After the suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, Tara Hanneffy looks at how we are tragically reminded how the world still needs to move forward in learning acceptance.
On the 28th of December 2014, Leelah Alcorn died when she was hit by a truck shortly before 2:30am. Leelah was transgender, and she committed suicide because she felt that she would never be happy. She was struggling with depression and the fact that her parents did not support her in being transgender. Leelah left a suicide note on Tumblr. She wanted it to be found. In this note she told her story, alerting the world to the discrimination she faced from her parents and some members of her religious community. When announcing her child’s death, Carla Alcorn (Leelah’s mother), referred to Leelah using her birth name and pronouns, despite her child’s wishes to be recognised as female. Leelah’s parents are still refusing to acknowledge their child’s female identity. They have also had her account, including the suicide note, deleted from Tumblr.
First and foremost, it is important to recognise the significance of Leelah’s public suicide note. Leelah did not just want to die; she wanted to ensure that her death would “mean something” as she writes. Leelah wanted to tell the world that despite it being the 21st century, there is still a minority of people who cannot accept certain members of our society. Leelah scheduled the note to appear on her Tumblr account hours after her death. Almost immediately, it sparked an outrage across social media. People lashed out at Leelah’s parents, criticising them for bad parenting and for denying their child the right to live as she pleased. However, the point of Leelah’s note and subsequent death was not only for parents to realise the implications of not being supportive of their children. Leelah took her own life in the hope that one day the transgender community would be openly accepted in society. In her note she said that “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.”
Leelah’s death says a lot about our ‘modern’ society. It’s important to remember that Leelah’s parents were not the only people to disapprove of who she was. In her note she describes how she was taken to see biased Christian therapists, who told her that she was wrong, a sinner and that what she was experiencing was just a phase. Her mother told her “God doesn’t make mistakes.” There is so much wrong with that mentality. Before we are our religion, our race, our sexuality or our gender, we are human. We have all been given the gift of life, and the right to live it as we choose. Every person is born different. Ultimately, how a person lives their life is up to them, and nobody has the right to dictate that choice. Nevertheless sadly, it still happens. Carla Alcorn said that she loved her child unconditionally, but to love unconditionally is not good enough if you cannot accept who your child identifies as. She said that she did not accept Leelah’s (although she said Josh, Leelah’s given name) decision to come out as transgender ‘religiously.’ Leelah’s mother, in saying that her religion does not support transgender people, is making a very broad and controversial statement. There are members of the Christian community that support transgender people. The fact is Leelah’s parents cannot and should not use their religious beliefs as a method of masking their discriminatory attitudes. In 2015, there isn’t a lot of room for people who suffocate others with their religion.
Some might argue that parents may find it difficult to accept and come to terms with the fact that their child is not who they thought they were. Of course, one must take this into consideration, as it is a fair point. However, a parent is the principal influence in most people’s lives from a young age, and they owe their child the duty to allow them to develop and explore themselves. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie allow their child who was named a girl at birth to identify as a boy, and to be addressed as John. They have no problem with it. It is unlikely that John will grow up with conflicted views on who he is, and it is also unlikely that he will feel isolated in his society. A parent’s difficulty to deal with who their child is should not affect their ability to carry out their parental duties to be loving and supportive.
If Leelah Alcorn had received support from her parents, there’s a great chance she wouldn’t have died. In fact, if Leelah had received support from her parents, she wouldn’t have had to die. The sad fact is that it has taken the death of a bright, young teenager to highlight the discriminative attitudes that still exist within our society. Leelah died mainly because she lived a tormented life, but she also died so that other members of the transgender community don’t have to feel as she did. At the Golden Globes, Jill Soloway (creator of the television show Transparent) dedicated her award to Leelah Alcorn. It’s one of many victories to come for Leelah and the transgender community.
We, as a society, have a lot to learn from the death of Leelah and the controversy that followed. Leelah died because she felt that she couldn’t live as she wanted to. She felt that she couldn’t be the person she was meant to be. This shouldn’t be a problem in a society that claims to be educated and accepting. The entire world needs to work on acceptance. Nobody has any choice in how they are born. To be a member of the LGBT+ community is not a choice. Nobody chooses to be black or white, gay or straight. We are the way we are. You cannot tell anybody that they are ‘wrong’ because of how they feel. You cannot enforce religious beliefs on anyone. You cannot make anybody live a certain way. Leelah Alcorn died so that we could realise these things. Leelah Alcorn’s deaths highlights the biggest problem within our society: the fact that we cannot see past labels, and realise that ultimately, despite gender, race and other factors, all we are is human.