Over the past week or so I, like many people, have been reading about and getting to know Leelah Alcorn, the 17-year-old transgender girl from Ohio who killed herself by stepping into oncoming traffic on December 28, 2014. I have gone through her Tumblr, lazerprincess (now taken down but a back-up is available here), and seen her personal posts demanding to know when things will get better. I have reviewed news articles that persist on misgendering her and calling her by her legal name, Joshua. I have read her mother’s Facebook post announcing her death. I have done my amateur sleuthing and my amateur psychology work, and I have tried to understand her and what other transpeople face in America.
Leelah Alcorn was not a normal girl – at least, not what we’d like to think of as “normal.” She was not allowed to express herself through fashion and had to continue to wear “male” clothing. She was not allowed to attend public school and interact with her friends. She was, for a long time, not even allowed on social media and was given no way to reach out to the world around her. Her parents, instead of helping her figure out her identity and deal with her severe depression, forced her to undergo conversion therapy and told her “That’s how things are.” Instead of eagerly anticipating graduating from high school and planning her possible career and future, she dreaded every new day and chose to kill herself rather than continuing to suffer. In short, she lived a life of depravation, loneliness, and intense pain.*
Unfortunately, these exact same things – body image problems, controlling and unsupportive parents, transmisogyny, and stigmatization – also made Leelah a very normal girl. Most teenagers (and adults) suffer from body image problems, but transgender people face added criticisms about whether or not they “pass,” intrusive questions about their genitals, and accusations that they’re not a “real” man or woman. Many are also subjected to conversion therapy, like Leelah was, and become ostracized by their friends and family. As a result, many commit violence against themselves and attempt to take their own lives. In reality, what Leelah faced from her family as a transgender girl made her tragically normal.
Thousands of people around the country are upset, confused, and angry. Some have chosen to take it out on Leelah’s parents, Carla and Doug, by sending them hateful, angry messages. Over 200,000 have signed a change.org petition to ban conversion therapy. Numerous transgender adults have donned the hashtag #RealLiveTransAdult to let transyouth know that it does get better, that they do have options, and that trans adults do exist. Slowly but steadily news organizations are correctly gendering Leelah and casting condemnation on the people that won’t. While society may not yet be “fixed” in the way Leelah pleaded, at least America is starting to acknowledge the problems transpeople face and who is culpable in what one writer called a “quiet genocide.”
However, there are still at least two people who have yet to acknowledge that they did anything wrong: Leelah’s parents Carla and Doug Alcorn. To this day, they persist in calling Leelah “he” and insist that they loved her “unconditionally.” In a recent CNN interview, they spent more time defending their actions of pulling her from school and removing her from social media than they did in mourning her. Would it have hurt them to acknowledge that perhaps they hadn’t taken Leelah seriously enough when she’d come to them or that they may have overreacted in pulling her from social media? Would it have hurt them to begin acknowledging that they had false understanding of what Leelah wanted in life and what being transgender meant?
Some will say yes, that the grief these two parents felt was too strong for them to begin educating themselves about Leelah and transgender people, but that is, quite frankly, an excuse. While Carla and Doug may not have initially thought their daughter committed suicide or that she was truly struggling as a transgender youth, they know the truth now. They’ve had access to her suicide note, her Tumblr, and her Reddit account. They know who she was when she wasn’t trying to hide from their threats, shouts, and condemnation. Their hearts should be breaking from missed opportunities and miscommunications, and they should be doing whatever is in their power to try to make amends – starting with correctly gendering their child and acknowledging their mistakes.
I am sure that changing their minds and owning up to their guilt will not be an easy process, but it is a necessary one for themselves, their remaining children, Leelah, and the transgender community. It is also not an impossible task, as Linda Robertson of justbecausehebreathes.com showed us in February 2013 when she posted on Facebook:
“Now, when I think back on the fear that governed all my reactions during those first six years after Ryan told us he was gay, I cringe as I realize how foolish I was. I was afraid of all the wrong things. And I grieve, not only for my oldest son, who I will miss every day for the rest of my life, but for the mistakes I made. I grieve for what could have been, had we been walking by FAITH instead of by FEAR…
“We weep. We seek Heaven for grace and mercy and redemption as we try – not to get better but to be better. And we pray that God can somehow use our story to help other parents learn to truly love their children. Just because they breathe.”
I want Carla and Doug Alcorn to do better – now. Admitting that they don’t understand transgender people and referring to their daughter as “her” won’t bring Leelah back or erase the scars that transgender people have, but it will show that people can change. It will show that when a transgender girl stands screaming in the middle of a crowd, “You’ve hurt me! You’ve hurt me, and I want you to stop! I want things to get better!” someone will do something about it. It might even show all the other transgender children living in pain, fear, and depression that their situations can change and that they don’t have to take their own lives for things to get better. It will also make those two monsters seem human. God knows they aren’t right now.
* I would like to clarify a point: I am not calling Leelah abnormal, broken, wrong, etc. I am saying that the situation she was in – trapped in an unsupportive, terrifying family – is not what we consider the normal situation for a teenager to be in. As we all should know, there is nothing wrong with being transgender.
** I am not transgender, and I understand that I do not nor can ever fully understand a transgender person’s experiences and feelings. I am continuing to educate myself and learn from actual transgender people rather than well-meaning allies. An extremely helpful and well-written source is “The T-Word” by Emma Winsor Wood. This lengthy article features interviews by five transgender people who discuss how to create better media representations for transgender people. I highly recommend it.
*** For information about Trans Lifeline, a non-profit dedicated to the well being of transgender people that runs a suicide hotline, go here.