Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Toxic Environments: the Place & Genre of Transgender Suicide Notes

"My death needs to mean something"

Leelah Alcorn
The Transgender Queen of Hell
Text: 12/28/14, Image 12/11/14

Prelude: Voices of Light

Let’s take a breath. “Fiat lux et facta est lux” (Genesis I.ii-iii) In the beginning the spirit of God was over the waters. God said, Let there be light and there was light. Let’s speaking together for a moment on speaking. God spoke and light filled void. This is the power of the speech of God’s spirit, literally God's breath, the living form of speech. This is the story of the first day of Genesis from the Latin Vulgate. It tells of God’s Creation of all that is, ending on the sixth day, when God breathed the spirit of life into humans made of dust and ashes (Genesis II.vii). The same breath that hovered over the void and spoke the words of light, now resided in humanity.

This is the power of voice that Augustine of Hippo struggled for when in Book I of his Confessions he cries “sine me loqui” (Suffer me to speak... me, dust and ashes. Allow me to speak," Augustine I.vi). As a model of confession, Augustine exemplifies speaking not only to God but the community. This isn’t muteness but sin, what Jasbir Puar describes as "necropolitics," systems that mark which and how bodies lose breath and die (Puar, Terrorist Assemblages). God places breath, a voice of light, in the body so that silence is akin to death and the work of reclaiming that voice is akin to resurrecting a spirit from the grave. There is no true reconciliation then, until the isolated are brought back, empowered to speak and so give light to the environment, the encircling, that confined the life in the first place. This is the meaning of con-fession, the together-speaking. Towards that end, I intend to earn the right to do what I tell my students never to do, starting a paper with the sentiment, “since the beginning of time,” in order to establish transgender suicide note as existing in a current genre of trans literature connected to a long tradition and medieval genre of literature in the Church: confession. I intend to mark how the Church and its secular psychiatric counter parts form programs such as conversion therapy and places of silence, in order to contain the trans discourse.


Posted by Leelah Alcorn 10/7/2014

I. Introduction: Un-Confessing Trans Suicide

A year ago Pope Francis, another speaker and writer of Latin was attempting to reconcile with the transgender community by inviting a trans man to the Vatican for a private meeting. The meeting was said by the executive director of New Ways Ministry, “as genuine interest in learning about the transgender experience from a firsthand source” (National Catholic Reporter). The meeting ended with the man asking if despite the Church being a toxic environment for trans people if “there was "a place somewhere in the house of God for him” (NCR). Francis hugged him, but, a shrewd politician, he voiced no reply. The meeting was arranged to pre-empt the publication of a book in later 2015, This Economy Kills where Francis compares the trans population with atomic bombs (Liturgical Press). Francis fears trans people as what Puar calls “terrorist assemblages,” those with the atomic power to speak, “Fiat lux,” making an explosion of light that will transform how we understand the order of nature. Excerpts of the book were released in early 2015. Thus the meeting, question and silence. Francis wants reconciliation but fears confession, speaking words of life for trans people.

This is the circumstances of confession between Church and transgender in January 2015, only weeks after the silencing of another trans voice, Leelah Alcorns, when after writing a post entitled "Suicide Note" under her blog “The Transgender Queen of Hell,” as well as a hand written note that read, "I had enough," and after years of silencing in a toxic environment, she stepped into oncoming traffic and died (Salon). It was a silencing without reconciliation, the loss of the spirit, breath, and a return to “terram et cinerem” ("dust and ashes," Augustine I.vi). This is the desperation to speak and be heard, wherein the transgender person is made to feel lucky enough to speak at all, following Augustine’s, “sine me loqui,” ("suffer me to speak" 
Augustine I.vi). This is what happens when suicide is the only way to gain the public voice and power. Necropolitics is so deep, many trans people feel more able to serve biopolitics is as the forsaken spirit, the last breath, of the suicide.

In this paper I argue that the transgender suicide note exists as a distinct genre of trans literature (as well as digital literature and humanities) with characteristic tropes, structures, and social functions. A trans person does not spontaneously decide to get literary just before death. Rather the note is compelled to fulfill political demands that (1) a note must confess a mental illness, typically dysphoria but compounded by depression, (2) it must contextualize the death of the suicide as highly private and personal through a brief narrative of self that begins with diagnosis of transgender and ends in death. To map how the genre functions and is compelled by society, I will close read Leelah Alcorn's "Suicide Note" not because her life is particularly atypical of many trans persons who commit suicide but because she describes her not atypical life with atypical eloquence (Alcorn 12/18/2014).

In the process, I point to this eloquence to show how Alcorn's "Suicide Note" shows knowledge that her life, death, and note fall into a social script. This self-awareness allows readers to map the note is the last step of a long necropolitical process. The moment target voice trans identification, the system kicks into gear to (1) silence trans persons from speaking non-pathological transgender discourses, (2) isolate them from trans community, and (3) compel notes that recast the necropolitical process from the public elimination of undesirables into a personal tale of mental illness or bad luck in birthplace. I conclude that the genre of personal confession and place of isolation are not accidental to transgender suicide but socially engineered, and reframing notes as public confessions of necropolitics turns trans identity from personal pathology into collective community and isolation from an accident of place into a prison designed to silence the trans voice and smother the trans spirit. Through transgender literary study, the genre and place of the transgender suicide note explodes to reveal “facta est lux,” there is light even where we perceive silence, dust and ashes.


Posted by Leelah Alcorn 12/22/2014
Captioned: "Transitioning. I Love How Literal This Is 
and How You Get a Sense of the Pain It Takes"

II. Genre: Silencing Discourses

Let’s speak together of genres. The confessional nature of the trans suicide note is meant to compel an explanation for the death of its author to answer the lingering “why?” Usually, some form of psychological illness is given as always already terminal. Alcorn answers to the demand for self-diagnosis in her opening line, “The life I would've lived isn’t worth living in... because I’m transgender” (Alcorn 12/28/14). What at first seems like a personal spontaneous claiming of self unravels as a performative enactment of social conventions. “I never knew there was a word for that feeling,” explains Alcorn. “When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant,” presumably from her online community, “and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was” (Alcorn 12/28/14). Alcorn's filled her blog, Transgender Queen of Hell, with images and messages shared by other trans people. Alcorn was particularly fond of pictures adapted from anime, such as Sailor Moon or Pokemon, that often emphasized gender ambiguity or transition. Likewise, Alcorn shared with her trans bloggers messages of the hardships and depression. Just a week before her suicide, Alcorn posted to her blog, "every time i want to kill myself it’s always inconvenient to everyone around me. i want to fade away without ruining everyone else’s plans #personal" (Alcorn 2/22/14). The online trans community also shared messages of hope and affirmation with one another, including more than a few posts that communicated to Alcorn how beautiful and inspiring she is for her readers. On December 12th, 2014, Alcorn posted her appreciation to her readers, "oh my god people on here are just so nice to me I don’t deserve this you guys treat me like a princess and it makes me so happy whenever I feel like shit... i don’t have that many followers but the followers I do have treat me like a human being and you have no idea how much that means to me <3 #i'm crying #thank you" (Alcorn 2/12/14). This re-blogging formed networks of transgender discourse that affirmed the posters as part of a shared community. Drawn from online networks, Alcorn’s understanding is based on a social model, a collective identity that instills the political spirit, ‘hey you are like me, and we are all together in this.’ The online network and transgender literary archive formed from a kind of public confession, a together-speaking, that gave Alcorn the power of collective speech and life.

“I immediately told my mom,” writes Alcorn, “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” 
(Alcorn 12/28/14). At the moment of speaking the trans discourse, Alcorn is marked as “wrong” by her mother, an agent of a Christianity that seeks to silence and contain dangerous trans spirits. Transgender moves from a social discourse, a way of connecting self and other, to be contained in the “wrong” individual as personal pathology and a phase which can be contain to specific “phases” of life. In the process, God moves from the giver of breath, voice, and light to the authority by which others contain, silence, and extinguish her spirit. In a post to her blog entitled, "All," dated November 30th, 2014, Alcorn wrote that she viewed God as "a meanie," heaven as "nonexistant," and hell as "my parent's house" (Alcorn 11/30/14). Contained within her parent's house and church, as well as their definitions of gender and God, Alcorn does not see the light of the heavens spoken into being on the first day of Genesis. Instead she only sees the walls of her all too personal, all too human hell. God is the mean truth that "doesn't make mistakes" which is held only to contrast and shame Alcorn as "wrong." In the binary of write and wrong, man and woman, Alcorn and God exists on opposite sides. Yet both discourses, divine and transgender, are contained by the hermeneutic of Alcorn's Church. God is made to speak (in specific biopolitical forms) and Alcorn is made silent (in specific necropolitical forms). This is one critical sense that confession becomes privatized as the means of speech between God and humanity, as well as humanity and humanity, it comes under the proprietary control of specific Church agents. As a private confession, Alcorn speaks but the authority assigns, contains, and hides the meaning Alcorn’s words – preparing her for conversion therapy and biopolitical correction or necropolitical elimination.

Conversion therapy helps to facilitate Alcorn’s shift from a collective identity into personal shame signaling the shift of genre from a pubic into private confession. This movement follows the shift from the public digital sphere into the privacy of church and the doctor’s office. “My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists,” writes Alcorn on her first session of conversation therapy 
(Alcorn 12/28/14). Such conversion therapists are spurred on by psychiatrists such as Dr. Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins University. As self described orthodox Catholic, McHugh continues to push that transgender identification is a medical disorder that needs therapy to correct despite the vocal opposition of The American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the American Psychiatric Society, the American Public Health Association, and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (The Trans Advocate). Among McHugh's other anti-LGBT opinions espoused by Christian therapists is that the sex abuse of children rampant in the Catholic Church is not due to pedophilia but is a natural extension of homosexuality (The Advocate). While Alcorn does not disclose what the doctor told her, we do learn that she felt, “I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help” (Alcorn 12/28/14). The doctor’s prescription that Alcorn is self reflects the work to isolate transgender from a collective identity into a personal condition, marking it as a form of narcissism, she is “selfish.” Alcorn is taught that this personal condition is “wrong” (the diagnosis), and to be made right she must submit herself to the doctor and then to God (the treatment plan). Her trans and depressive feelings her selfish, private problem. The solution was to redouble commitment to stay in the Church and submit to their tightly privatized discourse. Rather than speaking together with Alcorn, listening to her express her identified gender as well as her feelings of depression, the conversion therapy worked to contain and control her speech. 

By moving from the public to private, confession has turned from an act of empowerment to a mode by which she is depowered, her power becomes depressed. “When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart,” writes Alcorn (Alcorn 12/28/14). The confession to parents and doctors that offer diagnostic access to the powers to transition were inverted and became a mode to limit Alcorn. Some people might suggest bunkering down, waiting, as she cites, until her emancipation, the age of eighteen, is only two years away. Yet what most people who advocate bunker mentalities don’t understand – but what a transgender person or medievalist (or a trans medievalist) knows well – is that siege wars are worst on those bunker down. The besieged become starved out by those well supplied power who surround them from all side and cut them off from lifelines. The flow of power is on the side of those who surround the city and grows as those contained by it become weaker. Being locked into a single environment, like being locked into a single discourse is dangerous to any ecology. Too quickly the ground waters can be poisoned, resources depleted, the air used up until the life held inside must surrender or die. 


Posted by Leelah Alcorn 12/24/2014

III. Place: Disabling Environments

Let’s speak together of place. Alcorn grew up in King’s Mills, Ohio, where she began identifying as "gay" at school in preparation for later gender transition. When her parents found out, they went into action to circumscribe her with the church, the Northeast Church of Christ in Cincinnati. “They took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends,” she writes (Alcorn 12/28/14). The place of Alcorn’s suicide is isolation. She is taken out of public school and kept in a private home, separating her from her local community. Moving from high school where friends see one another five times a week to solitary confinement in the house for several months was a shock to Alcorn's system. Nor was she able to explain to her friends what was happening because she had no one of contacting them. Yet the environ cuts also Alcorn off from her public online life. Alcorn no longer had the words of affirmation from the readers of her blog nor could she call to them for help.  The purpose of this separation from her transgender and ally community was to purify her eco-system of LGBT life. Likewise, this was an expression of her parent’s power disciplining her with the knowledge that they and not her controlled her voice and environment. “I was completely alone for 5 months,” Alcorn writes, “No friends, no support, no love” (Alcorn 12/28/14). The togetherness brought on by friends, support, and love of her confessional community was expunged from her as her environment because increasingly privatized, individualized, and isolated. In a war of attrition, the key to siege, Alcorn’s parents cut her off from the resources for life, suffocating her voice and spirit. 

In less than two years, less than five months even, Alcorn’s spirit shrank in the toxic environment of isolation, moving her steadily towards death. Her note traces the relation between the depression of power and necopolitical forces engineering her death. “This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed,” writes Alcorn, “and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself” 
(Alcorn 12/28/14). The work of alienation is not a one time event but has lasting impacts. When Alcorn was allowed back into social media, the loss of contact made it harder to reconnect. “I felt even lonelier than I did before,” she writes (Alcorn 12/28/14). “The only friends I thought I had only liked me because they saw me five times a week.” This very socially conscious observation strikes at the stakes of transgender discourse and confession as living ecosytems. Without participation between many actors, confession can become just speaking into a void. Some voices and spirits are powerful enough to create lights that brings a community into being but most people require the power of co-creation in order to build and maintain such systems of life support. High school in particular is such a hard time for some many people, youth often depend on the larger established frameworks of classrooms, buses, lunches, after school activities. These systems can provide those lucky enough to take advantage of them the necessities of communal life while each person undergoes personal transformations and hardships during adolescence. Without being part of the framework of public education, Alcorn is removed from the living, breathing, and changing ecosystem of the school. In five months and without alternative forms of connection, the friendships she once had are not the same friendships that she had previously. In the lack of a social media, her suffering is turned from a collective struggle to a personal hell, fulfilling her digital handle, the Transgender Queen of Hell.

Alcorn’s personal hell is toxic. A toxin is distinct from other drugs and poisons because it is not necessarily harmful. A toxin is any substance, even air or water, that reaches a quantity at which it suppresses life. For Alcorn, the process of her environing was that she was cut off from her public queer and trans resources and flooded with anti-trans Christian necropolitics. By the end of the summer, Alcorn recounts she had “almost no friends,” either local or online, and in their place she only had  “church” where “everyone... is against everything I live for” 
(Alcorn 12/28/14). For Alcorn, the Church was a toxic environment. The presence of this particular anti-transgender brand of Christianity made her unable to grow and survive. The community was so full of its own gendered ways of life that it did not allow other forms of life to coexist. This community designed to be a heaven for certain straight cisgender Christians was in a sense designed to be an unlivable hell for transgender women like Alcorn. Indeed, for her parents and church, trans people like Alcorn are toxins that challenge their tolerance. Thus they wanted her substance in their community but wanted to contain it to ways and amounts they could control. Thus like a toxin in the ground water of a besieged city, the very eco system that kept Alcorn alive, her parents and church, also made life unlivable. This is how Alcorn's church environment existed at the cross-roads of a biopolitics that worked to contain her and a necropolitics that worked to suffocate her spirit.

The sum consequence of the depression of power and mind in a toxic environment is that Alcorn despaired of ever being able to escape the body and life of a boy. “I felt hopeless,” confesses Alcorn. In time, the body itself becomes an unlivable environment and the imprisoned feel that escape is impossible. “There’s no winning. There’s no way out,” concludes Alcorn 
(Alcorn 12/28/14). The Transgender Queen of Hell became increasingly convinced of the perpetual reality of her hell in contrast to the "nonexistant" heaven. Three days before her death, Alcorn posted an image to her blog of Elsa from Frozen dressed in red and dancing in her "world of isolation" but recast as Hell. Along with the image came the quote: "Parents: 'you are going to Hell'" (Alcorn 12/24/14). The Christian church her family built around Alcorn increasingly marked her as a target of its necropolitics, the desire for Alcorn to be a part of the great eternal pyre wherein all the things are obliterated of the world that this exclusive brand of Christianity deems as worthy to be selected for eternal life. The alternative to necropolitical destruction was to live a life bound up a kind of living Hell that Alcorn comes to identify with her body. “Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself.” While Alcorn once externalized Hell as existing in the constructed environment of her home and Church has become so personalized and privatized that Hell now seems to be written on her skin. She has breathed in the toxins so long that she feels as though her whole life spirit is now toxic.  She cannot escape hell when she is hell herself. Alone, this may be true. Under parents, a doctor, a church, and a god, she may not have the power to reclaim herself. Because of her isolate, toxic environment, she may not have the power to escape. “That’s why I feel like killing myself,” she concludes (Alcorn 12/28/14). “Sorry if that’s not a good enough reason for you, it’s good enough for me.” Two-thirds into the note, Alcorn no longer cares of the public’s opinion. In the end, she is left alone to decide how to escape a depresses spirit, an unlivable body, & a toxic environment: she choses escape by suicide. This is the final work of necropolitical environments and the privatizing of confession, by making the subject identify the toxic environment as within themselves the walls are no longer necessary because the subject will police herself, embody her hell in herself, and if it comes to it to kill herself. The necropolitical work of killing the unwanted life is done while the system keeps its hands clean. 


Posted by Leelah Alcorn 12/24/2014

IV. Conclusion: Re-confessing Trans Suicide

Let’s speak together of genre and place, the reclaiming space and spirit. As of the final third of the note, Alcorn seems to feel that she has sufficiently fulfilled the demands of the genre to give the cause and circumstances of her death, so there is a significant turn from the personal to the political and the private to the public. Aware of how her confessions have been cut off, she wants her story become a public confession prompting social change. “My death needs to mean something,” Alcorn writes (Alcorn 12/28/14). “My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year.” For Alcorn, her life and death have meaning because they exist in the context of other trans lives and deaths. She is aware of the number of trans suicides and accompanying notes. She is all too aware she is not only writing in a genre but a growing archive of trans literature.

Alcorn does not simply want to make literature, she wants to change how we read. “Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better,” she concludes, among which, trans literature and the trans suicide note 
(Alcorn 12/28/14). We need to treat trans literature as worthy of serious study; by excluding it, cisgender studies is causing serious trouble without it as trans voices continue to be erased. The atomic bomb of Alcorn’s trans speech went off, enacting significant political power on the United States at the same time that Leelah Alcorn’s personal life and death are systematically unconfessed. Leelah Alcorn was buried as Josh by her parents who insisted on using Alcorn's assigned name despite outcry from activists (ABC News). Alcorn’s parent’s deleted her "Suicie Note" post as well as the rest of her blog (Pink News). The physical suicide note which read "I had enough" was also destroyed by her parents (Salon). The blog was saved by digital archivists and activists who preserved Alcorn's on a downloadable zip drive (Archive.org). At first, it was an elimination of the "con-" of confession, our togetherness, of being a part of a wider public. But this comes with an elimination of the "–fess," the -fateri, the speech that gave Leelah power in death that she did not have in life. The war of attrition on trans culture, literature, and history is as real as the murders in the form of homicides and murders in the form of suicides. 

Alcorn is not content to merely exist as a piece of literature divorced from social implications, she demands that readers respond to what they read and act. “I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it,” she insists 
(Alcorn 12/28/14). The numbers that Alcorn is likely referring to is the report that she blogged on November 20th, 2014, from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, stating that 41% of transgender persons will attempt suicide in their life and among transgender women 48% will attempt suicide (Alcorn 11/20/14). Beyond this one study, however, other studies report higher numbers at or above 50% attempting suicide by the age of 20. For transgender women of color, their total life expectancy is set at 35 years (The Advocate). At least half our population find themselves isolated by siege, unable to escape, and die. Too many trapped in toxic environments that work to eliminate trans lives one way or another. In such dire circumstances, Alcorn affirms that words need to turn into providing liberation and systematic change. “As for my will,” she writes, “I want 100% of the things that I legally own to be sold and the money... to be given to trans civil rights movements and support groups” (Alcorn 12/28/14). Alcorn’s death allows for what resources she retains to be directed to providing resources to pull other trans persons from their toxic disabling environs. Since her death, a petition called "Leelah's Law" has gone up to ban conversion therapy in across the United States endorsed by over 300,000 signatories including President Obama (Change.com). In the wake of Alcorn's note and collective political pressure, a law was passed in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Alcorn went to Church, banning the practice of conversion therapy (Pink News). 

These are the stakes of telling trans stories, speaking words of life for the trans community, however dangerous they may be. We will speak the words, “Fiat lux,” and create our own light at the end of the tunnel. A light like the first glimpse of liberation. Until we storm the bulwarks of isolation and silence, in bathrooms, in Mississippi, in North Carolina. Nor will we leave the church a safe haven for the systematic isolation. We will not give up the war. Until we rise in power, we will not rest in peace. We will speak the words of Alcorn that Pope Francis fears and will not be silenced by mere hugs. We may learn to love the bomb’s we are because we know from it comes untapped nuclear power, a sentiment expressed by My Chemical Romance’s True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys (2010), which could as well be called the True Deaths of the Trans Suicides, “Everybody wants to change the world, everybody wants to change the world; but no one, no one wants to die. Wanna try? I'll be your detonator” (My Chemical Romance, "Na Na Na").



This talk was delivered by Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski
as part of the Toxic Ecologies Panel
as part of the Composing Disability: Crip Ecologies Conference 
at the George Washington University on April 8th, 2016.


The Transgender Suicide Hotline


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