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This summer I took my kids to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and while we were there I saw a clip from a television interview Otto Frank gave in 1967. In it he talked about his experience of reading the diary for the first time after his daughter’s death, and what it revealed to him about who she was.
The clip struck me powerfully when I first saw it, and it’s stayed with me. I mentioned it to a student activist I had lunch with earlier this week, and thought of it again today while talking with a friend on Facebook about the Carla Alcorn post I wrote this morning.
When I Googled it to quote it in that latter conversation, though, I discovered that no full transcript of it existed online. Snippets are quoted in various places, including John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, but the whole thing isn’t up anywhere.
That’s fixed now.
“I knew that Anne wrote a diary. She spoke about her diary. She left her diary with me at night in a briefcase next to my bed. I had promised her never to look in. I never did.
“When I returned, and after I had the news that my children would not come back, Miep gave me the diary, which had been saved by, I should say, a miracle. It took me a very long time to read it, and I must say I was very much surprised about the deep thoughts Anne had, her seriousness — especially her self-criticism.
“It was quite a different Anne [than] I had known as my daughter. She never really showed this kind of inner feeling. She talked about many things, we criticized many things, but what really her feelings were, I only could see from the diary.
“And my conclusion is, as I had been in very, very good terms with Anne, that most parents don’t know, really, their children.”
My first daughter was born with hip dysplasia — put simply, her hips didn’t quite fit properly into their sockets. It’s not an uncommon condition, particularly in firstborn girls, and in some countries all babies are required to be tested for it at birth. The United States isn’t one of those countries, but Casey’s pediatrician picked up on it in the newborn exam and sent us off to see a specialist when C was just a day or two old.
If you catch dysplasia early and treat it properly, the treatment is straightforward and the prognosis is excellent. Casey was put in something called a Pavlik harness for the first couple of months of her life — the harness nudges the legs into a position that presses the hips into their sockets so that the joints grow properly. (That’s her in it on the right.) If it does what it’s supposed to, and it usually does, the hips develop normally and the child can typically expect no complications later on.
But if you don’t catch dysplasia early, or don’t treat it properly, things can turn bad in a hurry. When the hips develop without a snug fit into their sockets, the joint surfaces get bumpy and rough. Treatment progresses from the harness to a waist-to-ankles cast, and from there to surgery. If the condition is missed or mistreated in infancy, hip replacement in middle age is not uncommon.
My ex-wife and I were lucky. We had a good pediatrician, an excellent specialist, and solid insurance. Casey got the harness, we put her in it, and it did its job. Every few years we go back to make sure everything’s still okay, and every few years it is.
A lot of families, and a lot of kids, aren’t so lucky. If you go looking, you’ll find that the internet is awash with stories of kids whose doctors missed the diagnosis, or screwed up the treatment. (Double-diapering used to be a standard approach, for instance. Some docs still recommend it, even though it’s been shown to be completely ineffective.) Huge numbers of kids are facing pain, disability, and invasive surgery that in many cases could have been avoided by a simple, straightforward medical intervention.
I’ve been thinking about that today because of Leelah Alcorn. Leelah was a transgender teenager, and she killed herself this week. In her suicide note, posted to Tumblr, she said that her parents had rejected her gender identity, disrupted her social networks, and refused to support her in transition. She cited all this as a major reason — though not the only reason — for her suicide.
Leelah’s note went viral quickly, and once her parents were identified they became the target of a torrent of anger online.
That anger is by no means unjustified — it certainly appears that if her parents had been more supportive of Leelah she would likely be alive today. When Leelah’s mother Carla gave an interview to CNN on Wednesday, her comments validated much of the account in Leelah’s suicide note. Asked about her child’s transgender identity she said that she and her husband “don’t support that, religiously.” She confirmed that they had rejected Leelah’s request to start transitioning medically and that they had cut off her access to social media. Most jarringly, she referred to Leelah as her son throughout the interview.
But there was another side to her comments to CNN as well. She said that she and her husband had loved Leelah “unconditionally…no matter what,” and told her so. She called Leelah “a good kid,” an “amazing musician and artist,” an “amazing boy.” One interview can’t tell us much about a family, of course, but to me these words feel honest — the anguish of a loving mother who has lost her adored child forever.
So what are we to do with this? What are we to make of it?
I don’t believe Carla Alcorn’s words exonerate her. When Leelah needed support and understanding she and her husband were unwilling or unable to provide it, and the consequences were devastating. At the same time, however, I can’t reconcile Carla Alcorn’s words with the idea that she hated her child, or turned her back on her, or sought to harm her.
Which brings us back to my daughter, and her Pavlik harness.
Some parents who fail to pursue a proper diagnosis of their children’s dysplasia are surely neglectful. Some parents who double-diaper them instead of obtaining real treatment are lazy or uncaring. But far more, I suspect, are simply unaware. They want their kids to be healthy and happy, and if they knew what to do to make that happen they would do it. But they don’t know, and they don’t have the tools to find out.
My family was virtuous when we got the dysplasia diagnosis. We followed up with the specialist. We put Casey in the harness and we kept her in it. We bathed her around it, we left it on for photos, we splayed her legs the way we were told. We were freaked out, and our fear made us conscientious.
But we were also lucky — lucky to have good doctors and good insurance and nobody whispering bad advice in our ears. Lucky to have the resources to do what we were supposed to do, and lucky to reach the desired outcome. If we hadn’t been so lucky, would it have made us worse parents? Would it have meant we loved our daughter less? I don’t know.
I don’t know what resources the Alcorn family had. I don’t know what advice they got about Leelah. But I have a hunch, and my hunch is this: That their church and their friends and the therapists they consulted let them down. That they didn’t get the support they needed to get to a point where they could give their child the support she needed. Yes, they failed their daughter, and they will live with the consequences of that failure for the rest of their lives. But what of their pastor? What of the therapists? What of the friends and acquaintances? Are they in agony right now? Are they grieving? Is their love for Leelah and their failure to save her tearing them apart?
Leelah Alcorn is dead. Carla Alcorn is the mother of a dead child. Both losses are incalculable tragedies, and both can be laid at the feet of our society’s fear, hatred, and incomprehension of trans identity. We need to do better. We need to do more. We need to save the next Leelah Alcorn from her fate.
And we need to save the next Carla Alcorn from hers.
Here’s something that happened to me last month: I got asked my preferred gender pronoun.
For those who aren’t familiar, this is a thing that tends to happen a lot at queer-positive conferences and gatherings these days. When you go around the room at the beginning of a session, you’ll say your name, something about yourself, maybe answer an ice-breaker question, and state your preferred gender pronoun. It can be he/him, she/her, they/their, or one of the newer alternatives like ze or hir. Or you can just say you’d prefer to be referred to by your name.
I first encountered this tradition in 2011, I think. Maybe 2010. Most likely it was at a United States Student Association conference. The idea behind it is that respecting people’s gender identity is important, and volunteering your identity can be awkward, and misgendering someone is hurtful. So rather than guessing, or asking individual people to speak up if their preferences are non-standard or non-obvious, you just go around the room.
So I’ve been asked my preferred gender pronoun before. But this was different. This was at a party. In a one-on-one conversation.
It was the middle of the evening, and I’d been chatting with someone — a college student — for ten or fifteen minutes, over by the snacks. And at some point, as an aside, like asking me what borough I lived in, they asked what my preferred gender pronoun was.
I’m six foot three. I have short hair. That night I was wearing jeans and a button-down, and I don’t think I’d shaved. The question wasn’t about my self-presentation, is what I’m saying. It wasn’t specifically about me at all. It was about a new way of interacting, a new way of thinking that is on its way to becoming ubiquitous among young people — and far quicker than I could ever have imagined.
Every few months, doing the kind of work I do, I encounter another artifact of this sort of change. It can be a little discombobulating. But when I told this story to a friend a few days ago, and he rolled his eyes, I surprised myself a little with the vehemence of my response.
Because it was actually a great question that I was asked that night. It was an exciting question. I’m a “he.” I’ve always thought of myself as a he, and I expect I always will. I’m a man, I’m a guy, I’m a dad, I’m a son, I’m a brother.
But in that moment, I got to choose. I was asked to choose, asked to pick whether for the duration of that conversation I wanted to be approached as a he or as something else. And I knew that whatever answer I gave, it would be honored, respected, taken seriously. And that recognition, far more than any of the rote rounds of he/she/they/ze responses I’ve seen given at the start of workshops, opened something up in me. It wasn’t a door — at least not a door I was tempted to walk through — but it was a window.
And I liked the view.
A student who sued her school district over a requirement that she wear an ID tag equipped with an RFID chip that allowed the school to track her movements lost her court case yesterday.
The case filed in a Texas federal court, was a strange one. San Antonio sophomore Andrea Hernandez objected to the RFID chip on the basis of theology, not privacy — she believes that the tracking tag is the Mark of the Beast warned of in the biblical book of Revelation. As a result, she contends that her religion forbids her from wearing the tag, and that the school’s tag requirement is a violation of her First Amendment rights. As her father put it in a September letter, “it is our Hell Fire Belief that if we compromise our faith and religious freedom to allow you to track my daughter while she is at school it will condemn us to hell.” In a later meeting with a district official he also expressed concern that wearing the chip might cause cancer.
Hernandez was suspended later that month for refusing to wear her school-issued ID, and told that she would not be allowed to return without it. District officials gave her the option of transferring to a school that didn’t use the tracking chips. Instead she sued, and won a preliminary injunction against the suspension. Yesterday’s ruling lifted that injunction and freed the district to transfer her to another school. (Hernandez is likely to appeal.)
So where does the victory come in? Well, at a relatively early stage of the process, the school offered to give Hernandez an ID badge with the RFID chip disabled. Her movements wouldn’t be tracked, her attendance wouldn’t be automatically logged — it’d just be an ordinary ID on an ordinary lanyard.
Hernandez refused this accommodation on the grounds that even a chip-less ID — which her father referred to as a “symbol” of the RFID tracking program — constituted forced speech in favor of the program itself. The court rejected that argument yesterday.
It’s not clear whether Hernandez would have prevailed in court if the school hadn’t offered the compromise that it did, but the language of the court’s ruling made it clear that she would have been on stronger ground. (They did not address the question of the constitutionality of the ID requirement on privacy grounds, as Hernandez explicitly disavowed such a claim.)
Yesterday’s ruling, then, leaves many of the core issues surrounding student RFID tags unresolved. But it does provide support for the idea that allowing students to opt out of RFID requirements is a reasonable accommodation, as well as raising the public profile of the opt-out path for those students who might be interested in it.
One note about the RFID requirement. Although yesterday’s ruling claimed that the tags “are expected to improve [school] safety by allowing school staff to know the whereabouts of a student that may be missing or unaccounted for in the event of a fire alarm or other emergency evacuation,” that’s not the reason that the chips were added.
In Texas, as elsewhere in the country, state school funding is set partially on the basis of student attendance. When students are absent, funding goes down. Equipping ID cards with RFID, and mandating that students wear the IDs on campus at all times, allows the school to automate attendance-taking and include students who arrive late, leave early, or otherwise fall through the roll-call cracks in their attendance reports. More accurate record-keeping means more state money.
As is so often the case these days, this new — and potentially problematic — education policy is driven primarily by the ongoing crisis in public school funding.
Today’s press conference by NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre has been greeted with a storm of derision and outrage from across the political spectrum. Even moderates and conservatives were appalled — New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s comment that the speech reflected a “paranoid, dystopian vision” of America was distinctive more for its phrasing than its sentiment.
One of the most ridiculed elements of LaPierre’s appearance was his call for a national volunteer force of armed guards to patrol every school in America — a “blanket of safety,” he called it, and he wants it in place by the end of the Christmas break.
Many observers pointed out that Columbine High School had an armed sheriff’s deputy on site on the day that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered thirteen and wounded twenty-one more in what stands as the bloodiest high school massacre in the nation’s history.
Some conservatives are “peeved” by this criticism, however. As Daniel Foster writes at the website of the National Review,
“it isn’t like the deputy was sitting around eating doughnuts. … He traded fire (that is, he drew fire) with Harris for an extended period of time, during which Harris’s gun jammed. … In this highly chaotic tactical environment, the deputy acted both bravely and prudently, and who knows how many lives he saved by engaging Harris.”
Let’s consider this a moment.
Wayne LaPierre asserts that the solution to the problem of school shootings is bringing armed guards onto the nation’s campuses. Critics point out that the worst high school shooting in American history took place at a school where just such a guard was on hand. And how do LaPierre’s supporters respond?
You see? It works!
The NRA and its allies believe that Columbine was a win. They believe that we need more Columbines, not fewer.