On December 28, 2014, the internet was rocked by the final words of Leelah Alcorn who committed suicide. Leelah took her own life because after revealing herself as Trans to her family, she was systematically abused and tortured until she would give up her identity. Her parents refused her access to treatment that would have helped her body develop in a way in line with her identity. She was isolated from any systems of support and repeatedly told that what she was and who she was, was wrong.
Her final plea was to create a Trans inclusive world where others wouldn’t share her fate.
First a quick introduction to what it means to be Trans: Someone who is transgender was assigned the wrong gender at birth. They weren’t, as is sometimes said in reference to Trans women: “born a boy/male”. They were never boys to begin with. This is not to excuse refusing to accept a trans person’s own narrative. If they chose to speak about their own story in this way, that is their prerogative and not for you or anyone else to argue with.
They go through a process called transitioning where they seek to reclaim their real gender identity through various means. These means may include a change of outward presentation through the use of clothes and jewelry, hormones, surgery, and other such actions. A Trans person may use all, some, or none, of these means, and their use of them is in no way indicative of the “realness” of their identity.
Over the last several days many people have shared her story and there is a push to make the changes that Leelah was hoping for.
I have also seen, however, in the last several days, people sharing memes about how religion killed Leelah. Even a well-known organization, American Atheists, shared her image with quotes from her note. Specifically, only those listing how Christianity was used as an excuse for her torture and abuse. What’s more, while the photo gendered her correctly, there was no mention made of the fact that she was trans. The focus on the picture was entirely on religion’s role.
While there is something to say about the religious enabling that made the bigotry possible, the level of appropriation demonstrated in this picture is sickening and an insult.
While Christianity did play a role in this abuse, it did so as an excuse to justify bigotry not as the cause. Religiously motivated bigotry exists in a chicken-egg state. Which came first the bigoted opinion or the religion that justifies it?
In this case however, the question of which came first is irrelevant. Regardless of their religious affiliation, statistical likelihood is that they would have reacted badly to her coming out. It is true that they employed their religion as a tool for their abuse, but it was not the only tool available to them. Our culture is pervaded with transmisogyny and trans antagonism. Men in dresses continue to be a major source of amusement. Gender identity is still struggling to be recognized legally as a protected right/class from discrimination. The murder of trans women is not recognized as a crime in the court system, let alone as a hate crime.
Being non-religious doesn’t prevent you from being trans antagonistic or trans misogynistic. There have been many examples within our own atheist communities. You can be an atheist and be a bigot. The two are not mutually exclusive. The graphic borrowing Leelah’s words, while denying her identity and her ultimate goal, implies heavily that that is in fact the case.
This is particularly dishonest, since American Atheists recently made headlines over asserting publicly that being pro-life and atheist are not mutually exclusive.
The purpose of the graphic was to harness the outrage over Leelah’s death and point it instead at a goal of their choosing. A goal that is not the one that Leelah gave her life in pursuit of. They are taking advantage of her death to persuade their cause. They do so with no indication or proof that their goals in any way change the lives of trans people for the better.
Let me lay down a few terrifying statistics for you:
- The Average Lifespan of Trans women is 30. The most common causes of death are murder and suicide.
- The ‘trans panic defence’ is the defence used by murderers of trans people for killing trans people. The defense is literally: “They were trans” and that is deemed a good enough excuse for taking someone’s life.
- Trans youth and Queer youth make up the largest demographic of homeless youth. In the US and Canada between 40-50% of homeless youth identify with at least one letter of QUILTBAG. That percentage is higher in more conservative states.
Making atheism more accepted in the mainstream, and possibly even encouraging more people to become atheists, in no way does anything to address those statistics. This is especially the case when the organization refuses to admit that social justice concerns have a place within atheism: to wit their association with known anti-feminists, their assertion that being anti-choice is not against “atheist values”, and other such examples from their own recent history.
(EDIT: I have been told that Leelah called herself an atheist in public.Here is verification. Even if true, it doesn’t excuse the rest))
What makes this an even more shameless appropriation of the outrage at Leelah’s death is the fact that there is NO INDICATION THAT LEELAH WAS AN ATHEIST! (We don’t know! Perhaps she was, but she could have just as easily been someone who maintained a faith in a god. This appropriation just gives her parents one more fucking excuse for what they did. Her community one more fucking excuse for their bigotry. It makes fighting her fight just that little extra bit harder.
American Atheists owes trans people, and Leelah Alcorn, their apology. In the future they should show their support for trans people not by stealing the attention away from where it belongs, but rather by devoting their own organization towards creating a safer world. Either put up, or shut up.