“We don’t support that, religiously.”- Carla Alcorn (remark from an interview following the suicide death of her seventeen-year-old transgender daughter)
People sometimes ask me why I “came out” as a transgender man and United Methodist clergy. There is more than one answer, but today the quote above from the mother of a seventeen-year-old transgender daughter who committed suicide December 28, 2014, is more than reason enough.
As a transgender man, a member of the clergy, and a native of Ohio this tragic story rips at my heart and soul.
While generations apart, Leelah and I share much, sometimes too much, in common. Forty-five years ago I frequently travelled the same section of interstate 71 in Ohio on my motorcycle where Leelah Alcorn ended her life. As I read Leelah’s story I recognized what we share most in common is that too little has changed.
Assigned male at birth, Leelah knew her gender identity from earliest memories. In her suicide note she describes feeling “trapped in the wrong body.” This is the exact language I used to describe my experience forty years ago to parents, friends, and ultimately the team of professionals who would help me transition.
Following years of anguish, Leelah heard the term “transgender” for the first time when she was fourteen and experienced a surge of hope. I first heard the term “transgender” when I was thirteen, in 1964. Although that is fifty years ago I still feel the rush of excitement and hope I experienced for perhaps the first time for a life of authentic self-expression.
Leelah and I differ in the final outcome of our shared transgender experience.
While my parents had no idea what transgender meant or everything the process entailed, they knew I lived in pain and were supportive of anything that would help change that. Unlike Leelah, my parents did not isolate me from my friends, and while there was no internet or social media, and although I had few friends because of my obvious transgender identity, I had enough support to hold on, and to live.
Perhaps most tragic of all, while I had an active spiritual life, I was not involved in any formal organized religion or church; so I was spared the spiritual abuse Leelah endured from her parents, pastor, and community. I was only occasionally subjected to such hateful speech when fundamentalist Christian radio and television personalities were featured on the news. Those brief encounters were enough to keep me away from the Church for many years. Now, having answered a call to ministry more than thirty-four years ago, I do everything possible to help educate the Carla Alcorn’s of this world as an openly out transgender member of the clergy.
In her suicide note Leelah wrote: “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights…” I wrote close to the exact same words, though thankfully not in a suicide note, but in a journal dated from August, 1974: that is nearly forty-one years ago.
It is tragic so little has changed, although I celebrate the successes of some. As statistics indicate, the truth remains that there are far more Leelah’s in the transgender community than the victories achieved by token television personalities, or the transgender children of Hollywood’s rich and famous. It is not insignificant that during the interview, when asked why Leelah’s parents did not try to find medical help for their daughter, Carla Alcorn replied they did not have money, “for anything like that.”
Every year the number of names read during Transgender Day of Remembrance observances grows longer.
Leelah reminded us in her note that she needs to be counted among this year’s victims. Leelah will be counted. Sadly, too many will be counted. As a transgender man and pastor I implore you: For God’s sake, isn’t it time we love one another as Christ loves us and religiously support the people we love just as they are—not as we think they should be?
Rev. Weekley is the author of In From the Wilderness: Sherman, (She-r-Man) (2011), which is both his personal story, faith journey, and reflection on the official position of several denominations, including the United Methodist Church, in relation to the LGTBQ community. He is still one of few openly transgender clergy serving The United Methodist Church.
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