"My death needs to mean something," the teen who self-identified as Leelah Alcorn wrote in a suicide note before stepping in front of a tractor-trailer in Ohio. Whatever else the death of the troubled transgender youth means, one is clear: how easily mainstream media fall into groupthink.
Most outlets reporting this story throw themselves on one side by using "Leelah," his preferred name, and call him a her. Some even seem reluctant to say "Joshua," the name on his birth certificate. Most quote friends but don’t try to reach his parents or clergy. Then they quote a transgender advocate or two who predictably call for some sort of change.
It's a familiar script from years of gay and lesbian advocacy, thinly disguised as reporting.
The Boston Globe's story is a prime example:
Early Sunday, 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn died after being hit by a tractor-trailer while walking along a stretch of Interstate 71 near her Ohio hometown.
The death was eventually ruled a suicide after a pair of social media posts, which the Kings Mill woman posted on the blogging site Tumblr, garnered notice and served as a flashpoint for transgender progress in 2014.
Only about a third of the way down does the story acknowledge that Alcorn’s mother, Carla, "posted a short note to Facebook identifying Alcorn as 'Joshua' (her name at birth) and with male pronouns." That's the only place the Globe uses his actual teen name, or a male pronoun.
NBC News does the same gender labeling, using "she" or "her" for Alcorn a whopping 25 times. True, NBC follows the lead of Azalea Laverde, who worked with Alcorn at an amusement park. But the reporter, and her editors, could have exercised a little journalistic judgment.
WCPO.com in Cincinnati ran a two-parter here and here, promising an interview with Alcorn's parents. But they include only a statement that his mother, Carla, didn't want to speak on camera. The second video simply tacks a text onto the end, in which she told CNN that she and her husband loved their son.
CNN got direct quotes from Carla Alcorn, unlike most other media,. One paragraph:
"We don't support that, religiously," Alcorn's mother told CNN Wednesday, her voice breaking. "But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy."
Carla Alcorn says Joshua asked for "transition surgery" but told him she couldn't afford that. She did get Joshua counseling, and a psychiatrist wrote him a prescription. And despite the child's blog posting -- that his parents never accepted his feelings about being transgender -- the mother said he came to her to talk about it only once. She said she never even heard or saw the name "Leelah" before reading the suicide note.
Much of that contradicts her son's blog, which he called "Lazer Princess," in which he said 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." Both sides need to be told.
Here's a bit of sensitivity in the CNN story:
Two days after the teen's death, grieving in that stomach-punch way that only parents who have to bury a child understand, Carla Alcorn kept repeating that she loved her child.
"He was an amazing musician and artist," she said. "He was an amazing boy."
But then, CNN insensitively embeds a tweet at that point: "If you decide to bring a child into the world, the very least you can do is love them unconditionally." CNN also fills out the rest of the story -- more than half its length -- with lengthy interviews with two transgender advocates.
Media reports are also a bit loose in reporting the transgender push for a law against "conversion therapy." The International Business Times, for instance, gives the drive a long story, including a solemn pronouncement by the American Psychiatric Association against the practice. It also cites a petition drive for the so-called "Leelah's Law" on Change.org.
What doesn't the IB Times include? Whether Joshua actually underwent conversion therapy. Did anyone ask the therapists, or even their names? They might not have talked about Joshua's / Leelah's case in particular, but they might have discussed similar cases in general. Otherwise, we have precious little to justify a rush to judgment.
Another omission: Many media, like the IB Times, report that Carla has taken down her Facebook posting without saying why. It's because so many virtual vandals posted hateful, even threatening posts.
Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post says this kind of mob behavior has a cute li'l name, "doxing." Although she joins those who call for some sort of change in transgender attitudes, Dewey also denounces the doxers: "You lack imagination, humanity, any experience with grief, or some combination of the three."
There are no national statistics about how many transgender people commit suicide, partly because it is not always known. In 2010 the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force reported 41% of 7,000 transgender people surveyed had attempted suicide.
Ergo, the above-named center asked 7,000 transgender people and found 41 percent of them had tried suicide. So it wasn’t exactly a systematic survey. And of course, the National Center is not exactly an impartial group.
I also look in vain in these reports for much about the church that he had to attend each week. Which one? Who knew him there? How did they perceive him? What does the pastor think of all this? NBC News did try, unsuccessfully, to get a quote from a minister at a Church of Christ where Alcorn's funeral was planned. But NBC didn't indicate whether it was the same church Alcorn attended.
What few seem to notice is how much else was going on in Alcorn's troubled mind. According to his blog, he said he also felt deserted by the friends who had originally supported his transgenderism:
At the end of the school year, my parents finally came around and gave me my phone and let me back on social media. I was excited, I finally had my friends back. They were extremely excited to see me and talk to me, but only at first. Eventually they realized they didn’t actually give a shit about me, and I felt even lonelier than I did before. The only friends I thought I had only liked me because they saw me five times a week.
(That's also a contradiction to the Globe and other media, which say only that Alcorn's parents cut him off from all social media. Many don't add that the parents later restored media access.)
Then comes this despairing, self-destructive blog cry:
I’m never going to transition successfully, even when I move out. I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy.
It's ironic that so many reports call this a time for a "conversation" on transgenderism. That may well be. The condition involves self-concepts, relationships with family and society, and probably biochemistry as well. But when it's simplified and dominated by one side, it's not a conversation. It's more like a monologue.