Earlier this week, an Ohio teenager named Leelah Alcorn took her own life. In her posthumously posted suicide note, Leelah Alcorn detailed the ways in which her parents failed her. When she came out to them as transgender, they sent her to conversion therapy, told her “God doesn’t make mistakes,” and cut her off from social media. Leelah closed her note by pleading for us to change the world. In response, her mother posted a note on Facebook using Leelah’s birth name and addressing her with male pronouns.
There have been some moving responses from around the internet, including the Twitter hashtag #RealLiveTransAdult which has been showing trans* adults living their lives as a way of demonstrating that there is hope. While we all have a duty to make the world a better place for trans* kids I wanted to talk specifically to parents.
Every time I sit down to write something about being a mother I feel a bit like a fraud. Not because I don’t feel like a mom, because I sure as hell carried that kid for nine months and “popped” her giant, Sputnik size head through my very own vagina (popped makes it sound as simple as popping a cork on a bottle of champagne. It’s not). I feel like a fraud because whenever I write it makes it seem like I have this mothering thing worked out. So, before we go any further, let’s just make sure you understand that I am not gunning for mother of the year. It’s never going to happen. I lose my temper, I yell, I get so frustrated with my children that my wife packs my bag and says, “Why don’t you go to the library for a while, honey?”
Around the time I became aware of Leelah’s suicide and her family’s inability to listen to who she was, I was having an eye-opening experience with my oldest daughter. Since she was born, Abigail (not her real name) has gone by a nickname. Abigail seemed like a lot of name for a tiny baby so we called her Abby from the second she was born. It suited her. We liked it. We insisted that she be called by her nickname by our families and friends and people we met on the street even when they didn’t seem to hear us right and it was a hassle to explain.
Last week we arrived for the kindergarten holiday party and Abby started signing everything “Abigail.” I balked. I balked so hard I nearly tripped over a chair. But I told myself to play it cool, it was no big deal, right? Then she started doing it at home. She was writing stories and signing them “Abigail.” Was this the end of her cute nickname? It was too much to bear.
This was also around the time the press picked up on the fact that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s kid prefers to be called “John.” I watched as people flipped out and shook my head at them. Of course I was vastly superior to those idiots making such a big deal out of their choice. I felt superior for about thirty seconds until I realized I was being a dillhole about Abby wanting to be called Abigail.
It’s really easy as a parent to be blinded by your own “authority.” Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to raise the tiny, helpless creature you brought into the world. You must keep her safe from things like electrical sockets, choking hazards, cars, strangers, heat, cold, the Loch Ness monster, and Yankees fans. In order to keep them safe you say no to them all the time. No, you may not launch your body from the top bunk. No, you may not eat glow sticks. No, you may not go down that slide headfirst. No, no, no, no, no. After a while you feel like a broken record.
You say it so many times that you forget that your kid is her own person. You forget she has the right to make some of her own, age-appropriate choices. You forget that she has a right to look at you and say, “No, Mama, it’s Abigail.” Or in Leelah’s case, “No, you told me I was a boy at birth. I’m telling you that you’re wrong. I’m a girl.” Maybe you forgot she was a whole person, or maybe you are feeling wounded that she doesn’t like the nickname you picked out for her. Get over it. This isn’t about you.
Parents, we have to do better. While we are busy changing the big, wide world, we have to remember that it’s just as important to do everything we can to make our little worlds safe for our kids. It’s not easy. You will probably get it wrong. I get it wrong all the time. But if you keep your eye on the goal of making it easier for your kid to be happy, to be who they are, and to make your home a safe haven for them you’ll be doing all right. And when you fuck up, apologize. Admit you were wrong. If you use the wrong pronoun with your kid, apologize, do better next time.
Hopefully, you brought kids into the world with the goal of helping them to live happy, fulfilled lives. When they are small, the grind can make you forget that all you wanted was for them to be happy. Sometimes I forget. If being called by her formal name makes my kid happy, why the hell would I fight that? I have raised a kid who can tell me what she needs to be happy. That’s magnificent! Now I just need to get out of her way.
If you are lucky enough to have a child who is willing to tell you who they are, if you have done that much right as a parent, make sure you fulfill your promise to love them unconditionally. The greater world needs a lot of work before all of our children are happy and safe and free to be themselves. But making our homes safe places for our kids, we can all do that. It make make you uncomfortable, but you’re a grown-up. Act like one. Our kids are depending on you.