Leelah Alcorn Isn’t Alone: What Happens When Religious Parents Reject Transgender Teens

The trans teen’s suicide has sparked a conversation about rejection—and acceptance—of LGBT youths in religious communities.

Leelah Alcorn. (Photo: Facebook)

Jan 7, 2015· 6 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

Feeling alienated and hopeless, Leelah Alcorn, a transgender high school student from King Mills, Ohio, killed herself on Dec. 28. As the story of her death has become national news, it’s brought up painful memories of past discrimination and rejection for other transgender people across the country. In particular, Alcorn’s own account of her struggle to transition in a religious home, which she documented extensively online, echoed the experiences of those who grew up in and came out to families and churches that believe gender transition and same-sex attractions are sinful.

It was Alcorn’s Reddit post from last October that really resonated with Kimber Dickson, a 37-year-old transgender man who grew up in a strict southern Baptist family in Melbourne, Florida. Alcorn’s suicide note was heartbreaking, but her posts on Reddit about receiving Christian counseling because she was transgender brought back painful memories for Dickson. Alcorn wrote that she felt like she needed to be fixed and thought that “God hated me.”

For Dickson, it’s hard to distinguish between his emotional response to the 17-year-old’s death and his own childhood experiences of rejection by parents, church community, and religious leaders. “In my own home, essentially, child abuse was justified by the Bible, and it was all done in the name of love,” Dickson said over the phone.

Dickson says that after he came out as a lesbian when he was 16, his mother “cried constantly” and would talk about being up all night vomiting because her child had “decided to be a sinner.” When he transitioned from female to male at 30, she responded by asking, “Who’s going to love a freak?”

Now, reading about Alcorn’s life, Dickson can’t help identifying. “You want to honor this person’s passing, but when it resonates so deeply with you, it’s hard to separate,” he said.

In this groundswell moment of transgender visibility, religious leaders and adults who survived hostility from their church communities and families are speaking out against what Dickson and others have described as “religious abuse.” They want to show vulnerable young people that they can live through these harsh punishments.

“There’s a lot of us on the other side of it now. Hang on and reach out for support,” Rev. David Weekley said he wishes he could have told Alcorn. Weekley is a transgender man who was rejected by some in the United Methodist Church when he came out in 2009.

Though it’s not clear what went on between Alcorn and her parents, her suicide note can be read as a testament to how Alcorn felt—and her feelings were as grave and desperate as they get.

Alcorn scheduled the note to publish on her Tumblr hours after her death, and in it she writes that her parents described her transgender identity as a phase and took her to Christian therapists who told her she was “selfish and wrong” for identifying as female. In an interview with CNN, Alcorn’s mother, Carla—who used male pronouns and Leelah’s given name, Josh—said she knew her child wanted to transition and was depressed. However, after counselors prescribed medication for depression, “he just quit talking about (being transgender),” she said.

In her note, Leelah Alcorn wrote that when she said, “I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body,” her parents replied “that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes.”

Referring to Leelah’s description of herself as a transgender girl, Alcorn’s mother told CNN, “We don’t support that, religiously. But we told him that we loved him unconditionally.” Kimber Dickson believes that “you can’t say ‘I love you unconditionally, but—’ ” Unconditional love should come with acceptance. “In Leelah’s situation and in mine,” he continued, “rejecting who the person is makes them feel as though they are less-than and unlovable.”

During Dickson’s childhood his family was in church on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, Monday nights, Wednesday nights, and alternating Fridays and Saturdays for youth activities. About once a year, there would be a sermon on how gay people were going to hell. Once Dickson came out as a lesbian, however, the sermons starting coming once a month. He knew he was the implicit target: “There would often be prolonged eye contact between the pastor and myself. He was preaching directly to me.” Later, when Dickson was 28 and went back to the church for his grandmother’s memorial service, he recalled that “as I’m going through the receiving line, members of the church would turn their heads as they passed me.” The experience made him feel like “I was not even worthy of their acknowledgment or consolation.”

Along with stories like Dickson’s, some recent research suggests that the consequences of this level of rejection can be dire. A 2012 Israeli study found that LGBT young people who come out in religious homes are more likely to attempt suicide. At the time the study was published, researchers said they believed that was because these children “experience more distress when confronting their families.” Rejection for any reason often has a chilling effect on LGBT kids’ health and safety. Compared with those who were accepted by parents and caregivers when they came out, LGBT young people who’ve been rejected are eight times more likely to have attempted suicide, six times more likely to suffer from serious depression, and more likely to use drugs and contract HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Gianna Love, a transgender woman from Tampa, Florida, was raised in a born-again Pentecostal Christian home. When she was 13 and still identifying as a boy, she kissed another boy on Halloween and then told her mother. In Love’s family, homosexuality wasn’t just a sin—it was demonic, she said. Like the Alcorns, Love’s mother took her child out of school but then went even further in her efforts to hinder Love’s self-expression. At the urging of her mother and their church leaders, the 13-year-old started undergoing exorcisms.

“So I felt this growing guilt and shame with my sexuality, but also this intense fear that this had something to do with demons,” Love said. After moving out of her mother’s house, she struggled with drug use, self-harm, and mental-health issues. She doesn’t believe religion was the only reason for this, but, at 28, she’s still torn between the residual religious anxiety and her queer identity.

Though Dickson and Love have emotional scars from their coming-out experiences, the reality is that Christian communities differ widely in their attitudes toward LGBT people.

“Conservative Christian theology isn’t the only theology out there, and there are supportive places and voices for transgender people of all ages,” said Weekley. Born in Ohio, he transitioned from female to male in 1964, when he was just 13. Until 2009, he lived a stealth life, telling few people he was a transgender man; officials in the United Methodist Church didn’t know. His church does not explicitly prohibit transgender people from serving as pastors, but Weekley says that some still tried to rescind his ordination. He also says that after he came out, he was forced to work in situations with limited opportunities.

In a post on his website inspired by Alcorn’s death, Weekley lamented how little has changed since his own transition. When Leelah wrote, “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights,” it had a deep impact on Weekley, who recalled, “I wrote close to the exact same words, though thankfully not in a suicide note but in a journal dated from August 1974.”

Rev. Jakob Hero is another transgender religious leader who works to support other LGBT Christians, including Dickson. Now a minister living in Tampa, “Jakob was probably the first Christian I didn’t run away from,” Dickson recalled. When they met around 15 years ago, Dickson was 22 and Hero was 19. Dickson felt like he’d been abused by God, but after growing close to Hero, he realized not all Christians were like his family.

Though he thinks Alcorn’s parents “completely messed up,” Hero has compassion for them. “I don’t think they did the right thing, but they were following guidance they thought was right. I’m sure they were scared for her eternal salvation,” he said.

Recognizing the strong antigay sentiment in many families, leaders like Hero and Weekley are desperate to reach LGBT young people with acceptance and alternatives to religious anti-LGBT therapy. “I’m really a proponent of the one-on-one conversation,” Hero said. If he had the funding, he’d love to “train a bunch of people on how to respond to these negative messages from Christianity and what to do when a teenager is being religiously abused.”

Some advocates for trans youth even hope to open lines of communication and compel these diametrically opposed groups to talk through their differences. Kate Bornstein, a trans activist and the author of several books, including one on suicide prevention for queer kids, thinks Hero’s characterization is spot-on—but also believes that protecting kids like Alcorn requires breaking down walls between evangelicals and the LGBT community.

“Where are the people reaching out from both sides of the aisle? The postmodern theorists reaching out to the fundamentalist preachers and saying, ‘Can we have a talk?’ ” she said. Sure, there would be resistance, but Bornstein is hopeful. “You may find a crack in the door,” she said.

Hero likes this idea in theory, but he’s skeptical and said he has yet to see progress come from conversations between evangelicals and the LGBT community. He can recognize that Alcorn’s death has spread awareness of the struggles trans kids face, but that upsets him.

“I certainly don’t want her death to be in vain, but I don’t want it to be the method that people use,” he said. The answer probably can’t be found in a single solution but instead in a combination of growing awareness, stronger personal relationships, and more resources for scared, isolated kids who are grappling with their identities in households where they’re not accepted.

After Dickson turned 18, he fled the church and his family. He’s worked at a community mental-health center in Tampa for the past 15 years, seven of which were spent in the children’s crisis center. He’s spoken about his experiences at the Transgender Day of Remembrance, he advocates for trans patients at work, and he’s slowly trying to sort out his own feelings about religion and faith.

But knowing there are kids like Leelah Alcorn out there, Dickson keeps hoping for more ways to help. He said he can’t stop asking, “What else can we do to get to these kids in strongly religious, closed-off homes?”