Lelah Alcorn’s death is a travesty. For those unfamiliar with her name, Lelah is the 17 year old child who committed suicide recently when her parents refused to accept the fact that she is transgender, and while labeled at birth as a male, identified as a female.
Lelah’s story is so upsetting on so many levels, not the least of which a child unnecessarily took her life. Having worked with families in which there is a transgender child, I am far too familiar with the emotional turmoil which ensues in these cases. In her case, Lelah had two parents who refused to accept her for who she was.
Transgender individuals, including children, have a high rate of depression, and suicide attempts when compared to the general population. A National Transgender Discrimination Survey,(NTDS), conducted by the National Gay and LesbianTask Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, found that the suicide attempts of transgender individuals is 41 percent, compared to the 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population who report a lifetime suicide attempt.
In any custody matter, it is the best interests of the child that must govern any judge’s decision concerning a child. Keeping a child safe is paramount. While a court application is seen in the law as no different that a situation, for example, in which one parent wants to consent to a tonsillectomy and the other does not, these issues are unfamiliar, and thus frightening. In cases of children who may identify as transgender, the biggest hurdle that a lawyer advocating for the parent supporting the child (or advocating for the child alone) faces is lack of education. This, coupled with the mental health issues which may be present, makes for a case which can be daunting for the well meaning, but uninformed.
So many well meaning, yet unaware professionals are afraid that an application in support of a transgender child is synonymous with a trip to the operating room. Indeed, what is far more actual is that advocating for the best interests of a child means requesting access to therapy and on occasion, may include a request for reversible hormone treatment (for example, to block menstruation in the case of a child who identifies as male) so that the child can determine a path for the future. This also may include advocating to make sure the child is being treated appropriately in his or her school system.
A collaborative relationship with attorneys, medical and mental health care providers, therapists specializing in gender issues is critical for the child. These are the professionals who assist in the education of the judge, the other attorneys who may be involved in the case, including guardian ad litems, and other individuals who will interact with the child.