On Leelah, On Leaving, On Staying

HT_ht_joshua_leelah_alcorn5_ml_141231_4x3_992“My death needs to mean something.”

There’s a litany of things in Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note that are heartbreaking. That, for me, is the hardest.

“My death needs to mean something.”

Leelah Alcorn’s suicide calls us to do and become aware of a lot of things. We have to come to terms with how we treat transgender people – particularly transgender teens — in the beginning stages of their transitions (knowing those initial responses can shape whole lives and experiences). We have to change the way we treat transgender people in our culture as a whole. We have to stop thinking of identity as a treatable condition. We have to recognize what depression looks like, and we have to know what to do about it when we see it. We have to abandon the idea that faith alone can heal someone in the depths of depression (or any mental illness). We have to look more deeply at how faith communities talk about and collectively deal with the presence of LGBT people in their numbers.

And her suicide means we have to do The Hard Thing: embrace what we don’t understand as something as precious and valuable as ourselves. We have to love what we don’t fully “get.” We have to show grace and love even when we don’t exactly know and understand what we’re loving. We must be those people.

But we also have to say an even harder thing: Don’t kill yourself. 

Inside the very necessary calls to action on behalf of transgender teens like Leelah and against faith-based conversion therapy and the failure of faith communities to actually do what Jesus teaches us to do, we also have to take up a call of action on behalf of the living: don’t kill yourself. 

Out there is another teenager like Leelah. Out there are a thousand other teenagers like Leelah. And while I want them to know that the world hates how they’re being treated, and that they are not abberrations, and that God loves them despite what anyone says, I also want them to know that their death will never mean as much as their life. Never.

I don’t blame Leelah for her choice. It was difficult and brutal and impossible. I hate that she felt that it was the only choice left. But I mourn who she would have been. The courage of the girl who wanted her death to mean something could have evolved into the courage of a woman whose life would have meant something.

I mourn that woman.

As Jennifer Michael Hecht writes in her brilliant book “Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It,

“None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises life brings — the endless possibilities that living offers — and to persevere. There is love and insight to live for, bright moments to cherish, and even the possibility of happiness, and the chance of helping someone else through his or her own troubles. Know that people, through history and today, understand how much courage it takes to stay. Bear witness to the night side of being human and the bravery it entails, and wait for the sun. If we meditate on the record of human wisdom we may find there reason enough to persist and find our way back to happiness. The first step is to consider the arguments and evidence and choose to stay. After that, anything may happen. First, choose to stay.”

If I could say something to Leelah, I’d say, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t do more with my life to carve out a safe space for you. I’m sorry your faith community failed you and gave you a mistaken idea of who God is. I’m sorry you had to choose suicide. I’ll do better. I’ll encourage others to do better. And I’ll do my best to make sure others don’t have to leave. I want them to stay. For themselves. For you. For the You you didn’t get to be.”

Another word from Jennifer Michael Hecht, her poem ‘Hemlock Rock (don’t kill yourself)”:

Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself.
Don’t. Eat a donut, be a blown nut.
That is, if you’re going to kill yourself,
stand on a street corner rhyming
seizure with Indonesia, and wreck it with
racket. Allow medical terms.
Rave and fail. Be an absurd living ghost,
if necessary, but don’t kill yourself.

Let your friends know that something has
passed, or be glad they’ve guessed.
But don’t kill yourself. If you stay, but are
bat crazy you will batter their hearts
in blooming scores of anguish; but kill
yourself, and hundreds of other people die.

Poison yourself, it poisons the well;
shoot yourself, it cracks the bio-dome.
I will give badges to everyone who’s figured
this out about suicide, and hence
refused it. I am grateful. Stay. Thank
you for staying. Please stay. You
are my hero for staying. I know
about it, and am grateful you stay.

Eat a donut. Rhyme opus with lotus.
Rope is bogus, psychosis. Stay.
Hocus Pocus. Hocus Pocus.
Dare not to kill yourself. I won’t either.
                      -Jennifer Michael Hecht “No Hemlock Rock (don’t kill yourself)”


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