted to our “understanding” of gender norms and possible consequences of non-conformity can all boil down to one thing: just love and accept your child as they ask to be accepted.
There are several caveats, not the least of which is that as a gorgeous white child born to outrageously famous and rich parents, Shiloh is not likely to face even a fraction of the struggles most children—especially those of other races and classes—expressing gender fluidity will face. Equally true is that our concerns about gender fluid, “tomboyish” girls seem to be far less anxiety-inducing than our concerns about boys who stray from gender cues.
It's easy to forget how much gender, much like sexuality and race, is contextual, simply a product of the dominant culture and time. In the nineteenth century, both boys and girls sported frilly dresses and long hair throughout their childhood. Our attempts to differentiate the sexes at an early age—to provide girls with dolls and boys with trucks—is a far more modern phenomenon than many of us may realize. Once again, the culture is changing, with the brisk advancement of LGBT rights no doubt having sped things up. Today, communities, schools, and cities are taking steps to ensure that our assumptions about gender aren't punishing those who don't identify in traditional, binary ways.
Now that we seem to be setting aside these assumptions, it's logically suspect to force children to make decisions about their gender before puberty. There seems little benefit to nudging gender-questioning children toward their biologically assigned boxes. If we are first and foremost concerned with the emotional well-being of these children, we ought to follow the lead of Brad and Angelina and let our children just be, without labels or expectations. A few years from now, we may find out that Shiloh is in fact transgender and we should rightfully call him John. Or it could turn out that she was a non-conforming female whose parents allowed her to express herself without judgment. Either way, it appears she'll be able to make those decisions without fear, persecution, or judgment—the kind of environment that might have saved Leelah Alcorn's life.