COMING OUT: Who Is Leelah Alcorn?
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.
— Leelah Alcorn’s final words, from a scheduled post after her death
In the first two parts of our Coming Out Series, we talked about how to be a supportive parent, how to react in tough conversations, and how difficult it is, especially for teens, to feel comfortable becoming who they truly are.
We’ve touched on the isolation one can feel, how some resort to self-medicating to cope with life’s challenges, conversion therapy, and the societal rejection they experience on a daily basis.
We explored the alarming statistics on suicide rates in the LGBTQ+ community and, this month, will share the story of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender female teen who has devestatingly become evidence of such statistics.
Leelah was a young woman from Ohio who, in 2016, walked in front of traffic on a busy highway. After being sent to a conversion camp by her parents, she couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and decided to take her own life. As adults, most of us have the perspective and life experience to know that the tough times eventually pass and we have the power to take control of difficult situations. If we don’t feel supported by the family we are born into, we can find a community or group of like-minded individuals for support and to know we’re not alone. However, many teens have not had the opportunity to figure that out.
Leelah was assigned male at birth. She was born to a seemingly average family. They attended church, loved their children, and tried to raise them according to their personal beliefs.
At fourteen, Leelah discovered what transgender meant, and everything fell into place. All the confusion she felt, all the years of trying to fit into a persona she wasn’t meant to be — it was finally over. She had found a way to become the woman she was meant to be.
When Leelah came out as transgender to her mother, it wasn’t met with love and acceptance, but rather with scorn. There was no gray area when it came to God’s word. By her mother’s standards, she was living an immoral life, confused, and needed to be sent away to learn how to be a “normal” boy again.
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 themself. That’s exactly what it did to me.
— Leelah Alcorn
It is estimated that roughly 20,000 LGBTQ+ adolescents, between the ages of 13 and 17, will be sent to conversion therapy before they turn 18. In these therapy sessions, they will be subjected to isolation, hormone treatments, and even electroshock therapy in an attempt to “cure” them.
If this isn’t horrifying enough, some individuals have even been subjected to electric shock to their genitals, while nausea-inducing drugs are administered. The United Nations Torture Committee has publicly recognized conversion therapy as a form of torture, while proponents continue in attempts to pass it off as a helpful and effective treatment.
As parents, it’s hard to even begin to imagine someone causing our children harm. Just thinking about it is enough to make one’s blood boil. It is unfathomable to know that there are parents who not only send their kids to these camps and therapies, but who actually pay someone to torture their child — all under the guise of “treatment.”
Leelah’s parents have made limited statements, however, those few statements spoke louder than any public announcement ever could. Even in death, her mother referred to her as her son.
“We don’t support that, religiously,” Alcorn’s mother told the media.
“But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.”
The backlash to follow Leelah’s death was significant. Hundreds, if not thousands of people wrote about it, Twitter was a firestorm of hashtags for the transgender community — but how has this affected change?
One of Leelah’s final statements was a call to arms.
“My death needs to mean something,” she wrote.
“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 f***ed up.’”
Leelah Alcorn’s Law
On January 3, 2015, a petition was posted to the White House’s website, urging the president to “to ban the practice known as ‘conversion therapy’ and name the bill in honor of Leelah Alcorn.” It closed with the required hundred thousand plus signatures.
“The overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm,” wrote Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
“As part of our dedication to protecting America’s youth, this Administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors.”
With that, the president threw his support behind efforts to enact a nationwide law — dubbed Leelah’s Law. Jarrett called the organizers of the petition in advance of the public announcement.
“I wanted to tell them directly,” she said.
That was in 2015. These efforts have not yet bred legislative results.
Transgender Rights In 2018
As of March 2018, 25 states require surgery as a prerequisite to change one’s gender marker on birth certificates. Those states are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virginia. The remaining states either change the birth certificate without proof of surgery or will not change the birth certificate at all.
As of June 2018, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, 19 jurisdictions (18 states plus Washington, D.C.) had adopted laws prohibiting discrimination against transgender individuals in employment, housing, and public accommodations.
Organizations, such as transequality.org, list rights that transgender people can review and use to help them during times of oppression — but the stark reality is that human rights, as indicated on paper, don’t always translate into the real world.
Everyday situations are often a cause for panic and anxiety in transgender individuals. For example, using the bathroom of the gender with which you identify, getting health insurance, showing one’s driver’s license in a bar, trading stories of humorous childhood antics — all of it can be triggering. How will this person react? Is this a safe space to speak freely and without judgement? Every interaction can be a challenge.
As parents, we shape our children’s view of the world, we teach them how to treat others, and themselves — and we show them what it means to be loved unconditionally.
We welcome them into the world and we promise to always be there to support them. Those words do not come with an asterix. If our kids don’t ascribe to the gender roles constructed for them, it isn’t their fault and shouldn’t be a problem. The real problem is expecting our children to conform to gender roles in the first place.
If Leelah’s death has shown us anything, it is that we have one choice to make. Either we can accept our children for who their beautiful souls truly are, or we can be stuck in our ways and face the harsh reality that we may never get a second chance to say we’re sorry.
All this considered, we’ll leave you with one request further from Leelah Alcorn.
“Fix society, please.”
Read the next instalment of this series here.