Media Contagion? Ohio Parents Vilified After Transgender Teen’s Suicide

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By Richard Edmondson

It has been said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Certainly this would seem to be so in the case of Josh “Leelah” Alcorn, the Ohio teen who threw himself in front of a truck roughly a week ago over a longstanding disagreement with his parents over his gender identity.

(I am going to use the pronouns “he” and “him” in this article mainly out of consideration for certitude and accuracy–regardless what Alcorn thought or believed himself to be on the inside, the fact remains that at the time of his death he still retained the genitalia of a male.)

At the age of 17, Alcorn had not long to wait before he could legally have left his parents’ home, struck out on his own, and lived his life the way he wanted. He didn’t. Instead, he wrote a suicide note of nearly 1000 words, blaming his parents at length for his problems, queued it for posting on the Internet, and took his own life.

Is it not enough that a family must grieve the loss of a loved one, particularly the loss of one so young who died under such painful circumstances? One would think so.

But now, after negative publicity from CNN and other mainstream media outlets, the teen’s parents, Carla and Doug Alcorn, have become the targets of a vilification campaign–to such an extent that the funeral was postponed and finally moved to an undisclosed location due to threats against the family.

The feeling among gay and transgender rights activists seems to be that the Alcorn family have not suffered enough already; they need to suffer more.

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Carla and Doug Alcorn

“Your daughter killed herself because of you,” one person said in a comment reportedly posted on Carla Alcorn’s Facebook page and cited in a Washington Post article.

Another is said to have written, “You’re disgusting,” while a third denounced the mother as, “You awful bitch.”





One writer is even calling for the parents to be prosecuted.

The mainstream media have done much of the priming of the pump for these sentiments.

“When Josh Alcorn voiced a desire to live as a girl, the Ohio teenager’s parents said they wouldn’t stand for that,” reads the lead paragraph of a CNN story by Ashley Fantz.

It was probably not a wise idea for Carla Alcorn to speak to a reporter, albeit off-camera only, but doubtless she had little idea how negatively her words would be interpreted or how widely they would be recycled and repeated ad nauseum by national and international media far beyond CNN.

“We don’t support that, religiously,” the grieving mother told Fantz. “But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.”

Fantz went on to note, “In her interview with CNN, Carla Alcorn referred to her child as her son and used male pronouns”–as if there were something wrong with the mother doing that, and as if Fantz expected a mother coping with the shock of a child’s death to excogitate within the margins of political correctness. And indeed this alleged failing on Carla Alcorn’s part has become a fundamental component in reportage on the story by much of the rest of the media.

“Mother of Transgender Teen Can’t Bring Herself to Call Her Child ‘She,’” pans the UK Daily Mail.

“Leelah Alcorn’s Mom Mourns a ‘good boy,’” chides Salon.

The alternative media have perhaps been worse. In some cases far worse. One progressive website refers to “the quiet genocide of transgender people” and asserts that Alcorn “was smothered with intolerance.”

Unlike the “progressive” writer and the other critics cited above, I do not feel qualified to render judgement on Carla and Doug Alcorn as parents. I say this for the simple reason that I don’t know them, and more importantly, I have no knowledge as to what went on in their household in the course of their daily lives.

Did their son perhaps come to them and ask for permission to cross dress, and if so how did they respond? How would you respond? If your son or daughter–still in their early or mid teens–came to you and said, “I think deep down inside I’m really a boy (or girl),” would you immediately initiate the process of gender reassignment? Or would you encourage your son or daughter to consider the possibility that it might be a passing phase, one he or she would eventually outgrow?

In his suicide note, Josh/Leelah complains that his parents refused to allow him to undergo “transitioning treatment.” Transitioning is defined here as “the process of changing one’s gender presentation permanently to accord with one’s internal sense of one’s gender.” This process can include making social changes–such as changing one’s name and the gender role one plays socially, as well as requesting others to recognize those changes–but it can also include actualizing physical changes to the body. These can consist of hormone replacement therapy; epiliation, or laser hair removal; and can even go so far as carrying out surgical procedures on the genitals or other parts of the body. All of this is defined as “transitioning.”

If your child came to you and requested to have surgery of this type, would you say “alright”? And if you refused, would that be grounds for accusing you of intolerance?

“It would be cruel and inaccurate to suggest that Carla Alcorn did not love her child,” says Mary Elizabeth Williams, writing in Salon. But the bereaved parent’s persistency in using the pronoun “he” in her public references to her son, Williams believes, “reveals a tragic lack of understanding of the word ‘unconditionally,’ even in death.”

In his suicide note, published in full here, Josh/Leelah described his parents’ reaction after informing them of his desire to become a girl. This was at the age of 14. His mom, he wrote, reacted “extremely negatively,” expressing her belief to him that “it was a phase.” The mother’s response caused the boy to begin hating himself, his note confides, but apparently some of this animus was also directed outward at his parents:

I formed a sort of a “fu$k you” attitude towards my parents and came out as gay at school, thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as trans it would be less of a shock. Although the reaction from my friends was positive, my parents were pissed.

Much of the teen’s “f— y–” attitude seems to have been sparked by his parents’ religious beliefs. “My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to Christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression,” he complained. “I only got more Christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.”

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Apparently concerned over what sort of content he was accessing on the Internet, the parents also revoked the boy’s Internet privileges, though he confesses that after a period of five months these privileges were restored.

Are the parents now, in their angst and grief, searching their souls, wondering if they did the right thing? I would guess most probably they are.

Some years back when I was working as a reporter for a newspaper in a city near where I live, I did a story on a local couple whose 26-year-old son had committed suicide two years previously. What I learned at the time is that those whose family members end their lives in suicide have all the normal parts of grief, plus additional layers. These layers in effect make for an enormous emotional burden, complicated by feelings of guilt, and plagued daily with a hundred thoughts such as, “Why????” and, “If only…”

“Every emotion that you can think of you will experience it, guilt, pain, anxiety–just everything,” the father told me. “You hate yourself, you hate the world, you’re down–I mean you feel every emotion that you can.”

The mother confided, “It does affect you. Our daughter–she said, ‘I lost my brother, but I also lost my parents–because we were not the same afterwards. We’re not the same and we never will be.’”

One thing that the couple found enormously helpful, however, was joining a suicide survivor support group holding weekly meetings. “Suicide survivor,” in clinical psychological parlance, is defined as anyone who has lost someone to suicide. Meeting fellow survivors and forming relationships with them can be therapeutic in a way that one-on-one counseling cannot, said a social worker I also interviewed for the story.

“Part of what we do with our group,” the counselor told me, “is have people with a little more time from the completed suicide–they’re able to help the people who just got there, if nothing else by offering a model. When they say, ‘It will get easier,’ they have some credibility.”

Those interested may click here to find a state-by-state listing of suicide survivor groups. Most states have at least one, with some states counting as many as forty or more active groups. That may sound like a lot, but worth keeping in mind is that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in America.

You can also go here to read blog postings on suicide survival, including some posted by survivors themselves.

According to some psychiatric professionals, suicide can be classified into different types or categories. One of these types involves cases in which the act of suicide is an expression of anger, or desire for revenge, against those whom the suicidal person feels have hurt or rejected them (see here, here and here).

In his suicide note, Josh/Leelah expresses the desire for his death “to mean something,” and says that “the only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was.” Yet in between the lines, running virtually throughout the letter, is an underlying hostility toward his parents–and in a second note, posted after the first (perhaps as an afterthought?) and which can be referenced here, that hostility grows even more pronounced and overt.

“The second note was published after Leelah’s death wherein she apologizes to her siblings and friends, but not to her parents,” one reporter notes. “She concluded the post by saying, ‘I don’t really feel the need to apologize to anyone else … odds are you didn’t give a s**t about me and if you do, you did something that made me feel like s**t and you don’t deserve an apology.’”

Another concern of mental health professionals is the issue of “suicide contagion,” i.e. copycat or imitative behavior that can be triggered by high-profile suicide cases. “Recent studies have concluded that media coverage of suicide is connected to the increase—or decrease—in subsequent suicides, particularly among adolescents (Sisask & Värnik, 2012),” says the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“High volume, prominent, repetitive coverage that glorifies, sensationalizes or romanticizes suicide has been found to be associated with an increase in suicides (Bohanna and Wang, 2012),” the report goes on. “There is also evidence that when coverage includes detailed description of specific means used, the use of that method may increase in the population as a whole (Yip, et al., 2012).”

Striking perhaps, in the Alcorn case, is the extent to which some members of the public have leaped to give greater credence to the words of a suicidal teen than to the parents, though here again the mainstream media have done much to set the tenor of the story. One reporter, for instance, chastised, “Even after the suicide, Mrs Alcorn appeared unable to accept that her male child wanted to become female.”

Another distinctive feature to the media coverage, found in virtually every single article or video report I’ve come across, is the emphasis given to the Alcorn family’s religious beliefs and the fact that the parents are Christians. For most mainstream journalists it has been the central focus of their reports, while some truly seem to have gone out of their way to drive the point home.

A case in point might be the Ashley Fantz report for CNN. Virtually all media reports on the Alcorn case have, of course, included quoted passages from Josh/Leelah’s suicide note. That’s to be expected, and is a given. The suicide note in question runs a rather lengthy 963 words and it includes a total of four instances of either the word “Christian,” or “Christians,” all of them referenced negatively. The quoted passages Fantz chose to insert into her CNN report included all four of those instances.

But Fantz was not alone in playing up the Christianity angle to the story:

“US Teenager Refused Permission to Change Sex By Christian Parents Commits Suicide,” blared the headline in the British Telegraph.

“Transgender Teen Leelah Alcorn Blames Christian Parents in Tumblr Suicide Note,” reads another at the Huffington Post.

One wonders whether the tone of the press coverage would have been entirely different had another religion been involved. Would the Huffington Post, for instance, have dared to post a headline reading, “Transgender Teen Leelah Alcorn Blames Jewish Parents in Tumblr Suicide Note”?

At any rate, vigils are being held, petitions have been initiated–including one calling for the name “Leelah” to be inscribed upon the gravestone–and a great deal of outrage and self righteousness continue to be expressed. For Alcorn it is too late. What’s done is done. The best we can hope for now is to try and avoid a case of “suicide contagion.”

My own personal view is that individuals, those of legal age at any rate, should be free to identify as whomever they wish and choose whatever sexual orientation suits them. Why? One reason is because for as long as humans have been on the planet, a certain percentage of the population has been attracted to the same sex. This is never going to change. And this is something Christians would do well to keep in mind.

Also worth keeping in mind for Christians is that we have no record, anywhere, of Jesus ever saying anything at all about homosexuality. Nothing in the books of the New Testament. Nothing in the sizable body of Gnostic texts and New Testament apocrypha.

We do know certainly that Jesus very much found fault with the rich; that he taught compassion for the poor; denounced hypocrites; and had a great, great deal to say about the Jewish leadership of his day. Many of his comments were revolutionary. They were revolutionary then. And if uttered in a different setting, outside a religious context, they would be viewed as extremely revolutionary today as well. Which gives us some idea why Christianity has survived for 2000 years and been observed and embraced throughout by a huge portion of the human population.

Certainly there are different Christian denominations, with differing interpretations of Christ’s teachings, but nowhere in all of the texts that have come down to us today, many of them going all the way back to the first century, do we find Jesus speechifying or orating on the subject of homosexuality, either for or against.  To be sure, homosexuality is condemned in the Bible, yes–in the Old Testament, and also by the Apostle Paul, who, prior to his conversion, was an avid follower of the Old Testament Law. But Jesus? It seems he had little if anything to say on the matter. What to make of it? Could it be an indication he regarded it as of no great import? I would say it’s a conclusion that is at least worth strongly considering.

In any event, all of it taken together makes us wonder if there might not be some other reason for the manifestly anti-Christian tone of the media coverage on the Alcorn story. I have some ideas on that, but I’ll leave it for readers to draw their own conclusions. The main point I’ll make, and which I’ll close with, is that the self-righteous, vigilante mobs need to back off and leave this family in peace. Respect their religious beliefs, and let the parents mourn the loss of their son in dignity and privacy.

 

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