Leelah Alcorn, and the Hardest Part of Being a Parent
I grieve with and for Leelah Alcorn’s parents even as their story reminds me that at some point, parents have to let go.
On my desk at work, I keep a photograph of me with my arm around a teenaged young man. I had apparently met him after a speaking engagement, and he was eager to have his picture taken with me. The photo was sent to me by his parents, soon after his committing suicide last year. It is a constant reminder of why I do my work, why I never tire of preaching a message of God’s love and acceptance for God’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender children. If only he could have believed me and absorbed God’s love for him into his very soul.
At the Golden Globe Awards, I was moved to see the honoring of the online series Transparent, the story of a man (brilliantly played by Jeffrey Tambor) who comes out as a woman late in life. But we were all reminded too of the recent suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a young transgender woman who ended her life by stepping in front of an oncoming bus recently, and to whom the director and Tambor dedicated their Golden Globes. In suicide notes left behind and online, Leelah spoke of her hopelessness. In fact, she said, it doesn’t get better, it just gets worse every day. Sadly, she ended her young life before there was a chance for it to “get better” for her.
A big part of her story was the reaction of her parents to her coming out. Let me say up front that I mourn with and for her parents. I have no doubt that they loved their daughter (whom they continued to call their “son” right through the funeral). I believe that they thought they were “loving” her by rejecting the female identity she laid claim to, telling her that she would never really be a woman, could not be.
And they were trying to love her by subjecting her to so-called reparative therapy and isolating her from all her friends. They thought they were loving her by telling her that all this transgender “nonsense” was against God’s will. It is not for me to judge these parents, and I don’t envy them the days ahead while they grieve the loss of Leelah and contemplate whatever role they believe they played in her death. That is judgment enough.
But it got me thinking about what a parent’s job/role/vocation is toward their children. It is very difficult for parents to transition from having young children to having young adult children. For years and years, as a parent, you try to guide your child, teach them what they need to know to navigate their lives, instill certain values in them, and help them make good choices. When they violate those values or make bad choices, a good parent most often steps in to prevent them from going astray, and above all else, to keep them from being harmed. As parents, we do exercise a certain amount of control over our children’s lives.
One of the hardest things for a parent to adjust to, as our children get older and begin to enter adulthood, is the creeping notion that we are losing control over our children. We begin to understand and comprehend, frightening as it is, that we no longer have control (if we ever really did), and that control is an illusion we buy into in order to ease our own anxiety about our children making their own way in the world.
Sooner rather than later, we begin to understand that we cannot fully protect our children from the slings and arrows of life. And even more disconcerting is the dawning realization that our children are not extensions of ourselves, but independent human beings separate from us. They’re going to make bad decisions, they are going to violate the moral guidelines we so carefully set for them, and they are going to be hurt. And there’s not a damned thing we can do about it.
At some point, a good parent will understand that while my child is figuring out how to make her way in the world on her own, I have my own work to do: letting go. Letting go of the illusion of control. Letting go of the self-image as my child’s protector. Making peace with the notion that my child is more than an extension of myself. It’s hard work, and it’s painful, because we have gained so much from the experience of parenting, the honor of mentoring one of God’s children into adulthood, and we want it to continue forever.
Maybe the hardest transition for parents is the movement from understanding that our appropriately protective and controlling behaviors toward our children, which once served us and them so well, are precisely what will stunt and damage their development into young adulthood if we don’t let go of them. What was once appropriate and loving becomes debilitating and harmful.
Here is the truth, like it or not: Your child is going to date the “wrong kind” of person, and maybe even marry one of them. Your child may choose to be an actor or musician instead of a banker or actuary. Your child may leave a perfectly good job to follow his/her passion that pays next to nothing. Your child is perhaps going to come out as gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Your child is going to both thrill you and disappoint you. Your child is going to take your advice sometimes, and reject it at other times. And you are just going to have to accept it. Or not. But your decision will have consequences.
So what’s a parent to do? It seems to me that somewhere along my daughters’ teenaged and early adult years, it ceased to be my job to protect them, and became my job simply to love them. I have learned to rejoice with them in their successes and mourn with them in their disappointments. I have learned to give advice when asked for it, and to keep my mouth shut (mostly) when it is not solicited. I have learned not to say “I told you so” even when I did.
When they marry the wrong person, my job is to love them and their chosen partners. When they take the wrong job or make a foolish decision, my job is to love them anyway. When they make a really bad decision and suffer the consequences, my job is not to lecture them, but to hold them in my arms and tell them how much I love them.
Leelah Alcorn’s parents loved her. I have no doubt of that. But their control over her had outlived its usefulness, indeed had become destructive, and Leelah exercised the last and only control over her life she felt she had, by taking her own life. Relinquishing that attempt at control is a difficult lesson for parents to learn. I know. But if we do, we get the inexpressible honor and joy of knowing these amazing adults who were once our dependent children. It doesn’t get any better than that.