As an anarchist I am greatly interested in the concept of individual agency; that is the “the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power” according to Merriam-Webster. Most often this interest is in relation to the state and its subjects. Subjects, or citizens as they are often euphemistically referred to as, do not have full agency because their capacity to act and exert power is limited. But the concept of agency can be analyzed in other parts of society as well. Employer-employee, husband-wife, and user-administrator relationships are all interesting areas to analyze the concept of agency.
A touchy subject amongst anarchists is agency of minors. The reason this subject is touchy is because children obviously lack the knowledge, experiences, and common sense to survive without guidance. To further complicate the issue different individuals become capable of surviving without guidance at different ages. Most societies, for reasons of simplifying legal systems, have set age ranges for when they consider an individual an adult. In the United States, for example, an individual, with the except of certain extenuating circumstances, has no legal agency until they turn 18. Setting an arbitrary age works when the goal is to create a simplified legal system but relying on arbitrary cutoffs is also extremely rigid.
What happens in situations where the well-being of a minor and the beliefs of their guardians are at odds? That’s what happened in the case of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen who ended her life after her parents’ religious views conflicted with her needs. In her suicide note, reprinted here (the original source appears to have been taken down), she made her situation clear. Her parents, who were devout Christians (I will use the label with the understanding that I am speaking exclusively of her parents’ specific Christian beliefs, not Christianity as a whole), were only willing to accept the fact that Leelah was transgender within the scope of their beliefs. That is to say they didn’t acknowledge Leelah as transgender but instead saw her as a teenager going through a phase, a sinner, or both and felt that the only solution was to have her see therapists that also saw things within the scope of their religious beliefs. Eventually when the results they desired were not attained they isolated her by removing her from public school and confiscating her means of communicating with her friends.
Leelah’s parents took actions that most mental health professionals would oppose. She obviously had reached a point in her life where she possessed knowledge of her situation. Her words coupled with her parents’ actions lead me believe she was the expert in this matter between the three. But the legal system under which she lived wouldn’t acknowledge that and thus she had no agency in the matter. Instead of being free to pursue options based on her research she was restricted to options permitted by her parents, who seemed entirely ignorant of the matter.
Leelah’s situation isn’t unique. A very close friend (whose permission I sought and was granted to write this) of mine went through a similar situation in her youth and the result was almost the same. She too attempted suicide but survived and made it to the age of 18, or the finish line as she calls it, and was able to pursue options previously closed to her. Those options, which she wanted to pursue years earlier, changed her life for the better. Receiving the help she needed allowed to to move forward and live a fulfilling life. And it is situations such as these that make me believe that we must rethink how minors and agency are treated. Minors should be granted agency when it is clear that they’re the experts on a matter effecting their lives. Admittedly that makes for a far more complicated legal system but I also believe that justice should be the primary goal of a legal system, not simplicity.