You and I have never met, but I’ve been following your writing for some time and I’d like to thank you for your recent interest in transgender lives. You’ve brought a level of openness and thoughtfulness to the topic that is rare and refreshing. It’s given me hope that the long exile of people like me and families like mine from the churches might finally be coming to an end.
But I think you got it wrong in your most recent piece, “Give Anne Lamott (and the rest of us) a little grace on transgender issues.” And because you’ve been so open and thoughtful in your approach up to this point, I thought you’d want to know.
Forgive me if I’m oversimplifying, but your piece seems to boil down to a plea: “New concepts like these can be a heavy lift, and we’re trying as hard as we can. So cut us a little slack, please — it’s the Christian thing to do.”
I’m sorry, Jonathan, but I can’t do that. And if you understood what was at stake, I don’t believe you’d really want me to.
You see, this isn’t about political correctness or identity politics or the costs to public figures (real or imagined) of stirring up the liberal outrage machine. Getting your writing about transgender lives and issues right is a matter of life and death.
Leelah Alcorn, a transgender girl born to conservative Christian parents in Ohio, was only 16 when she took her own life last year by stepping in front of a semi truck on a busy interstate. You may remember her story; her suicide note, set to publish automatically on Tumblr just hours after her death, made international headlines. In it, she wrote:
When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.
And Leelah’s story is a common one among people who identify as transgender, Jonathan, particularly those who are young. But for the grace of God it would be my own story. I heard the same kind of messages Leelah heard from the voices of Christian authority I trusted most: pastors, teachers, seminary professors, writers, and journalists. Like Leelah, I couldn’t reconcile those messages with the feelings I’d been hiding my whole life. And when I finally realized that no amount of prayer or fasting, no anointing or exorcism, no method of “relying on God” or “crucifying my flesh” would end my suffering, I gave serious thought to ending it all. Driving my car into a concrete bridge abutment at speed seemed, for a fateful moment, the only way to end my pain without bringing shame upon my church and my family.
And so the metaphor that’s at the heart of your piece is not merely imperfect; it is fatally flawed. You write that no reasonable person would castigate a first grader for his ignorance of long division or a toddler for her inability to hold a heavy weight over her head. In the same way, you argue, people like me should moderate our responses to the misunderstandings and mistakes of those who are still on the journey to enlightenment.
But when that first grader can’t solve his division problem, other children don’t die for it.
And so I won’t cut you or Anne any slack on this, Jonathan. I can’t. My conscience simply won’t allow it. As your sister in Christ, and as a servant of the Gospel, I am compelled to keep pushing you to get this right. It may hurt sometimes. It may make you feel uncomfortable or frustrated or even angry. I’m sorry for that — but there’s just too much at stake to take the easy or comfortable path.
My West Point boxing coach never pulled his punches in the training ring. He was big, fast, and had a wicked uppercut (trust me on this) and when he gave one of my classmates a bloody nose one day he said, “You ought to thank me. The more you bleed here, the less you’ll bleed when it counts.”
I hated him, Jonathan. But he was right, of course. It was the purest and best grace he could offer us along our journey to getting it right.
When it comes to writing about or commenting on transgender lives, people like you and Anne can’t afford to learn by trial and error — because your errors will be recorded in blood.
So before you publish that next tweet or article, think about all that’s at stake. Have you thought through the implications for someone like Leelah of what you’re about to say? Have you done enough research to feel confident your words will help prevent more deaths like hers, rather than contributing to them? Have you vetted a draft with someone you trust who knows more about the topic than you do? (I’m no journalist, but I’d be happy to take a look or have a conversation anytime.)
If you’ll do that much, you’ll avoid most of the jabs and uppercuts people like me can dish out.
You may still get your nose bloodied occasionally. But when you and Anne and I stand together before Jesus, and you get to meet all Leelah’s sisters and brothers who had a better shot at life because you worked hard to get it right, I bet you’ll thank me for it.