Justice for Leelah Alcorn

January 8, 2015

In her suicide note, a transgender teen who took her own life asked for her death to "mean something." Keegan O’Brien explains how we can best honor Leelah Alcorn.

"IF YOU are reading this, it means that I have committed suicide...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."

These painful words were written by Leelah Alcorn in a suicide note posted on her blog. Leelah was a transgender teenager from Ohio who took her own life in the early morning hours of December 28 by jumping in front of a tractor-trailer truck. She was only 17 years old.

When a young trans person commits suicide, it is rarely considered "newsworthy." However, increased attention toward trans issues and the presence of social media allowed Leelah's story to be picked up and put in a national spotlight, reigniting an urgently needed conversation about trans youth suicide and the issues surrounding it.

Like too many young trans people, Leelah was not accepted by her parents. Leelah explains the trauma she endured at the hands of her conservative Christian parents in her heartbreaking suicide note, and the isolation, depression and loneliness she suffered as a result.

Leelah Alcorn
Leelah Alcorn

Her parents rejected her when she came out; prohibited hormone therapy; sent her to a Christian counselor to undergo "conversion therapy," a barbaric and inhumane practice opposed by the United Nations Commission on Torture that aims to "cure" LGBT people; and isolated her socially from friends. The Alcorns' treatment of their daughter for being transgender is child abuse that contributed to her death.

Much of the response to Leelah's death has focused on her parents and their shameful inability to accept their daughter. Dan Savage, a gay writer and founder of the It Gets Better campaign, went so far as to advocate that the Alcorns be criminally prosecuted.

The Alcorns' treatment of their daughter for being transgender is despicable; they will have to live with the shame and guilt of knowing that they are, at least partially, responsible for her death. Activists are right to demand that the state consider parental rejection of a child for their gender identity or sexual orientation a serious form of abuse that requires swift intervention.

Imagine if, for example, instead of going to prison, the Alcorns were required to undergo extensive education, and speak to parents all around the country about the consequences of their actions and the importance of embracing trans youth. Only then could they begin to restore their humanity.

However, to leave the conversation there, without also identifying the myriad ways that the system is responsible for creating the conditions that lead to Leelah's death, leaves the biggest culprits off the hook. And that ultimately undermines our ability to address the conditions that lead to trans youth suicide, and to fight for the kind of structural changes required to end to these unacceptable tragedies.

LEELAH'S STORY is heartbreaking, but not unique. Trans youth suicide is a national epidemic. However, aside from the occasional news story or token speech, trans youth suicide is mostly ignored by politicians, the media and even mainstream LGBTQ organizations. According to Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey,

Transgender and gender non-conforming people face injustice at every turn: in childhood homes, in school systems that promise to shelter and educate, in harsh and exclusionary workplaces, at the grocery store, the hotel front desk, in doctors' offices and emergency rooms, before judges and at the hands of landlords, police officers, health care workers and other service providers.

The facts alone are staggering, and paint a picture of the bleak, painful reality that still characterizes the transgender experience for too many people: 41 percent of trans people have attempted suicide, compared to 1.6 percent of the general population; 78 percent report being harassed and bullied in school; and 57 percent experience significant family rejection. The report also notes that family rejection make trans people more vulnerable to mental health challenges, such as suicide, and economic hardships like homelessness and unemployment.

The Alcorns' transphobia didn't come out of nowhere. Discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming people is codified by the most powerful institutions in our society. No federal law exists prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression, and a majority of states still lack any kind of formal, legal protection for trans and gender non-conforming people. Second-class citizenship is the law of the land in the U.S.

As long as inequality and second-class status remain official policy, transgender and gender non-conforming people will be considered less than human, and discrimination and oppression acceptable. It's no surprise that in this context, bigoted parents like the Alcorns feel legitimated and emboldened in their reactionary beliefs.

Changing the beliefs of prejudiced parents, and preventing more from spawning in the future, starts with the political institutions that run this country recognizing transgender and gender non-conforming people as full human beings with equal rights under the law.

TRANS YOUTH suicide has been allowed to become an epidemic because the system, and the politicians who run it, have failed to meaningfully address the problem. The education system is a central reason for this criminal neglect and a primary institutional mechanism through which trans youth oppression is reproduced.

Schools are supposed to provide a safe and affirming environment for all students, including trans and gender non-conforming students. Instead, most fall painfully short.

Making schools empowering places for trans and gender non-conforming students could mean providing the services and programs which they currently lack, such as: an LGBTQ inclusive academic curriculum and sexual education program; anti-bullying courses and educational training on gender identity and transgender issues for faculty, staff and students; wraparound services such as on-site social workers, family counseling and connections to LGBTQ support groups; and ample funding to carry out all these programs effectively.

Many young trans and gender non-conforming people who are rejected by their families also turn to LGBTQ homeless shelters and social service programs for support. Unfortunately, they quickly realize that most of these programs--if they exist at all, which varies greatly depending on where they live--are often woefully underfunded and understaffed.

In the era of bipartisan support for austerity and endless budget cuts for just about everything except the military and police departments, public schools and social service programs for young LGBTQ people are being bled dry, schools and homeless shelters have been closed across the country and teachers and social workers in already understaffed schools and programs have been laid off. Young trans and gender non-conforming people--especially those like Leelah who are rejected by their families--are suffering the consequences.

Had Leelah been able to find support and affirmation through her school, or in a community-based support program for LGBTQ youth, to help mitigate the isolating effects of her family's rejection, it is very possible that she, and many other young trans and gender non-conforming people like her, would still be here today.

Leelah Alcorn didn't have to die; she is dead because our society continues to deny transgender and gender non-conforming people their basic humanity. She's dead because of institutionalized transphobia. It's not just Leelah's bigoted parents who are at fault, but the system and the politicians who manage it that need to be indicted and held accountable.

Nothing short of full equality and thoroughgoing structural changes will bring justice for Leelah and ensure no young trans or gender non-conforming person will feel compelled to end their own life.

It's tragic that these powerful words were written in Leelah's suicide note, but they show how thoughtful and brilliant a young women she was. We'd do well to heed her call:

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.

Further Reading

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