Sometimes people wonder why I care so much about LGBT issues.
This is the story of a trans woman called Lucy Meadows, and it’s a sad story. It ends in suicide. I feel Lucy’s pain and I want to share it with the world, to tell everyone I can reach that it didn’t have to be this way. If the rest of the world were better, Lucy Meadows didn’t have to die.
Lucy started her career as a teacher when she was still living as a man, but she gradually came to a point in her story where she wanted to present herself in the gender that best matched who she was in her brain – a woman. Prior to Christmas break, her students knew her as a male teacher; when they came back to school, she’d be a female teacher instead. Sometimes that’s how life happens.
The school took the right tone, trying not to make a big deal of it. In a letter home to parents, describing various staffing changes, they explained matter-of-factly that “Mr Upton has made a significant change in his life and will be transitioning to live as a woman after the Christmas break. She will return to work as Miss Meadows.” From there, the school would hopefully have encouraged parents and teachers to inform themselves about what it means to be transgendered, so they could answer kids’ questions and concerns with sensitivity, acceptance, and honesty. The kids would learn some important lessons, they would ultimately see that Miss Meadows was the same person as before even if she dressed differently and had a different name now, and everybody would ultimately be richer for the experience.
Then Richard Littlejohn at the Daily Mail decided to write an extremely judgmental editorial saying that this teacher – always disrespectfully referred to in the male pronoun Meadows found such a poor fit – was “not only in the wrong body, he’s in the wrong job”.
The article was chock-full of hand-wringing over how the school board,solely by keeping Meadows on staff, was failing to protect students, and “won’t somebody please think of the children!” Littlejohn fretted about the confusion kids would experience, boys’ fears that they might also turn into little girls, the unfairness that Meadows (still being unfailingly called ‘Nathan Upton’) would dare “project his personal problems onto impressionable young children”. He didn’t even want Meadows to take on a new name – “why not Miss Upton?”, as if it’s completely unheard-of for teachers to have name changes for all sorts of reasons.
Now, I can’t say whether Meadows was or wasn’t a good teacher, because I have no information on the subject (beyond a student’s drawing of her teacher that suggests a well-liked grown-up). But Littlejohn wants to argue that Meadows was a bad teacher solely because she had the misfortune of being assigned at birth to a gender that didn’t match how she felt inside. Just because she was transgendered. Now that’s vile. An accident of birth doesn’t tell us anything about whether she was giving those kids a good education.
Imagine yourself as someone who has dedicated their life to helping children learn. You’ve made it your goal every day to uplift and educate them, to help prepare them for life. You’ve got your own struggles to confront – who doesn’t? – but you’ve persevered as you tried to figure it all out, building your life around a noble goal like teaching.
Now, just as you’ve finally figured out how bring the whole thing into focus, to make your life feel like it’s actually your own for the first time, some newspaper jerk writes an article that accuses you of selfishly imperiling your students and destroying their innocence, just because you have the audacity to try and bring out who you really are on the inside. Littlejohn publicly shamed Meadows and proclaimed very loudly that “if you don’t hide who you are, you’re putting the children you care about at risk” – in other words, the reality of who you are inside is grotesque and monstrous and dirty and it will ruin these children if they’re allowed to find out about it.
Likely we can’t put all the blame on Littlejohn. Somebody had to call the media’s attention to the story. And I’m sure there were more than a few parents in the community who were happy to talk up the scandal. Certainly the Daily Mail was able to find a few parents willing to express stern disapproval. But the national media coverage certainly exposed the story to a wider audience of people willing to suggest that encounters with transgendered people will somehow warp children and cause them damage.
If I’m totally honest with myself, I can’t blame Meadows for taking her life. I can understand the level of pain this would have caused. Encountering so much condemnation on such a broad scale would be devastating. And this is condemnation of parts of her life that were so central to her identity. There didn’t need to be a conflict between her work with children and who she felt she was inside. People forced that on her because they didn’t understand and they rushed to judge without educating themselves.
The kind of unrelenting criticism she would have received . . . well, it wears down your soul to be told over and over that you’re hurting the people you most want to help, that you’re bad for the people you care about most. You start to wonder if you’re an evil human being. If all these people think so, how can they be wrong?
It’s not hard to imagine; it’s a place I’ve been before. And I know I’m not alone in that. I know it’s a place plenty of LGBT folks have been, which is probably a big part of why I care.
The problem here wasn’t the children who would have been scarred for life by encountering a transitioning adult. It was their parents who couldn’t deal. Sometimes I feel disgusted that we live in a world of so little empathy, such harsh judgment and condemnation, that kids become empathetic in spite of their parents and struggle (often in vain) to educate the grown-ups they love. I’m disgusted that, as adults, we shy away from educating ourselves so we can have honest conversations about how it’s not a crime to be different.
The kids would have been just fine. Kids do best when they’re not sheltered from the reality that some people live different from how you do; they’re not as judgmental and rigid as adults. It’s easy to explain to a kid who’s worried that “no one has to turn into a girl if they don’t want to” and “Miss Meadows looks different but she’s still the same person inside”. Kids can accept that. They can understand change.
Much harder to accept, in my opinion, is the knowledge these children now have to carry instead. The idea that, because Miss Meadows was different, people were so mean to her she died from it. The idea that, if they end up being different, they might be in for the same level of cruelty. The lesson that the world is mean, and if you want to express some part of your persona that others don’t like, it’s not okay, maybe not even safe.
That’s a hard lesson to take back, and I’m sad for the kids who’ve had to learn it.
That’s why I care about LGBT issues: because I don’t want my kids to have to discover one day that they live in a really mean world where it’s not okay to show who you really are. I don’t just want to conceal the meanness from them; I want to give them a world that isn’t actually mean anymore.
And every little pocket of love and acceptance helps. I have to believe that.
Edit: Lucy Meadows’ cause of death was not confirmed initially as a suicide, and it’s not 100% clear that she took her own life – the impression I initially got from Zinnia Jones on Freethought Blogs. Death could have been suicide or it could have been natural; it’s an ambiguous case. But I don’t think my point is invalidated if she didn’t despair to the point of killing herself: Littlejohn’s article was still vile, and the hurtful attitudes it expressed are still prejudiced, and I still want better for trans* people everywhere.