Transgender teen Leelah Alcorn took her own life late in December, leaving behind a note pleading for progress in society. My Kid Is Gay contributor Liam Lowery reflects on his own transition, relationship with his late mother, and the need for resources to help parents understand their transgender children.
My mom died a few days before Christmas, and Leelah Alcorn passed away just over a week later. The two would seem unrelated to most, but without someone like my mom in my life when I was Leelah’s age, I am sure I would have died as she did.
Though my mom knew me since my inception a couple decades and some change ago, she only got to know me for four years as her son, Liam. In the time between my babyhood and now, our relationship has gone through a number of transformations, as parent-child relationships will, not the least of which being my gender transition.
Through it all, my mom displayed untold grace in parenting me, which she always claimed came through divine intervention. Even when she was shocked by a revelation about my gender identity or sexuality, she was a bridge between me and, at times, estranged family members. My mom was unendingly protective, and she always made it clear that she loved me. She was the paragon of a wonderful parent, especially to me, who has inhabited most of the letters in LGBTQ at one time or another.
Leelah, it seems, was not so lucky. That’s all it was really, was blind luck. I was lucky my mom went with her gut instead of society’s transphobia when I came out to her. Like most, she didn’t have a Masters degree in gender studies—she was just a mom who loved her kids and tried her best. Really, this was the very best thing about my mom. She was not perfect. She was just a profoundly wonderful person whose memory and legacy of love I want to share with you in this time where a spotlight is on the tragic lack of options faced by many transgender teens, a reality so dark, lonely and devastating that death seems better than life.
My mom, as someone who always cared deeply for others, was always proudest of me when I tried to help transgender kids and their parents to heal. She was particularly proud of my involvement with My Kid Is Gay. This is because as our relationship grew from points of crisis to deeper understanding, my mom came to see the suffering I’d endured while closeted. Likewise, I saw the suffering she endured because of a lack of resources. The nearest PFLAG meeting was over a hour from our house, there were no books at the library for her to read, and she was not an excellent internet user at the time. More than that, she had never considered trans people existed until she found out her kid was trans. The closest example she had of what my life could be was the movie Boys Don’t Cry—and this was society’s failing, not hers. As a parent, she did not have a good chance at being my support when I needed her because she lacked resources. That is why these resources meant so much to her.
If there is a good thing about the heart wrenching sadness of losing my mom and our transgender community’s inconsolable outrage at losing Leelah, it is that our shared grief can give us untold clarity. I’ve attempted to distill my mom’s wisdom into three rules for parenting an LGTBQ kid, the ideas that may have made a difference to Leelah:
1. It’s okay if you don’t understand—you don’t have to.
When I told my mom I was transgender, she was unfamiliar with the term. But to her, the terminology, the medical steps—though very real and problematic, all of that was white noise. The important thing was that she listened to what I told her I needed. She took me to the doctor to start testosterone after I asked. She didn’t force me to explain or teach her, she attempted to do independent research from reputable sources. These things didn’t happen overnight, but when I did eventually explain to her why things mattered to me, she was happy not only to oblige, but to drive me and stop for iced coffee on the way.
In coming out to you, your kid is welcoming you into their new, self-actualized life. Treat it as you would with any invitation—check yes on the RSVP in a timely fashion and ask what you can bring. Because this big step came from their heart—it’s not a phase, it’s not an idea—it’s a voice calling out from inside them. So now, though it is hard as a parent, you need to turn the reigns over to your kid and see where they need to go, and you need to open up your heart and listen. You both need to listen to that voice, and go down the road together. Your kid will have a much better shot that way.
Having an LGBTQ kid is the same as having any other kind of kid in most ways—sometimes you won’t understand, sometimes they won’t explain things they need—but when your kid does make a leap of faith by being vulnerable with you and asking for help, that is more important than anything else. The rest you can figure out later.
2. End your conversations with “I love you,” and try to embody this love in your actions.
When relationships are strained, that is the time they need the most support. You are going to have conversations that end badly. Over the course of my transition, my mom and I both lost our tempers with one another. But to recover, we knew the only way was to express love to each other.
The benefits are two-fold: first, it helps heal the damage we sometimes do when we lose our tempers and generally are less thoughtful than we should be, and second, it makes clear your motivation. My mom knew I included her on my trans journey because I loved her, and I knew any concerns she had were because she loved me. It’s amazing how when you’re coming from the same origin in love those difficult conversations are much more civil and productive.
3. Remember, life is short.
When I came out to my mom, she was deathly afraid that my life would be harder because of my identity. That was her hold-up in encouraging my transition immediately. She didn’t want me to be a target for discrimination or violence. However, when I told her that, more or less, we only live once and this was the life I needed, that I would take my life if this wasn’t possible, she didn’t look back. She called me Liam, the name she would have picked had I been assigned male at birth, and I happily took this name as my own. And not necessarily because she understood the theory of gender identity or because she was politically aligned with my identity, but because she was my mom and she could see I was hurting.
And for LGBTQ kids—as much as I hate to say this morbid thing, I will say it, because I wish someone had told me. Your parents love you and life doesn’t last forever. So long as it is healthy for you to do so and you are not experiencing abuse of any kind, there is no fault or weakness in forgiveness. Try to move forward and allow for the possibility that your parents will grow. If I had written my mom off based on her initial reaction to my coming out, she would have left this world without me as her son and I would have lost my mother much sooner than I had to.
Liam Lowery is a queer transgender man and law student, based in New York. His work focuses on transgender legal advocacy, and how race, class, ability and sexuality impact the transgender experience.
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(Photo: The Enquirer/ Meg Vogel)