Leelah Alcorn – an unnecessary death
On Sunday morning in Ohio, USA, whilst many were attending church, an unnecessary tragedy struck. 17-year-old teenager Leelah Alcorn, took her own life. Whilst some reported it as an accident – including her family, her death on I-71 by a trailer truck was clearly suicide by her own admission on her Tumblr blog (now deleted at her parent’s request but accessible by web archive). It was sadly preventable.
Within days of her death on 28 December she has set the world alight in terms of trans activism, vigils, messages and memorials of sympathy, petitions of change, Facebook campaigns, Twitter trending hashtags, blogs and comments deleted, backed up, reported, reposted. There has also been, what can only be described as “hate”.
Transphobic Hate, Anger at Leelah’s Parents
The calls for criminal charges and invective targeted at her parents may be understandable but in the immediate period of grief perhaps misguided and inappropriate, for now at least.
The erasure and hate from certain radical (TERF) feminists such as Cathy Brennan, and even some far right extremist groups would be wrong at any time. Brennan has been stirring on Twitter and several Facebook posts, [TW] e.g., fb.com/iambugbrennan/posts/632544953524123 and fb.com/iambugbrennan/posts/632097490235536.
She will certainly never now be forgotten and may trigger a change in the very society she sought to “fix”.
Leelah herself regarded her domestic situation as “shitty parenting” not criminal abuse, others might disagree and regard the things that happened, as outlined below, as abusive.
Reaching out for help via Reddit
After coming out to her parents, she had her Internet access revoked and laptop removed, but upon their return (after submitting to reparative Christian therapy) she began to reach out on social media again. Whilst her Tumblr blog suicide note made the news after her death she had previously posted in the Reddit asktrangender community, at the end of October:
I really need help.
Hi, I’m Leelah, 16 and MtF/dmab. Ever since I was around 4 or 5 I knew I was a girl, just like most of the lovely ladies on here, but I didn’t actually understand that it was possible to successfully change genders until I was 14. As soon as I found out what transgender meant, I came out to my mom. 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, and it felt awful.
She then proceeded to tell my Dad without my consent, and they were both extremely angry with me. They never physically hurt me, but they always talked to me in a very derogatory tone. They would say things like “You’ll never be a real girl” or “What’re you going to do, fuck boys?” or “God’s going to send you straight to hell”. These all made me feel awful about myself, I was christian at the time so I thought that God hated me and that I didn’t deserve to be alive. I cut myself at least once every couple days, and I was constantly thinking about suicide.
I wanted to see a gender therapist but they wouldn’t let me, they thought it would corrupt my mind. The would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl.
Eventually I lied to them and told them I was straight and that I was a boy, and then the derogatory speech and neglect started to fade. I tried my absolute hardest to live up to their standards and be a straight male, but eventually I realized that I hated religion and my parents. I came out as gay in school, hoping to ease my friends into the whole LGBT thing before I came out as trans. Although my friends reactions were mostly positive my parents were beyond pissed. They took me out of public school, took away my phone and computer, and wouldn’t let me on social media websites, so I was out of contact with any of my friends. I was like this for 5 months, completely and utterly alone. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone outside of church and I wasn’t allowed to be with any of my friends, I just had to stay in my house and be quiet.
Eventually they came around and gave me my phone back, but they heavily monitored my facebook/twitter/tumblr profiles in case I did anything “stupid” again. Although I got my friends back I wasn’t allowed to talk to them about anything LGBT.”
“I’m sure someone on here can convince me not to kill myself…Can someone please give me a reason to live”
It is clear from the wider context of her post that Prozac anti-depressants were not helping what should have been a case of referring someone to a Gender Identity clinic or specialist. That, unfortunately, was not something with the worldview of her Christian parents who preferred to send her for “conversion therapy“.
Trans Positive Parenting
It has been clearly demonstrated that parental attitudes have a huge impact on the mental wellbeing of transgender youth and according to a 2012 Canadian report, can lead to a:
“93% reduction in reported suicide attempts for youth who indicated their parents were strongly supportive of their gender identity and expression”
Without that support, some 57% of young trans people attempted suicide, even higher than the averaged-out figure for trans of all ages and domestic backgrounds. (See below for more on suicide risks)
Leelah was born Joshua and went by Josh too. That is the name and gender by which her parents still knew her, despite her protestations and requests to be allowed to transition after her 16th birthday.
Her mother posted on Facebook, but upon the press contacting them about Joshua also being Leelah – which the family confirmed, they requested privacy, and have now made their profile private blocking access to the following post:
“My sweet 16-year-old son, Joshua Ryan Alcorn went home to heaven this morning. He was out for an early morning walk and was hit by a truck. Thank you for the messages and kindness and concern you have sent our way. Please continue to keep us in your prayers”
“Mom and Dad: Fuck you. You can’t just control other people like that. That’s messed up.”
I understand the frustration and the pain that led to her suicide, and nothing excuses parental non-acceptance of their own child. Certain behaviours they may not be accepting of, certain identities they may not understand – my own took years to understand, but accepted and loved me from the outset of coming out.
The cries of “murderers” and “evil” seen on some news and social media comments, are “unhelpful“, though. Many parents have become LGBTI advocates after experiences such as these. The grief of losing a child is still losing a child, whether you accepted their gender or not. Certainly, they could have diminished the likelihood and reduced the family factor leading up to the loss of life, but suicide very often has multiple causations, as I know only too well. Family and faith were factors, but society, friends, and not being able to see any future happy outcome as male or female, also contributed.
Religious repression and Christian confusion
I can understand from personal experience that it takes time for family to come around to a name change, let along a gender change, and the accompanying pronouns, but Leelah’s parents were doubly burdened, it would seem, by their personal faith – they were Christians. Whilst there are some inclusive Christian groups out there, in the UK, for example, the Metropolitan Church, Changing Attitude, Greenbelt festival, there are even Accepting Evangelicals, many would regard a transgender Christian as an oxymoron. I experienced attempts to “pray away the gay“, exorcise the trans demon, heal and cure my “twisted” gender – as it was termed by a charismatic Christian healer, who was also an Ob/Gyn consultant.
I know it is hard, too, for believers to step away from the idea that since “God does not make mistakes“, gender is somehow fixed. I theologically tortured myself, repenting and repressing my gender dysphoric identity for decades. I prayed – when I believed, for God to take away the “curse” of being trans. I too tried suicide on more than one occasion. My psychiatrist called me “the most reluctant transsexual he’d ever met” because of my own religious repression.
I know people currently or previously involved in Christian reparative therapy, some willingly undergo it, only for them to revert to their true nature (trans or gay) later – sometimes called ex-ex-gay and ex-ex-trans. Neither ex-gay conversion therapy nor psychotherapies to prevent gender transition are endorsed by UK or US psychiatric and psychological professional bodies, eg. APA, AMA, APA, BACP, BPS, UKCP etc. It is hard to outlaw it completely if some people actively seek it. Many in those circles call it “unwanted same sex attraction”, the unwanted bit gives them pseudo-legitimacy to offer it. In Leelah’s case it was very definitely imposed, and an unwanted intervention.
“presumably … the conversion therapist assured them [the parents] that their therapy could “fix” their child and turn Leelah into the dutiful straight cisgender son they wanted. That the trans feelings could be “cured” … We have known for a long time that conversion therapy, whether it be aimed at changing gender identity or sexuality does not work. We also now know that if a trans person has stated the need to transition, and things are done to block them, there is a better than evens chance that they will try to kill themselves.”
Trans Suicide note left on Tumblr
“If you are reading this, it means that I have committed suicide and obviously failed to delete this post from my queue.”
“Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender. I could go into detail explaining why I feel that way, but this note is probably going to be lengthy enough as it is. To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally “boyish” things to try to fit in.
When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and 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. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.
My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.
When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart. The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn’t receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep.
I formed a sort of a “fuck you” attitude towards my parents and came out as gay at school, thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as trans it would be less of a shock. Although the reaction from my friends was positive, my parents were pissed. They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight christian boy, and that’s obviously not what I wanted.
So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.
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.
After a summer of having almost no friends plus the weight of having to think about college, save money for moving out, keep my grades up, go to church each week and feel like shit because everyone there is against everything I live for, I have decided I’ve had enough. 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. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say “it gets better” but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.
That’s the gist of it, that’s why I feel like killing myself. Sorry if that’s not a good enough reason for you, it’s good enough for me. As for my will, I want 100% of the things that I legally own to be sold and the money (plus my money in the bank) to be given to trans civil rights movements and support groups, I don’t give a shit which one. The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
Leelah’s feelings are both unique and somewhat typical. I resonate and empathise having experienced something similar. In my case it was my own Christian fundamentalism that kept me down, my Anglican parents were none the wiser, and unlike Leelah, I didn’t discover the word transgender till my 20s, even then, that was before social media and Internet support groups.
Transgender Suicide Stats
Her desire for her death to mean something, “to be counted”, not just as a statistic, but an individual life, that should not have been added to the toll of trans deaths by murder or suicide that is already way too high.
She remarked, and it is worth repeating:
“My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society.”
Transgender suicide stats are horrific. I co-spoke with a psychiatric medical director at an NHS seminar on “Gender, Sex and Mental Health” less than 2 weeks ago. Putting up a PowerPoint slide that reports trans young people as 8x more likely to attempt suicide than other teens, and that that figure is 48%, is enough – or at least should be, to stop an audience in its tracks, and for someone to cry “enough!”
The reality is that repeated surveys in the UK, US and Canada, show figures of 32-48% trying suicide to end their dysphoria and felt-rejection by family, partners and society. Up to 80% consider suicide but don’t act on it. In the UK alone, 30% of trans under the age of 26 had attempted suicide in the past 12 months.
The most recent US statistics were published earlier this year:
“The prevalence of suicide attempts among respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, is 41 percent, which vastly exceeds the 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population who report a lifetime suicide attempt, and is also higher than the 10-20 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide.”
News reporting of Trans stories
It has long been a bugbear of trans persons that many newspapers and websites will report a trans story using the wrong pronouns, focusing on tales and pictures of before and after, or erase our identities and histories in some other way.
Local news sites were still misgendering Leelah – if they even mentioned her female identity, and ignoring her social media suicide note, hours after people online had caught up with the facts. It seems both the family and media outlets were in denial about her being trans. The main local reporting on WCPO took nearly 2 days to post an editorial update after 3 stories had already aired about “Joshua’s accident”.
Editor’s note: WCPO.com posted an update to this story on Tuesday. The update connects Joshua Alcorn to a blog post by a “Leelah” Alcorn in which Leelah says she was transgender and committed suicide.
Positive political support came from Chris Seelbach, Cincinnati City Council’s first openly-gay elected politician, who wrote about Leelah on his Facebook page, re-shared some 16,000 times:
“Cincinnati led the country this past year as the first city in the mid-west to include transgender inclusive health benefits and we have included gender identity or expression as a protected class for many years….the truth is….it is still extremely difficult to be a transgender young person in this country.”
High School Memorial
As Joshua, Leelah’s former school offered a memorial and counselling advice. “Beloved Son, Brother, Friend – 1997-2014” was the inscription on the memorial meme. After complaints, it was removed but is still referenced here.
Some social media users created and circulated an alternate memorial of a “Beloved Daughter, Sister, Friend” instead, also citing Leelah’s last wishes.
Social Media Memorial
A Facebook community page “Justice for Leelah Alcorn” had garnered thousands of likes in just hours (over 41,000 now) and a sister page “Leelah’s Law” to end forced transgender conversion therapy, some 51,000+ attracting well over the 100,000 signatures requested for a Whitehouse petition. There is now a petition on Change.org which went from 3,000 signatures to 63,000 overnight with around 5,000 an hour signing it, and now some 345,000 (as at 28 February 2015).
Indeed, Facebook, Tumblr with tens of thousands of notes and reblogs, and Twitter were the primary sources of information, respect, and concern, these last 48 hours.
Of all the thousands of trans suicides worldwide each year it is Leelah’s that has struck a chord with people and reached the #1 trending topic on Twitter. Hopefully, enough to make a difference.
For all the flack social media gets it should be remembered that they can be a primary source of support for, especially young, trans people seeking help and advice. Leelah was forcibly deprived of access for months at a time, along with Christian therapy, to ween her off being trans, something that could not be done. Nonetheless, Leelah also realised that even social media friends may not be that deep, and with “hating herself” as she was and not seeing any future for herself as man or woman, she could not even be a friend to herself in her desperate isolation in the real, online , and her own internal worlds.
Public Memorials and Vigils
Various locations in Ohio, and elsewhere worldwide, are holding vigils to commemorate Leelah Alcorn, hundreds are set to go to each of them. Trafalgar Square in London, also hosted one on Saturday 3 January. Some of the pictures can be seen on the Facebook event wall.
Further photos can be seen on the Demotix photojournalism blog by Mark Kerrison which described the vigil as “poignant”.
Rowan Davis, one of the London vigil organisers, said of Leelah Alcorn that:
“Her death was a political death. When a member of our community is brutalised at the hands of oppression we must all fight back.”
The London vigil press release had four stated aims of the event:
- To remember a life cut so short by someone that shared our struggles, a girl killed by systemic transmisogyny.
- To remind people that her death was a political death, that when a member of our community is brutalised at the hands of oppression we must all fight back.
- A reminder to other folks that we are more than just individuals in this struggle, that as a community we are stronger and that we can create positive change.
- It is deeply saddening that Leelah’s parents are still refusing to give her the basic respect she deserves, even in death, and so the fourth purpose of this vigil is to do what they will not and mourn a sister.
My Chemical Romance – Musical Memorial
Ray Toro, former My Chemical Romance guitarist, has released “For The Lost and Brave“ and dedicated it to Leelah Alcorn. Reviews have described the simple poignant song as, “absolutely beautiful”, “giving assurance and comfort…really freaking good”, “perfectly articulate an alienated teenager’s perspective”.
Gamers and Computer Games Memorial
Computer gamers across the world worked during February 2015 to make “22 new trans-positive video games in honor of Leelah Alcorn”.
The coders and programmers used Leelah’s art and tumblr posts as inspiration, making games “character-driven games that subvert gender stereotypes .
A Lasting Memorial
The only true and lasting memorial would be if Leelah’s wishes in death were honoured, unlike her wishes in life. She wrote in her suicide note:
The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something.
This we can do. Can’t we? As families and individuals we can respect the human rights of a trans person to identify according to their felt-gender, preferred name, and requested pronouns. As Christians, churches, and other faiths, we can stop theological pathologisation of trans as somehow sinful – when in fact to be true to yourself is one of the highest forms of honesty and integrity.
Gender Identity Teaching in Primary School
As teachers, educators, and policy makers, we can make sure that “gender is taught in schools, the earlier the better”, something that I have been saying for years. I occasionally get to speak on gender in schools but never below the age of 15. Leelah was aware from 4 and convinced by 14.
Professor Stephen Whittle, OBE, should know as a trans man father of several kids, whom he and his wife and have been open about gender with. In a recent blog post he discussed how they had shared with even their 3 year old about gender being a best guess at birth subject to a child’s affirmation or change as they grow, it was simply and superbly put, and their other child’s response was “ok”:
“As the baby’s parents we make a guess – but it is only a guess. When the babies grow up, if it turns out to be the wrong guess, and either or both of them turn out to be boys, they will tell us. And then we can make the changes they would like us to make.”
Instead of only trying to eradicate homophobia and teach about homosexuality from puberty, given that gender identity is awake and aware from ages 3-8, gender “options” should be taught about earlier. I was aware by 5, yet had no language or option to discuss it and so closed up. Other studies have shown that the age of first gender realisations is 3-5, first transgender awareness on average around 7, and yet, coming out can take decades – that’s years of self-repression, often self-loathing, and, delays to and denials of being oneself – a basic human right, surely?
A basic human right that Leelah Alcorn was denied in life and in death, as she was buried and remembered by family under her male birth name in complete denial of her identity, though undeniable grief at her loss, in the main it seems due to their dogmatic evangelical faith.
If we don’t do something we will keep seeing more trans teen suicides. Indeed, in the 2 months after Leelah Alcorn took her life, at least 3 more US trans teens died from suicides and others tried but survived. These others have echoed the call for better and earlier gender education “about male and female and all the other genders”. Twitter campaigns via #HisNameWas… and #HerNameWas… have sought to affirm their names and gender in death as lasting memorials.