This week, my friend Kevin Necessary’s editorial cartoon was published on the Cincinnati news channel website WCPO.com. The drawing was a cartoon of Leelah Alcorn and a quote from her final letter. In the comments under the cartoon, many responders desired the conversations to halt. They used negative words to describe Leelah. But thanks to the station and those monitoring the site, the conversations continued.
It reminded me of a situation from 2007.
At the time I lived in Largo, Florida. Steve Stanton was our city manager. I was acquainted with Stanton from my days working as a membership director for the Greater Largo Chamber of Commerce. Stanton was a dedicated public servant, working for the city for nearly two decades.
Due to a horrific move by the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), Stanton’s true gender identity and upcoming transition was outed to the entire Tampa Bay community. The entire community was stunned by the news. The media leaked this story before Stanton could tell her 13-year-old son.
Of course, people in this suburban town couldn’t allow Stanton to remain manager of the city. Based on her ultra-conservative faith, then-city commissioner Mary Gray Black demanded for Stanton to be fired.
At the hearings, people from all perspectives came to stand for or against Stanton. A pastor from a local church stated “If Jesus was here tonight, I can guarantee you he’d want (him) terminated. Make no mistake about it.” I personally wrote letters to each of the commissioners urging them to continue the employment of Stanton. Unfortunately, with a 5-2 vote, the Largo commissioners chose to fire Stanton in February 2007. Soon after, Stanton began to publicly identify as Susan Stanton. It was truly a very embarrassing time for the city of Largo, Florida. (Fortunately, as of this week, LGBT persons will be able to marry in Pinellas County, Florida.)
Even in 2007, our communities knew very little about transgenderism and weren’t willing to learn more.
People like to continue to believe that our current gender is the only thing that defines us. Boy or Girl. Man or Woman. Be a manly man or be a feminine lady. Don’t identify outside of gender norms, and don’t identify with another gender. They call people who identify differently “perverts” or “immoral.”
Here’s how much gender means to our society: if one’s genitals or reproductive organs are not in a specific order, then he or she is considered less than human. If a person does not identify with their current physical gender, then they are less than human. They are unclean. A text from Deuteronomy sticks in people’s minds: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1, NRSV).
What people forget are the words of the New Testament. Jesus came to fulfill the law, and in doing so, never condemns the eunuchs in Matthew 19 nor does he deem them unclean. According to Jesus, some are born that way, some have become eunuchs physically or spiritually by their own accord, and some had no choice in the matter and were made eunuchs by others.
So, to answer the pastor who said that Jesus would want Susan Stanton fired: Jesus never said that nor did he allude to ridding our society of genderqueer people.
Additionally, the story of Philip and eunuch in Acts 8 gives us the powerful example that no one is excluded from the Kingdom of God. Even though the Ethiopian eunich would have been deemed unclean, Philip was called by the Spirit to baptize this child of God.
When our society continues to consider anyone who does not fit within the boxes of gender “norms” unclean – whether they are transgender, express their gender outside of cisnormative, genderqueer, etc. – then our society contributes to the hate crimes and suicides of many of God’s children.
To those people who are “tired of hearing about it” and want to “give it a rest” and “move on”: understand that you are privileged in your gender and your physical self. You can turn off the news and never have to think about gender identity. But Leelah couldn’t turn this off. Leelah couldn’t give it a rest or move on. And that is why Leelah took her own life.
Indeed, we can’t move on yet. We need to continue to talk about this because, someday, many of us will lose a family member or friend who is transgender – either through suicide or hate crime. Maybe some of us already have lost a loved one because they couldn’t believe society would accept them as genderqueer.
According to the Williams Institute and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:
The prevalence of suicide attempts among respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian
Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, is 41 percent, which vastly exceeds the 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population who report a lifetime suicide attempt, and is also higher than the 10-20 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide.
Those of us who identify with the gender in which we were born can not understand the struggle that a transgender person will endure. Our physical, mental and spiritual selves are complex. In some people, the physical does not match the emotional or spiritual. The brain is an intricate organ. As fellow humans, it’s important to recognize that when a person identifies with the opposite gender than the one in which they were born, it’s not an immoral act. They aren’t selfish or a pervert. They aren’t somehow more “specially depraved” than anyone else. However, they are enduring struggle that those of us who aren’t transgender will never understand. Taking time to listen to and appreciate their journey instead of casting judgment will continue to build a community of compassion.
Leelah stated in her final note “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was. They’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights.” In memory of Leelah and our loved ones who have died, and in honor of Susan, let’s try to treat people of all genders, gender expressions and gender identities as humans – all made in God’s image.
I don’t know much about transgenderism or being genderqueer, and I write this out of respect of my transgender sisters and brothers. If someone from the community knows more and any of my information is incorrect, please contact me.