Understanding Transgenders




“The lack of understanding
of our humanity is
actually killing us.”
Mara Keisling, Founder, National
Center for Transgender Equality

Imagine your teenage son comes to you and says, “I am trapped in a boy’s body. I am a girl. Please understand and help me.”

Think this is difficult? Then imagine you are this fourteen year old. Since four years of age, your confusion results in silence. Who would understand? You try ‘boyish’ things but constantly feel out of place.

After struggling for a decade, you discover a name for your condition. You are ‘transgender.’ You cry tears of happiness. Others share your experience. You are no longer alone.

As Leelah Alcorn described it, joy was quickly transformed into sorrow: “I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong.”

Denying Leelah’s reality, her parents insist on ‘conversion therapy.’ “I felt hopeless,” Leelah states, “that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life.” On her sixteenth birthday, Leelah’s parents denied permission to start transitioning. “I cried myself to sleep.”

It gets worse, much worse. To begin transitioning on her own, she tells friends at school she is gay. Her religiously devout parents react severely: “They took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid…social media, completely isolating me from my friends.”

For five months, Leelah battles severe depression. She states bluntly she has “no friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.” This loneliness intensifies after regaining friendships only to experience betrayal.

At seventeen, Leelah’s despair is ongoing. “I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman, or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out.”

Leelah commits suicide.

A suicide note states Leelah will rest in peace only if “transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights.”

What could have changed this outcome? Marie Donabella, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Providence, urges understanding based on counseling trans people for ten years.

First, understanding begins with education. Trans are not going through a phase, nor do they choose their inner experience of gender. Indeed, brain scans reveal brain areas more closely resembling the sex they experience than the sex of their physical body.

Second, a person’s inner experience can be affirmed. This helps heal the shaming often inflicted by society. Understanding trans like Leelah includes avoiding declarations they will “never truly be a girl.” As Donabella asks, “Who gets to decide what someone’s inner experience is?”

Third, as to the objection that God doesn’t make mistakes, consider people born intersex. These are people whose chromosomes, gonads and genitals do not uniformly identify them as either male or female. Both intersex and trans people may seek sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy. Do we blame God for one condition but not the other? Why not accept transgenders?

Fourth, gay, transgender and intersex people are different, but this doesn’t make them bad. Parental and societal pressure to change people against their will is isolating. Also, scientific studies repeatedly demonstrate conversion therapy is both ineffective and harmful. Among other negative impacts, stigma increases suicide–a rate substantially higher for trans teens than for their peers.

Finally, good news comes to parents facing their child’s gender transition with courage. As Donabella attests, “When they understand that they are not losing their son or daughter, but gaining a happier, more fulfilled child, usually, they are able to grieve and in turn accept their child.”

Adopting these five understandings will help fulfill Leelah’s desperate final plea: “Fix society. Please.”

©2014 Harry Rix. All rights reserved.

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