The suicide of Joshua Alcorn on December 28, 2014, marked the tragic end of his young life. He was seventeen years old. His death attracted world wild attention as he published a suicide note on Tumblr in which he related the stress of suffering gender dysphoria. This stress was too much for him to bear, so he opted for suicide. He adopted the name Leelah in his suicide note. He leaves behind his grieving parents, younger siblings and the rest of those who knew and loved him. Details are emerging as to the stress he endured and a degree of dysfunction in his family. He came from a Christian family. His parents (Doug and Carla Alcorn) did not understand what he was experiencing and essentially told him to “pray it away.” He said in his suicide note that his parents sent him to conversion therapy for treatment. Compounding this tragedy was the lynch mob mentality that took hold. Doug and Carla Alcorn experienced harassment, even a call from activist Dan Savage that they face prosecution. Is this warranted?
Their son Joshua suffered from gender dysphoria, formerly called gender identity disorder. It is defined by the Canadian Psychological Association as follows:
Gender dysphoria refers to the unhappiness that some people feel with their physical sex and/or gender role. The term transgender refers to many different ways that a person may experience their gender identity outside the simple categories of male and female. (Canadian Psychological Association)
A diagnosis of gender dysphoria is determined by a mental health professional (psychiatrist, psychologist or psychotherapist) when the following symptoms are observed in the patient and persist for at least six months:
- repeatedly stated desire to be, or insistence that he or she is, the other sex
- in boys, preference for cross-dressing or simulating female attire; in girls, insistence on wearing only stereotypical masculine clothing
- strong and persistent preferences for cross-sex roles in make-believe play or persistent fantasies of being the other sex
- a strong rejection of typical toys/games typically played by one’s sex.
- intense desire to participate in the stereotypical games and pastimes of the other sex
- strong preference for playmates of the other sex
- a strong dislike of one’s sexual anatomy
- a strong desire for the primary (e.g., penis, vagina) or secondary (e.g., menstruation) sex characteristics of the other gender (PsychCentral)
While gender dysphoria afflicts people of all ages, “children, particularly adolescents, and their families often find the experience of a gender identity disorder [gender dysphoria] painful and unbearable, and adolescents are at high risk of suicide attempts.” (Gender identity disorder in young people) Treatment options for an adolescent suffering from gender dysphoria and their family include behavioural therapy, individual psychotherapy, family therapy and group therapy directed toward reaching the following objectives:
To foster recognition and non-judgemental acceptance of gender identity problems
To ameliorate associated behavioural, emotional and relationship difficulties (Coates & Spector Person, 1985)
To break the cycle of secrecy
To activate interest and curiosity by exploring the impediments to them
To encourage exploration of the mind—body relationship by promoting close collaboration among professionals in different specialities, including a paediatric endocrinologist
To allow mourning processes to occur (Bleiberget al, 1986)
To enable symbol formation and symbolic thinking (Segal, 1957)
To promote separation and differentiation
To enable the child or adolescent and the family to tolerate uncertainty in gender identity development
To sustain hope (Gender identity disorder in young people)
Another treatment option is sex reassignment surgery. This option is expensive. The Encyclopedia of Surgery lists the cost for a male to female reassignment is $7,000 to $24,000; whereas, the price for a female to male reassignment can exceed $50,000. Currently, in the United States, however, sex reassignment surgery is not widely covered in health insurance plans. According to the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, coverage is mandated by law in the following jurisdictions: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, and Washington, D.C. In December 2014, New York State ordered that “an issuer of a policy that includes coverage for mental health conditions may not exclude coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of gender dysphoria.” (as cited in The New York Times) Also, in May 2014, the United States Department of Health and Human Services overturned the exclusion of sex reassignment surgery from the Medicare program, a prohibition that was in force from 1981.
Sex reassignment surgery is an option. However, the various psychiatric and psychological associations, including the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Canadian Psychological Association, maintain that surgical intervention cannot be justified until adulthood. In this regard, the Royal College of Psychiatrists maintains:
surgical intervention should not be carried out prior to adulthood, or prior to a real life experience for the young person of living in the gender role of the sex with which they identify for at least two years. The threshold of 18 should be seen as an eligibility criterion and not an indicator in itself for more active intervention, as the needs of many adults may also be best met by a cautious, evolving approach (as cited in Gender identity disorder in young people)
Sadly, what the Alcorn family experienced with their son Joshua, his struggle with gender dysphoria and suicide was not an unusual outcome. Treatment options are available for sufferers of gender dysphoria and the prognosis for those diagnosed with gender dysphoria and receiving treatment is hopeful. It does no good if they are not employed. An inquest into the suicide of Joshua Alcorn should bring to light the events that ended in this tragedy. Hopefully, recommendations will also follow as to how such an outcome may be avoided for other youth at risk. Gender dysphoria is a reality and untreated, particularly in adolescents, as in this case, it too often ends in suicide.
Doug and Carla Alcorn will have to live with the consequences of their decisions concerning their son’s care for the rest of their lives. It looks as though they still do not understand the pain he experienced. Doug Alcorn made the following public statement concerning his son’s suicide: “We love our son, Joshua, very much and are devastated by his death. We have no desire to enter into a political storm or debate with people who did not know him. We wish to grieve in private. We harbor no ill will towards anyone […] I simply do not wish our words to be used against us.” (as cited in Wikipedia) While I think they failed in their duty as parents to seek proper care for their son, I do not doubt they loved him. That said, I think the public at large should respect their wishes and leave them to mourn and get on with their lives in private.
Posted by Geoffrey
Geoffery, you have invited comments on Leelah and I will make just three comments:
1. There is no such thing a gender identity disorder or gender dysphoria that lies within a transgendered person. The Canadian Psychological Association’s viewpoint is soon to be discredited minority position.
“Homosexuality” was first listed in the DSM-1 (the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as a mental disorder in 1952. This lasted on 20 years until it was delisted in 1973 in DSM-II with a compromise designation of Sexual Orientation Disturbance (SOD). In the 1980’s SOD was further diluted as ego-dystonic homosexuality in DSM-III which was removed completely from DSM-IIIR in 1987. The American Psychological Association depathologized homosexuality around the same time.
Only one psychology group, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) continued to argue that homosexuality was a dysfunction and treatable. This group was a Catholic lobby group formed by just three people. It changed its name in 2014 to Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity (ATCSI). One wonders if there is a connection with ATCSI and the CPA, Canadian Psychological Association.
There were two influences that brought about that 25-year change. First, two studies – Clellan Ford and Frank Beach in 1951 that showed that homosexuality was common across cultures and present in non-human species, i.e. natural and widespread, and Evelyn Hooker in 1957 showed that homosexuality per se could not be associated with pschopathology. Second, the gay rights movement that arose after the Stonewall riots of 1969 persuaded the medical profession (and its little brother, psychology) plus various levels of government in the Western world that the GLBT community deserver equal rights.
The first condition has already satisfied in support of the transgendered. The transgendered have been with us for millennia across all societies. There are instances of non-human species changed gender.
The second condition of a trans rights movement has been building for some time and Leelah’s maltreatment, considering the world-wide attention it has received could be the match that lights the trans rights fire storm.
2. There is no accredited psychiatrist or reputable psychologist who would make a determination of gender dysphoria that would be at odds with the DSM-5 intention. The DSM-V shift in designation from disorder to dysphoria means that the “problem” lies not within the transgendered but rather that the issues to be addressed lie outside the person, in this case, with Leelah’s parents and community.
Any mental issues that Leelah suffered from (an assumption not proved) would be due to how she was abused by those she thought she could trust, her family, and by her community. The mental issues could, more likely, be attributed to those in her family and society who were unable to shed their comfortable but wrong world view in order to accommodate the new evidence of Leelah’s presence.
I notice that you too refer to Leelah as “he” despite her protestations against that and her affirmations of femaleness. Perhaps you could bring your own views into line with the evidence and the DSM-V. Remember that it has only been less than 30 years since you would have been classified as suffering from gender identity disorder. Why not accord Leelah the same rights, respect, acceptance and love as you demand for yourself and your partner, Mika?
3. As for Leelah’s parents, they are indeed dysfunctional as you point out. If their homophobic/transphobic views are not challenged they will not learn and will continue to infect the world with those views harming others in the future. Conversion therapy did not work for the gay/lesbian community and it does not work for trans community. One cannot pray the gay away. Nor can one pray the trans away. Those parents failed their child absolutely and deserve whatever castigations they get. As Bible-believing folks, Leelah’s parents should be prepared to accept Galatians 6:7, “As you sow, so shall you reap.” They sowed ignorance, hatred and religious fundamentalism. Now they are reaping corrective treatment and comments. Think of their situation as an intervention by society at large. Hopefully they and those who support them will learn from the comments directed toward them.
Thank-you, Peter, for leaving your thoughtful comment. Yes, the jury is still out concerning the issues of the transgendered.