I’m Angie Coiro, and this is In Deep. In a moment you’ll hear this week’s conversation at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park: a meandering, wonderful chat with talented actor and clown, Geoff Hoyle. But first – some thoughts on this week’s news.
Appearances are everything, in a world saturated in imagery of unattainable perfection. And within that frame are some of the best and worst stories of this week.
Wednesday this week the death of Leelah Alcorn, born Joshua Ryan Alcorn, was ruled a suicide. That’s no big surprise. The 17 year old transgender student made it clear in a long suicide note published on tumbler – automatically posted after she deliberately walked into traffic. Leelah used both her preferred and birth name, banishing any doubt that no matter who you were and how you saw her, here she was speaking her truth. Her truth incorporated her life’s progression, from knowing at the age of four that something inside her wasn’t right – to discovering the concept of transgender and the means of being true to herself – to the cruel and arguably criminal way her parents received the news. You can see in the note the effort this child made to press her own path. Leelah came out as gay to her friends as a first step toward the whole truth. She was smart enough to recognize that the so-called therapy her Christian parents Carla and Doug forced her into a denial, not an acceptance, of her own being. But she wasn’t resourceful enough inside – as almost no teen would be – to see past the despair of the day. She took the fact that transitioning is easier at a younger age as proof she’d always look like, as she said, a man in drag. She took the fickleness of teenaged friends, compounded by the cluelessness of her parents, as proof she was unloved. Her conclusion? In Leelah’s own words, “There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say “it gets better” but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.”
But including this story under the heading of “Appearances matter” isn’t about how Leelah looked, or was afraid she’d end up looking. It’s about her parents. So concerned about how their “Joshua” was going to look in the eyes of God and the eyes of the neighbors, they blocked every possible avenue of life-sustaining support. Anti-gay therapy – which, believe me, is not therapy – is all she was offered. Lest she be exposed to other viewpoints, or to anyone who might love her as she was, they took away her laptop and her phone. They pulled her from the public school where she was settled in with friends. Leelah Alcorn’s parents prioritized appearances so highly over the mental health and happiness of their own daughter that they cost her her life.
And this week we hear that – in addition to the automated suicide note on Tumblr, Leelah left her own parents a hand-written note. Ever aware of appearances, Carla Alcorn threw the note away.
There’s a tiny glimmer of hope behind this murky, desolate cloud. Two years ago, California outlawed the infliction of so-called “conversion” or “reparative” therapy” on minors. Parental bias and religion notwithstanding, the state recognized not just the professional con job behind the label, but the pain and damage it inflicts on an innocent child whose only sin is being born loving the wrong people, or in the wrong body. Now with the backward, myopic behavior of the late Leelah Alcorn’s parents on worldwide display, President Obama is taking a stand. Responding to an online petition, the White House responded, “overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm.” An official recognition that what’s inside that child is what matters – not what appears to anyone else.
More unequivocally good news on the “appearance” front this week: the San Francisco Chronicle – sfgate.com – carried the news of ten new Victoria’s Secret “Angels” in an expected context: examining the evidence that the heyday of cookie-cutter, media-enforce “perfection” may be passing. The article cited the misfires of the “angel” campaigns, from the cultural appropriation of an American Indian headdress on one angel, to a “perfect body” title on an ad that had to be pulled after public outcry. We see the wonderful, aptly-named Rebel Wilson’s ample curves packed into a sardonic angel costume at the MTV awards. We hear from more than one lingerie designer shunning the hyper-sexualized approach to reaching women consumers. We learn that Barbie sales are down. And the article profiles the most direct hit: Lane Bryant’s “I’m no angel” lingerie campaign, featuring beautiful natural bodies, in different weights, in all kinds of skin. It appears we’re making progress.
For In Deep, I’m Angie Coiro.