by Elise Hendrick
When a child dies of a treatable condition because her parents insisted on praying the diseases rather than seeking treatment, would we say that she died of natural causes?
Leelah, the Ohio transgender teen whose suicide note, an outright indictment of the society in which she lived and the parents who were inflicted upon her, was published online earlier this week, asked that her death be included in the trans suicide statistics. Because of the circumstances that led Leelah to end her own life, I think that her death, and many other transgender fatalities that are classified as suicides, belong in another column of the statistics altogether.
Leelah put herself in the path of oncoming traffic in order to bring an end to her life. If we focus on this event, ‘suicide’ does indeed seem an apt characterisation. However, to focus only on the moment of her death is to ignore all we know from Leelah herself about the circumstances in which she died, and indeed, much of what we know of the lives and deaths of trans people in our society.
In the purely legal sense, a person is guilty of homicide if they decide to withhold lifesaving treatment from a person in their care. This is why a number of parents in the US have found themselves charged with various forms of culpable homicide after attempting to pray away their children’s serious, but treatable, diseases.
From Leelah’s own last words, we know that this is precisely what her parents did to her.
How does Leelah frame the circumstances of her death? From her suicide note and earlier social media posts that have come to light, we learn that she knew from as early as age four that she was trans, and came out to her parents the moment she, aged fourteen, found out that there was a word for what she was feeling.
How did her parents react? In a word: abusively. They immediately cut her off from her psychological support structures by taking her out of school and denying her access to social media. Rather than helping her access the medical and emotional support she needed – and actively requested – they took her to unqualified ‘counsellors’ who tried to coerce her into denial by means of guilt and shame. Later, they allowed her to use social media again, but strictly surveilled her social media use to ensure that she could not seek elsewhere the emotional support she was denied at home. If one were writing a manual on how to kill a trans person and make it appear a suicide, one could hardly provide better instructions than to do what these parents did.
Trans people contemplate, attempt, and carry out suicides at a rate that would be considered a public health crisis if it were anyone society cared about.
There is nothing inherently suicidal about gender dysphoria, although it is certainly capable of leading to depression, as is virtually any problem when no solution appears readily available. In the case of trans people, we know that, if they are allowed to transition socially and physically to the extent they deem necessary, not only is the dysphoria mitigated, or even eliminated altogether, but the depression itself, and with it the suicidal ideation, begins to fade. In short, what saves trans people’s lives is respect, respect for their self-knowledge, and for their needs.
If Leelah’s parents had sought the advice of anyone other than quacks, as was their duty to their daughter, this is what they would have been told. If they had done this, or even genuinely listened to what Leelah was telling them, she might well be alive today. If they had given even a moment’s consideration to how they themselves would have wanted to be treated in similar circumstances, to how they might feel if they were subjected to a regime of guilt, shame, and systematic social isolation, Leelah’s death might very well have been prevented. Instead, they committed acts of textbook psychological abuse and medical neglect.
As such, any serious analysis cannot avoid the conclusion that Leelah’s death was a homicide, that Leelah’s blood is on their hands.
That’s not all Leelah tells us from beyond the grave. Leelah named her parents’ and their quack counsellors’ accomplices, as well.
What was her parents’ response when at sixteen, she asked permission to receive transition-related healthcare? That it was too expensive. Though we know nothing of her family’s economic status, and we do know enough to suspect that the answer would have been ‘no’ even if money had not been an object, it is a fact that transition-related care is prohibitively expensive, thanks in no small part to Janice Raymond’s fraudulent ‘report’ to the US National Centre for Health Care Technology. Before they can access the treatment they need, trans people, especially those on the male-to-female spectrum, must face a gauntlet of humiliations in order to meet the often sexist demands of gatekeepers, at their own expense, of course. If they succeed in this, they must still come up with the money to see specialists and pay hundreds of dollars a month for prescriptions.
They must go through a lengthy and expensive process of changing the names and gender markers on official files and identification documents, or risk the potentially fatal consequences of being outed as trans any time they are required to produce identification.
They must live with the ostracism and violence this society offers them if their physical appearance causes them not to be ‘read’ as their lived and identified gender. And trans women must additionally face the violence of a misogynistic society whilst frequently being denied access to the spaces that purport to give women refuge from this violence.
It should come as no surprise, then, that, even with some degree of emotional support, trans people, especially trans women, are unusually prone to suicide. Society is an accomplice in these homicides.
In a bourgeois legal culture that is obsessed with individual bad acts of individual bad actors, the concept of societal homicide is well-nigh inconceivable. That does not make it any less real.
Some may object at this point that this argument ‘proves too much’, that it would lead to perhaps millions more suicides being classified as homicides.
That is precisely my point.
This society is replete with ‘suicides’ that could have been prevented if those with power had not determined that ‘those people’s’ lives simply do not matter enough to take active measures to protect them, to make them worth living. That goes as much for the people who take their own lives because it is not profitable to provide them with livable employment and those crushed under the weight of shonky mortgages as it does to the numerous ‘suicides’ in the Guantánamo concentration camp and those subjected to the brutal regime of ‘benefit sanctions’ and ‘work capability assessments’. Like trans people, their deaths fall under ‘operating expenses’ in the annual reports of this murderous society. Homicides, the lot of them.
When Leelah issued her diagnosis that ‘society is fucked up’, she no doubt primarily had the homicidal tendencies that this society displays toward those like her in mind. But her diagnosis applies generally.
Leelah was murdered. That is the real story here, and chief amongst her executioners are those who would rather we didn’t talk about the circumstances of her death.