Leelah Alcorn, a 17 year-old transgender teen from Kings Mills, OH, died by suicide early Sunday morning. But for local media in Ohio, Leelah doesn't exist at all. Joshua Alcorn, on the other hand, died in the roadway on I-71 in Warren County, OH, after being struck by a tractor trailer. No cause of death, no recognition of Leelah's true identity -- just the facts, ma'am.
Leelah wanted her voice to be heard. She left a suicide note, pre-scheduled to publish to her Tumblr account in the hours after her death. It was preceded by a series of three gory images that should have served as a warning sign for the dire crisis she was in. In the note, she discussed experiencing gender dysphoria from the age of 4, but having no language for it and doing "traditionally 'boyish' things to try to fit in."
She wrote of learning about gender identity, of taking her newfound discovery to her mother, and of being rejected. She was sent to Christian counselors. She rebelled by coming out as gay, thinking it might soften the blow of her transition. She was taken out of school and isolated from her friends.
She felt crushed by the rejection of her family, forced into a box she couldn't and didn't want to fit into. She saw no future in which she could be who she needed to be. She felt hopeless. She saw dying as her only option.
Leelah's death is tragic, but it's not unique.
Nearly 40,000 Americans die by suicide each year. It's difficult to break this number down for the LGBTQ population because the national data does not exist. But we do know this: according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, of 6,456 trans and gender non-confirming individuals surveyed, 41 percent reported a past suicide attempt -- a figure much higher than the 10-20 percent of adults who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual and also reported a past attempt. Per the survey, 57 percent of respondents who experienced familial rejection after coming out had attempted suicide.
Diego Sanchez, policy director of PFLAG National, told The Los Angeles Times, "This report punctuates what PFLAG families know is fundamental -- that there is life-saving merit, demonstrable value, and paramount need for family acceptance."
This is where most of Leelah's grievances seemed to lie, and she left us with a call to action:
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...
My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who [die by] suicide this year.
I want someone to look at that number and say, "That's fucked up," and fix it.
Social media users are posting thoughts and resources using #justiceforleelahalcorn, but where is the justice and what kind of justice are we hoping for? We lost the life of a young person who just wanted to be herself and be accepted for that. She wanted her body to match her heart and her mind. She wanted to be loved, unconditionally and without fail.
The only justice we can each ensure is in compassion: for Leelah; for her family; for those who struggle or have struggled with their gender identity; for those who never have and don't know how to understand; and for the many, many others who have fought to live in a world fraught with discrimination and who just couldn't do it anymore.
The truth of the matter is that someone in the U.S. dies by suicide every 15 minutes or so. We have to find a way to stop it. We have to find better ways of loving and accepting people and letting them know that they're loved and accepted. We have to educate people on how to identify the warning signs of depression and suicidal thinking, how to reach out, and how to find help. We have to build better resources for people struggling with these issues and ensure access to those resources.
And in order to get any of that done, we've got to start by changing the dialogue. We've got to stop focusing on the gory details of suicide and allow our grief, our rage, and our despair to propel us to find solutions. We've got to keep talking, learning, and taking initiative -- even after the headlines get lost in the noise of the 24/7 news cycle. That's how I'll do my part to find #justiceforleelahalcorn. I will not let her be silenced.
It is fucked up, Leelah. I want to help fix it.
Who's with me?
If you're feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach The Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you don't like the phone, check out Crisis Text Line. If you're not in the U.S., click here for information on crisis centers around the world. You can read the stories of people across the U.S. who have survived suicide attempts at Live Through This.
Update from blogger (12/31/2014): At the time of writing (between 9A.M. and 12P.M. EST), 8 brief pieces about Leelah's story had been published by local Ohio news media. All used Leelah's birth name, and all reported that she had been killed by a tractor trailer. No more information was given at the time.