Being Transgender Is Not a Sin: What Christians Must Learn from Leelah Alcorn’s Tragic Death
On Tuesday night, we took our youngest son to see a movie. We drove home along the stretch of interstate where it eventually became clear that a young woman had committed suicide early Sunday morning, just two days prior. I couldn’t stop thinking about how dark and desperate one’s despair must be to drive you to actually step out in front of a tractor-trailer on purpose.
Within hours, her death was connected to a suicide note posted on tumblr, in which she wrote out exactly what kind of despair drove her to end her life.
Leelah Alcorn is transgender. She was born with a male body and named Joshua by her parents. But her suicide note states that since age 4, she’s known she was a girl inside.
Her parents are understandably reluctant to speak publicly. After all, they are grieving the death of their child. However, Leelah’s mother Carla did speak briefly to CNN on Wednesday and confirmed some of what Leelah wrote in her suicide note.
Carla said, “We don’t support that [transgender], religiously. But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.”
We don’t support that religiously.
The Alcorns are among those Christians who don’t believe that transgender exists as a legitimate identity. From Leelah’s note, it appears that her parents did their best to shut down her insistence that she is not a he, including forcing her to attend “conversion therapy” (also known as “reparative therapy”).
I have seen and heard this adamant refusal to admit the existence of transgender, intersex, and asexual individuals. It’s right up there with a refusal to recognize homosexuality as anything other than a sinful and perverted sexual choice.
Why? Why can’t Christians wrap their heads around the idea that a person could be born into a body that doesn’t reflect who they really are on the inside?
Conservative Christians teach that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, sin entered the world and broke things. This is how they explain the origin of birth defects, natural disasters, cancers, and the inability to live a perfectly righteous life – violence, lying, stealing, promiscuity, etc. They say we’re born with a preference for sinful living, but we’re also born into bodies prone to disease and a world bent on self destruction.
This leaves a few possibilities when we consider sexuality and gender identity. But for some reason, conservative Christian churches consistently categorize non-straight sexual behavior and gender identity as a sinful choice.
If this is where you land, please hear me out. I’m treading carefully because this is such a delicate subject and it gets at the heart of who people are.
First, we must agree that transgender is a real thing. It isn’t “all in their heads.”
Second, I want you to consider the possibility that being transgender, in which one doesn’t identify with the gender assigned them at birth (aka the moment when the doctor exclaims “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy”), could possibly be a part of living in a broken world with bodies that don’t cooperate with oneself.
This isn’t the perfect solution, but hear me out for a minute.
Consider the baby born with heart defects or the child diagnosed with autism. We easily recognize these as manifestations of living in a broken world (though you can find strains of Christianity that do blame every illness, injury, defect, and bad thing that happens on sin or lack of faith).
Can you imagine having a doctor tell you that your child has cerebral palsy or Asperger’s or Down’s Syndrome and responding, “We don’t support that religiously”? At best, it’s flat-out denial of a physical reality. At worst, it’s tantamount to saying it’s your child’s fault. Something didn’t work right during the child’s development from fertilized egg to embryo to fetus to newborn.
Jesus himself said that birth defects aren’t caused by someone’s sin. His disciples pointed out a man born blind and asked Jesus who sinned, the man or his parents, to cause his blindness. Jesus told them no one sinned.
In a perfect world, people would never be born in the wrong body or in a body that doesn’t cooperate, but this isn’t a perfect world.
Now, here’s where this analogy starts to fall apart. In an earlier draft of this post, I wrote, “Being born with a physical gender that doesn’t match who you are inside is no different than being born with heart defects. Transgender isn’t a sin, nor is it a choice, nor is it fake. It’s one more example of the brokenness in this world that we all have to live with in one form or another.”
But I reached out to a group of friends who include Christians who identify as other than heterosexual and/or cisgender for feedback on this post. They pointed out that this still states that being transgender means you’re defective. While it’s an improvement over saying that transgender is fake or that it’s a sin, they told me it is still damaging.
I have a lot to learn. I know that many transgender individuals wish to or choose to “transition” so that their physical body matches their inner reality. To me, that sounds like someone who would say that their body didn’t match their selves and they wanted it to. Maybe the word anomaly or defect or “product of the fall” isn’t the right way to describe it, but having our insides match our outsides matters to many of us. Others insist that just as we find incredible and beautiful variation in nature, the variations in gender and sexuality among humans are similarly natural/normal/acceptable. Maybe those who choose to transition wouldn’t feel the need if we accepted transgender as another variation of normal. I don’t know. Maybe the difference in perspective is part of the beautiful variety within human beings.
Christians, we must deepen and better inform our understanding of gender identity. We’re killing people with our ignorance, our belligerence, and our refusal to educate ourselves. Leelah’s story is a tragic example of how utterly we can destroy a fellow human being when we get this wrong.
Here are a couple of resources recommended to me:
- Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serano, a trans bisexual woman
- The blog of H. Adam Ackley, who talks about transgender issues within a framework of Christian orthodoxy
You can do something else, too. Sign the petition to enact Leelah’s Law to ban transgender conversion therapy.