Social Issues: Who Shares The Blame?

Growing up is difficult enough for kids and parents, and no one can say that parenting is an easy job because it isn’t.  Recently, a transgendered teen decided that a permanent solution to a temporary problem was the only way to make a statement, and the fall-out to that statement is that people are mixing apples with oranges to demonize one party or another.

The intent of this article is to separate the many intertwined issues that led up to the tragic incident in Ohio on December 28, 2014 … one that fueled a global discussion about what it means to transgendered teens and their families in today’s world.

For the sake of this article, I won’t speak of Leelah and I won’t speak of Joshua.  Out of respect for all parties, I will speak of Joshua/Leelah and in that order because he was known as Joshua first and chose to be known as Leelah later.

In Joshua/Leelah’s suicide note, this statement was made:

“As soon as I found out what transgender meant, I came out to my mom … <snip> … She then proceeded to tell my Dad without my consent …”

The fact of the matter is that what he/she shared with his/her mother was an important announcement that affected the entire family and that included his/her father.  It would be inappropriate to keep such an important announcement a secret from one of three people in the family unit.

In Joshua/Leelah’s suicide note, this statement was made:

“They never physically hurt me, but they always talked to me in a very derogatory tone.”

That was the perception Joshua/Leelah had, but tone is very subjective and anyone who has raised a teen for any period of time will attest to the fact that tone can be particularly difficult for teens to correctly identify, especially when there are difficulties in the home.

In Joshua/Leelah’s suicide note, this statement was made:

“Eventually I lied to [my parents] and told them I was straight and that I was a boy … I came out as gay in school … my parents were beyond pissed.”

It’s difficult for some parents to accept the choices made by their children, however, this statement is double-edged.  While his/her parents were undoubtedly very angry with his decision to come out as gay in school, they were also angry to learn that their child had lied to them (an admission that Joshua/Leelah readily makes).

And as with most parents who are angry about being lied to by their children, there are always consequences.  In this case, Joshua/Leelah’s suicide note stated that the consequences for him/her were this:

“They took me out of public school, took away my phone and computer, and wouldn’t let me on social media websites, so I was out of contact with any of my friends.”

Without knowing the parents’ side in all this, we only have Joshua/Leelah’s word that these consequences had everything to do with being transgendered.  Keeping that in mind, punishments eventually come to an end and they did in Joshua/Leelah’s case as well.

“At the end of the school year, my parents finally came around and gave me my phone and let me back on social media.”

Now whether his parents ‘finally came around‘ as Joshua/Leelah wrote or the consequence he/she was given was intended to last through to the end of the school year is completely dependent on whether one believes everything Joshua/Leelah wrote.  That being said, the problems that came with coming out weren’t just as a result of his/her parents’ reaction.

“[My friends] were extremely excited to see me and talk to me, but only at first.  Eventually they realized they didn’t actually give a shit about me, and I felt even lonelier than I did before.”

So some of the anguish Joshua/Leelah experienced was as a result of the reaction he received from those he previously considered to be his/her friends.  That isn’t something his parents caused to happen.  This is something that each of Joshua/Leelah’s friends had to decide for themselves.

The suicide note continued with this:

“… [I] feel like shit because everyone [at church] is against everything I live for, I have decided I’ve had enough.”

Whether it’s a teenager or an adult, every single person has felt at some point in their lives that they  have had enough of whatever is complicating their lives.  Undoubtedly he felt at odds with church members because they did, indeed, stand against everything Joshua/Leelah believed in and Joshua/Leelah stood against everything the church members believed in.  It was a very difficult situation to be in.

Joshua/Leelah continued by writing:

“I’m never going to transition successfully, even when I move out.  I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound.  I’m never going to have enough friends to satify me.  I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me.  I’m never going to find a man who loves me.  I’m never going to be happy.”

The feelings expressed in that paragraph are feelings that aren’t unheard of in straight, gay, bi, or transgendered communities.  They are human emotions that are not sex-based — they are self-esteem based.

The reason for the lack of self-esteem that Joshua/Leelah spoke of had as much to do with his school friends rejecting him as it did with his parents and church members trying to steer him in a direction he/she felt was wrong for him/her.  In fact, it could be said that the rejection he/she experienced from his/her school friends was far more damaging to his self-esteem than the constant power struggle he engaged in with his/her parents.

After all, family is foisted upon each of us, but friends are people we have chosen to embrace in one’s life.  When family rejects the choices made by other family members, it’s easier to dismiss that rejection on the basis that family members are thrown together thanks to science and DNA recombination. But friends are supposed to hold many (if not most) of the ethics and morals held by their circle of influence.

Joshua/Leelah wrote:

“There’s no winning. There’s no way out.  I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get worse … Each day I get worse.”

This is heartbreaking as it goes to the core of desperation.

“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.  Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better.”

Perhaps because many people up in arms over this story are hyperfocused on the parents and their religious beliefs, they are unable to see what Joshua/Leelah’s comments really said.  He/she wasn’t only railing against his/her parents and his/her church.  He/she was also railing against the many school friends who turned their backs on him/her, and walked away from the friendships he/she thought were valid and true.

Now there are those of you who are reading this who will say that the family is disrespecting Joshua/Leelah by insisting that he/she be referred to as Joshua even in death.  The fact of the matter is that Joshua/Leelah was legally Joshua even into death.

He/she wasn’t age of majority where he/she could legally change his/her name to Leelah and leave Joshua behind in his/her past.

He/she wasn’t age of majority where he/she had undergone treatments to transition from male to female, and he/she hadn’t undergone any surgeries to transition from male to female.

Joshua/Leelah was, by all legal definitions, Joshua and still male.

To demonize grieving parents who say that Joshua/Leelah was “a good kid, a good boy” is to be callous, unyielding, and unforgiving.  If we are to truly hear the pain Joshua/Leelah was living, are we to believe that he would want others to hurt as deeply as he/she did in life?

His/her parents lost a child the loved and raised from birth … a child the loved before he was even born.  It’s not until you have lost a child yourself that you can understand the crushing devastation such a loss brings to parents whether the child they lose is a newborn or nearly grown or middle-aged.

Don’t let Joshua’s death or Leelah’s death be in vain.  Look at all the aspects of this person’s life and see that the isolation he/she felt was one created by many people in his/her life, not just his/her parents and members of the church they attended as a family.

There were no friends to reach out to according to him/her.  They all abandoned him that summer he reconnected with them on social media and in person.  His former friends are as much to blame for this tragedy as the parents and the church members.

It’s time to realize that it truly does take a village to raise a child, and that village includes peers.

Elyse Bruce


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