Building Identity to Change the World

"Forging meaning is about changing yourself. Building identity is about changing the world." Such is the mantra of Andrew Solomon in yet another brilliant TED talk.

He is helping me to think about what work needs to be done in the realm of identity, particularly on the heels of Leelah Alcorn's suicide. In the note she wrote before her death, Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender teen, implored,

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. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.

Although Solomon's talk highlighted the lessons he has learned as a gay man, his ideas strike me as contributing to Alcorn's goal of ensuring that transgender people's dignity is honored--of fixing society. More specifically, he spoke of how identity saved him from his sadness by allowing him to enter into a community from which he drew and gave strength and to tell his story, with pride rather than shame.

Alcorn realized the power of a trans* identity at the age of 14 but, sadly, not the community of support from which to draw strength. As she said in her suicide note,

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.

I do not include this quote to grow more animosity toward Alcorn's mother who has been receiving hateful messages and threats. Rather, I want to emphasize the importance of drawing on identity to better understand and accept ourselves and the diversity of human beings more broadly. For Alcorn, learning about a transgender gender identity transformed confusion into clarity. For that clarity to become life-generating, however, she needed more acceptance and encouragement to be her authentic self. And that is where we as a society are falling way short.

Leelah's death has brought more attention to the high suicide rate among trans* individuals, and the isolation and bullying that many trans* youth face. For her death to "mean something," however, we need to build something, not just focus on what is lacking. I agree with Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart that

One of the unique characteristics of the LGBTQ community is that we are generally born to cisgender, heterosexual parents. This is our greatest strength as well as our gravest vulnerability. However righteous our anger at parents who fail to nurture and support their queer children, we must not lose sight of the fact that reaching out to these parents is an urgent need and a powerful potential weapon against hatred and bigotry. When parents learn to accept their LGBTQ children, they often become some of the fiercest advocates for tolerance and social change. We need to ensure a climate that makes these transformations more, not less, likely.

One way to promote the building of an identity politics that serves to enlarge our understanding of what it means to be human is to bring attention not only to those who contribute to the pain and isolation of trans* youth but also the organizations and people who fiercely support them, particularly parents. While many media outlets may sensationalize violence and hardship, stories of family acceptance and love exist and merit being shared. For example, in the book Transitions of the Heart mothers of transgender and gender variant children tell their stories without reducing themselves or their children to caricatures. Anna Rudolph's narrative particularly moved me. As she wrote,

To my child: walking into the building with you that day of sixth grade when you wore your little white sweater dress to school for the first time was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. You faltered at the door, and I took your hand firmly and walked with you to your classroom. May you always know I have that strength for you when you need it. I am proud to be your mother, and I love the person you are becoming--a brave and tenderhearted beautiful human being.

Alcorn was not able to "fold the worst events in [her life] into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt," a pathway Solomon recommends for changing oneself and the world. But the rest of us can engage in the work of cultivating spaces that "break the limits of what constitutes a valid life."