After Trans Teen Leelah Alcorn’s Suicide, We All Must Do Better

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As the year ended, folks including me were applauding a burgeoning transgender acceptance in the media, with Time magazine is devoting a cover to the “transgender tipping point,” Janet Mock landing an MSNBC show, and TV hounds devouring Jill Soloway’s Transparent.

But over the holidays, the public suicide note of Ohio teen Leelah Alcorn, published to Tumblr after her death, was a horrifying and sobering reminder that for many trans people, everyday life is a gauntlet, and a perilous one at that. Alcorn’s stark series of posts went viral and spawned hundred of news stories. Without any sort of acceptance from her religious parents (they mis-gendered her and called her “he” even after her death) and convinced that she wouldn’t be able to successfully transition, Alcorn described her despair vividly, telling her parents “fuck you,” begging readers to fix society and make her death matter.

Since her death, the impulse of onlookers has understandably been to rage against her parents. There’s no universe in which they seem like understanding, or even good, people, without culpability in their daughter’s depression. The tempting reaction is castigate them, and all parents who isolate and stigmatize their own children, to stare and stare into the ugly contours of this particularly infuriating, and bitterly sad story. Some have called for the Christian therapists and parents of Alcorn to be prosecuted for abuse.

It’s hard to disagree with Savage on the merits of this case. Yet the world will never stop producing of awful, negligent, and even cruel parents. As a journalist, I’ve interviewed supportive trans families about their kids’ journeys, and I can only say that even if parents are 100% behind a child’s transition and embrace his or her true gender identity, the family has a hard road to walk at school and the transgender person has a hard road to walk throughout life, thanks to the rest of us. External violence stalks trans people, particularly trans women of color. And self-harm is alarmingly common in the community. There are many degrees of acceptance. Just read this story about a Texas dad who says he was (slowly) on the way to repairing his relationship with his trans daughter last year when she killed herself.

DeChiara, speaking publicly about his daughter’s death for the first time with the Observer, acknowledged he wasn’t always so comfortable with the idea that Alex was trans. When she began to come to terms with her gender identity in middle school, she discussed it with her mom but grew distant from him. “What Alex didn’t realize was that, just because I don’t understand, doesn’t mean I can’t accept,” he said. “I didn’t understand. … It took me a while to come around.” DeChiara said his relationship with his daughter had improved somewhat prior to her death, but other problems — depression, bullying and isolation — proved insurmountable.

Leelah Alcorn’s family may have been in denial, but the DeChiaras are likely a family that needed resources very badly, and could have done better by their daughter with help. Awesome trans* characters on streaming TV networks are starting to change our climate, but they are not magic wands which make bullying, bigotry, fear and ignorance go away. We still live in a deeply transphobic (and homophobic, and misogynist, and gender-regulated) society, in which half of openly trans people will attempt suicide. We are part of the society.

So rather than merely staring and gawking and poking at this particular family’s tragedy (which is one of many of its kind), I recommend we all add something positive to the outcome, and begin actively spreading a message of respect and love for trans* people, and in particular the knowledge that in every region of this country, there is help to be found, there are resources for trans kids and their families, and there are communities that strive to be welcoming. As Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote about her child’s middle school:

So in sixth grade, the class – including the teachers — referred to the student as “he.” Now they all refer to her as “she.” It’s not a big deal. It’s not hard. Fourteen-year-olds can figure it out, and we’re talking about a population that as a whole, can’t figure out how to put its socks in a laundry basket.

Sometimes kids can be more understanding than grown-ups.

For those who are truly alone, hotlines — including the brand-new Trans Lifeline, the Trevor Hotline and many others — aim to prevent tragedies. For kids and families, transgender camps, educator trainings and retreats could use our support, financially and vocally.

Beyond this, there remains a need for stories about trans people living real and long lives. So the media sea-change this year certainly isn’t in vain. It’s our job to turn to the people in our lives who may not fully understand trans identity — at the risk of discomfort for all of us — and tell them how we feel. We should remind them of the consequences of silence, and urge them to speak up, too.

Trans Lifeline:

The Trevor Project: Get Help Now.

  • (866-488-7386)