I want to scream at them. I want them to feel the full guilt of losing their child, of killing that child. And yet, I want to give them space to mourn the child I believe they loved, even if their love was fundamentally, devastatingly flawed. I want the pain to stop – not just Leelah’s but all trans children who find themselves desperate and despairing. Because Leelah’s story isn’t new. It isn’t even that original. And that’s what makes it so hard. How many more Leelah’s are out there, waiting to end their lives? How many Leelah’s does it take for change to happen?
In the early morning hours of December 28th, Leelah Alcorn stepped in front of a semi-truck on an Ohio Interstate and died by apparent suicide. Her suicide note was posted to her Tumblr account for the world to read (it has since been removed but you can read the gist of it here). It described her struggle to find acceptance for being transgender in her conservative Christian family. She was 17 years old. She claimed to have understood she was trans when she was 14. Her parents sent her to therapists in the hopes of “curing” her. They sent her to a psychiatrist who fed her Prozac to treat her depression. They removed her from school and cut her off from social media in an attempt to limit her exposure to “bad” influences.
What none of these adults could bring themselves to do, was to love this child for the girl she wanted to be, openly and publicly. Instead her parents loved her for the boy they believed they were entitled to.
The Christian community she belonged to called Leelah “selfish and wrong” and told her to turn to God for answers. In her words:
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.
What we have here is failure of love on so many levels. Caretakers who should have been there to help her develop her own identity, let her down. Instead they suffocated the life out of her until death seemed more meaningful than life itself.
Leelah’s suicide hits a nerve.
Like 41% of trans people, I am myself a suicide attempt survivor. Unlike Leelah I was assigned female at birth and later transitioned to male. But like her my family held conservative Christian values. I grew up listening to my father call AIDS God’s way of punishing homosexuality. My mother policed who I played with at school; lesbians were out of bounds. By the age of 12 I was thoroughly depressed and contemplating suicide. By 16, my father – a psychiatrist himself – placed me on Paxil, an SSRI similar to Prozac. By the age of 21 I was consuming an even heavier concoction of psychiatric medications including Zyprexa, Wellbutrin, Effexor, and Lorazepam. I attempted to kill myself. I was briefly hospitalized.
By 24 I had come to the following conclusion: either I live my life alone and miserable, as the woman my family wanted me to be but that I felt wasn’t me, or I needed to transition to male and let the chips fall where they may. The thought of transitioning all on my own was terrifying – but marginally less terrifying than losing consciousness and dying. So I was assessed for hormone treatment and began testosterone injections. I cannot describe the relief that I felt once the transition was set in motion.
Transition doesn’t solve all your problems. Whatever traumas we carry with us do not suddenly evaporate when we begin to live as our authentic selves. And once we give ourselves permission to be as we are, we must still deal with the bigots and hate mongers who feel entitled to define us. But my burgeoning identity gave me enough hope, enough faith in my own validity, in my own value as a human being, that I started to want to live again. I imagine it would have done the same for Leelah, had she gotten that far. Had she not lost hope too early. Had she had the right supports in place.
Leelah complained that the “It Gets Better” movement, popularized by sex columnist Dan Savage, didn’t apply to her. For her, things just seemed to get worse. How much worse must things get before we stop torturing our children for being different from the norm?
I don’t believe Leelah’s parents purposefully tried to hurt their child. But they clearly didn’t know how to help her and turned to a flawed dogma to guide them. The people they reached out to for help, failed them. And while I sympathize with their grief, my sympathy is muted.
Because there is work to do, for the hidden Leelah’s scattered all over the globe – past and present. Some getting beaten to death because of who they are. Some beating themselves up night after night as they try to make sense of who they are. I feel a primal cry rise up in me like a volcano and I just want to scream and scream.
Too many trans children are forced to fight invisible wars within themselves because they lack the support they need to realize that their lives are meaningful and valuable. No one should have to die for being trans. Parents, lawmakers, doctors, therapists and the public need to shake off their collective apathy. We need our children to learn the true meaning of love.
And they need to learn it now.
Trans Teen Dies by Suicide, Leaves Tumblr Note: ‘There’s No Way Out’
Transgender teen who died of an apparent suicide: ‘Fix society. Please.’
High Suicide Risk, Prejudice Plague Transgender People
Canadian crisis hotline set up to help shunned transgender youth
It Gets Better project