Thursday, January 1, 2015

Thoughts on Leelah/Josh Alcorn's death

This week, millions of people learned the story of Leelah/Josh Alcorn, from news stories about her suicide. Briefly, as I understand it, Josh Alcorn was a teenage boy from Ohio who became certain, over a period of years, that he was truly a girl in a male body. He wanted to undergo transgender transitioning; he adopted the name Leelah and the identity of a girl. Leelah's parents, deeply religious Christians, rejected this outright; according to Leelah, they called it "a phase". Leelah grew frustrated and depressed, and finally committed suicide, leaving behind a note describing a life of loneliness and hopelessness.

This post is not a message about transgender transitioning in Judaism; you can read a detailed halachic article on the subject, by Yeshiva University's Rabbi J. David Bleich, here. What I want to focus on is the approach of parents when their children embark on paths that run counter to their parents' Judaism. Transgender teens may not be all that common, but teens who feel personally, emotionally committed to un-Orthodox lifestyles are found throughout our communities. How should we respond?

I cannot judge the Alcorn parents:
* I don't know anything about their actions - other than the little in the news reports, most of which is drawn from Leelah's accounts.
* Teens do go through phases, despite their certainty that the mood of the moment will endure forever.
* Denial is a normal (if unhelpful) way to deal with situations when we are out of our depth.
* Fundamentally, Judaism does obligate parents to educate their children - and even strangers to educate their neighbours (Vayikra 19:17) - in the expectations of our religion.

But I want to identify reasonable, Torah-based ways for parents to handle situations like this one. I would very much appreciate your ideas; please leave your thoughts in the Comments section.

Here are three points which sound to me like reasonable, Torah-based building blocks to me (all of which may have been part of the Alcorns' approach to Leelah):

1. Love - Every child must know that his/her parents love them, and that their parents' commitment to them does not depend upon how they behave. We can show love and disapproval simultaneously, as is implicit in the Chazon Ish's prescription (Yoreh Deah 2:16) of love toward people whose behaviour we believe is inappropriate. Rav Kook was famous for this approach, as well.

2. Respect -  Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, in his Pirkei Chinuch (Volume 1, pg. 128), notes that parents must treat their children with the same respect that they employ when addressing adults. This includes both the style (tone of voice, choice of words) and the substance.

3. Professional Counseling for the Parents - There is a parental inclination to keep everything in-house, since we know our unique situation best. Logically, though, one should err on the side of consulting experts who might be able to help parents discern the difference between phases and enduring issues, and to help them strategize. [Of course, finding unbiased experts is difficult; this is a significant hurdle.]

What would you add/amend?


  1. I wonder whether proper counselling in this case would have been attainable, as the vast majority of mental health professionals would have fully bought into the notion that the patient was, indeed, a "girl in a male body."

  2. An added difficulty is the fear of the parent's reputation in the community and the embarrassment it might cause. When one of my children chose to do some things which were very wrong (not illegal) from a traditional viewpoint and the family was in crisis, a frum psychologist told me to get over my reputation issues and be there for my child. I was smart enough to listen to him and while the child is off the derech in most things, the relationship and the support she feels from her parents is deeply appreciated by her.

  3. To me, a religious therapy would have focused on how this child was created in the image of god, and accepting how God made him/her both inside and out.

  4. Reb Yid-
    Indeed; hence my point about finding "unbiased expert". But I would take a biased expert over no expert.

    Been There-
    Thanks for pointing that out; very true. And I'm glad you sought and received that advice.

    Definitely a key component; thanks.

  5. I'm curious as to the working definitions of "proper counseling" and "unbiased expert" as used in these comments. It seems to me that both express the attitude that any therapist who agreed that there was a possibility that this poor child was in fact transgender would be providing improper and biased advice. The DSM, the diagnostic manual in use by licensed mental health professionals, no longer classifies gender dysphoria as a disorder, as something "wrong" that needs fixing. It might be more accurate to describe religiously-based attitudes that do not accept this professional opinion as valid as being the things that are biased and improper.

    1. Anonymous-
      I'm up on the DSM developments, but I'm not sure why they are relevant. The question the parents face is not whether their child fits society's definition of normal, but how to respond in a way that will be healthy and safe for the child. My specification of "unbiased" is because there are those who equate the question of normalcy with the question of how to best address a situation, and I don't believe that the two are one and the same.