This week, we’re covering Leelah Alcorn who was an American transgender girl whose suicide attracted international attention. She was born on November 15th, 1997. Alcorn had posted a suicide note to her Tumblr blog, writing about societal standards affecting transgender people and expressing the hope in that blog posting that her death would create a dialogue about discrimination, abuse and lack of support for transgender people. I distinctly remembered this post when it hit social media, and was deeply moved by how expressive and eloquent Leelah was in her plea.
Assigned male at birth, she was given the name Joshua Alcorn and raised in Ohio by a family affiliated with the Churches of Christ movement. At age 14, she came out as transgender to her parents, Carla and Doug Alcorn, who refused to accept her female gender identity and expression. When she was 16, they denied her request to undergo transition treatment, instead sending her to a Christian-based conversion therapy camp with the intention of convincing her to reject her gender identity and accept her gender as assigned at birth. After she revealed her attraction toward males to her classmates, her parents removed her from school and revoked her access to social media. In her suicide note, Alcorn cited loneliness and alienation as key reasons for her decision to end her life and blamed her parents for causing these feelings. She committed suicide by walking out in front of oncoming traffic on the Interstate 71 highway.
Alcorn arranged for her suicide note to be posted online several hours after her death, and it soon attracted international attention across mainstream and social media outlets. LGBT rights activists called attention to the incident as evidence of the problems faced by transgender youth, while vigils were held in her memory in the United States and United Kingdom. Petitions were formed calling for the establishment of "Leelah's Law", a ban on conversion therapy in the U.S., which received a supportive response from United States 44th President Barack Obama. Within a year, the city of Cincinnati had criminalised conversion therapy. Alcorn's parents were criticized for misgendering Leelah in comments that they made to the media, while LGBT rights activist Dan Savage blamed them for their child's death with social media users subjecting them to harassment online. Ultimately, they defended their refusal to accept their own child's identity, and their use of conversion therapy, by pointing to their Christian values.
When Alcorn was announced male at birth, she was given the name Joshua Ryan Alcorn. She eventually rejected this forename, and in her suicide note signed herself "(Leelah) Josh Alcorn". She had several siblings in her family. Describing herself as being raised in a conservative Christian environment, she and her family attended the Northeast Church of Christ in Cincinnati, and had been featured in a profile of that church published in a 2011 article in The Christian Chronicle. As of 2014, the year Leelah took her own life, the family resided in Kings Mills, Ohio.
What follows is from Leelah’s suicide note:
“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 themselves. That's exactly what it did to me."
According to that note, Alcorn had felt "like a girl trapped in a boy's body" since she was four, and came to identify as a transgender girl from the age of fourteen, when she became aware of the term. After revealing her identity to her mother, she was sent to Christian conversion therapists, but Alcorn later related that here she only encountered "more Christians" telling her that she was "selfish and wrong" and "should look to God for help." Aged sixteen, she requested that she be allowed to undergo transition treatment, but was denied permission without further discussion: in her words, quote: "I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn't receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep."
That same year, Alcorn publicly revealed her attraction to males, as she believed that identifying as a gay male at that point would be a stepping stone to coming out as transgender at a later date. According to a childhood friend, Alcorn received a positive reception from many at Kings High School, although her parents were appalled. In Alcorn's words, quote: "They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight Christian boy, and that's obviously not what I wanted." They removed her from the school, and enrolled her as an eleventh grader at an online school, Ohio Virtual Academy.
According to Alcorn, her parents cut her off from the outside world for five months as they denied her access to social media and many forms of communication. She described this as a significant contributing factor towards her suicide. At the end of the school year, they returned her phone to her and allowed her to regain contact with her friends, although by this time – according to Alcorn – her relationship with many of them had become strained and she continued to feel isolated.
Two months prior to her death, Alcorn sought out help on the social media site Reddit, asking users whether the treatment perpetrated by her parents was considered child abuse. There, she revealed that while her parents had never physically assaulted her, they quote: “always talked to me in a very derogatory tone" and "would say things like 'You'll never be a real girl' or 'What're you going to do, fuck boys?' or 'God's going to send you straight to hell'. These all made me feel awful about myself, I was Christian at the time so I thought that God hated me and that I didn't deserve to be alive." Further, she explained, quote: "I tried my absolute hardest to live up to their standards and be a straight male, but eventually I realized that I hated religion and my parents." On Reddit, Alcorn also disclosed that she was prescribed increasing dosages of the anti-depressant Prozac. In concluding her Reddit post, she wrote, quote: "Please help me, I don't know what I should do and I can't take much more of this."
Alcorn's computer was recovered near the site of her suicide. It contained conversations showing that she had planned to jump off the bridge that crosses Interstate 71, days before the incident, but then contacted a crisis hotline and, as told to a friend, quote: "basically cried my eyes out for a couple of hours talking to a lady there". Everything leading up to the day she took her own life illustrates that this was a young person in a lot of pain, desperately seeking a path to relief.
Prior to her death on December 28, 2014, Alcorn had scheduled for her suicide note to be automatically posted on her Tumblr account at 5.30pm. In the note, she stated her intention to end her life, commenting:
“I have decided I've had enough. I'm never going to transition successfully, even when I move out. I'm never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I'm never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I'm never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I'm never going to find a man who loves me. I'm never going to be happy. 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. People say "it gets better" but that isn't true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse. That's the gist of it, that's why I feel like killing myself. Sorry if that's not a good enough reason for you, it's good enough for me.”
She expressed her wish that all of her possessions and money be donated to a transgender advocacy charity, and called for issues surrounding gender identity to be taught in schools, in the hopes of providing an easier path through education, to relief. The note ended with the statement:
Quote: "My death needs to mean something. 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 fucked up" and fix it. Fix society. Please."
A second post appeared shortly after; titled "Sorry", it featured an apology to her close friends and siblings for the trauma that her suicide would put them through, but also contained a message to her parents: quote: "Fuck you. You can't just control other people like that. That's messed up." An additional, handwritten suicide note reading quote "I've had enough" was found on her bed, but then thrown away by her mother after Ohio State Highway Patrol made a copy, as part of their investigation, opened immediately after her death.
In the early morning of December 28, police informed news sources that she had been walking southbound on Interstate 71 near Union Township when she was struck by a semi-trailer just before 2:30 am near the South Lebanon exit. She died at the scene. It is believed that Alcorn walked three to four miles from her parent’s house in Kings Mill, before being struck. Alcorn's body was transported to the Montgomery County coroner, where an autopsy was scheduled. The truck driver was uninjured in the incident.
Within 48 hours of the posting of her suicide note, it had attracted more than 82,000 views, and by the morning of December 31, it had been reposted on Tumblr 200,000 times. Writing for the Boston Globe, the reporter Maura Johnston described it as a "passionate post". The suicide note was later deleted after Alcorn's parents asked for it to be removed, and the blog was made inaccessible to the public. According to the family minister, the Alcorn family decided to hold the funeral privately after receiving threats. Alcorn's body was reportedly cremated, and the Ohio State Patrol completed their investigation into Alcorn's death on April 30, 2015, officially ruling it a suicide.
On the day of Leelah’s suicide, December 28th, but later that afternoon, Alcorn's mother, Carla Wood Alcorn, posted a public message on Facebook, stating: "My sweet 16-year-old son, Joshua Ryan Alcorn, went home to Heaven this morning. He was out for an early morning walk and was hit by a truck. Thank you for the messages and kindness and concern you have sent our way. Please continue to keep us in your prayers." Carla Alcorn's post was subsequently deleted, and her Facebook account was made private. The Alcorn family publicly requested that they be given privacy to grieve, in a statement issued by the Kings Local School District. In that statement, staff from Alcorn's former school, Kings High School, declared that "Joshua Alcorn was a sweet, talented, tender-hearted 17-year-old", adding that counselors would be made available to students affected by the incident. A moment of silence was held in Alcorn's memory before a Kings High basketball game on December 30.
Some of Alcorn's sympathizers publicly criticized the teen's mother for misgendering her daughter in the Facebook post announcing her death. Some individuals — termed quote "the Internet's self-appointed vigilantes" in The Washington Post article relaying Leelah’s struggle and eventual death— subsequently doxed and harassed Carla via her Facebook account in revenge for Leelah's death. Doxing is when one takes it upon themselves to publish personally identifiable information like an email address or your home address as a form of revenge. On Twitter, American gay rights activist Dan Savage argued that Alcorn's parents should be prosecuted for their role in bringing about their daughter's death, commenting that through their actions they quote "threw her in front of that truck". He cited the successful prosecution of Dharun [Da-ROON] Ravi following the suicide of Tyler Clementi as a legal precedent for such an action. We’ll be digging into Clementi’s story and subsequent legal case, in a forthcoming episode of the podcast. Savage added that legal action should also be brought against the conversion therapists who had counselled Leelah, and suggested that the Alcorns should lose custody of their other children.
Carla Alcorn responded to such criticism in an interview with CNN, stating quote "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." Although acknowledging that Leelah had requested transition surgery, Carla stated that she had never heard her child use the name "Leelah", before reiterating her refusal to accept her child's transgender status, adding quote: "We don't support that, religiously." She expressed concern that users of social media thought her to be a "horrible person", but defended her actions in dealing with her child, stating for example that she had banned internet access to prevent access to "inappropriate" things. She didn’t elaborate as to what those inappropriate things were.
In an email to Cincinnati-based channel WCPO-TV, Leelah's father Doug Alcorn wrote, quote "We love our son, Joshua, very much and are devastated by his death. We have no desire to enter into a political storm or debate with people who did not know him. We wish to grieve in private. We harbor no ill will toward anyone... I simply do not wish our words to be used against us."
Writing for Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams commented that quote "it would be cruel and inaccurate to suggest that Carla Alcorn did not love her child", but added that Carla's statement that she "loved him unconditionally" revealed "a tragic lack of understanding of the word 'unconditionally,' even in death." People magazine quoted Johanna Olson, Medical Director for the Center of Trans Youth Health and Development at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, as questioning: quote "Did Leelah's parents love her? Yes, I'm sure they did. Did they support her? No, they didn't. And that's a tragedy." Mara Keisling, the Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, was quoted as stating that the blaming of Alcorn's parents was unhelpful, adding, quote "Despite the great cultural and policy advances transgender people have made, there is still a lot of disrespect, discrimination and violence aimed at us. And being a child or a teenager of any kind today is very difficult."
Tributes, vigils, and activism
The day after Alcorn's suicide note was published online, Chris Seelbach, the first openly gay councilman on Cincinnati City Council, shared it as part of a Facebook message in which he stated that her death showed how hard it was to be transgender in the U.S. His post was shared over 4,700 times and increased public awareness of the incident. By December 30, Alcorn's death had attracted worldwide attention. News outlets across the world had picked up the story, and the hashtag #LeelahAlcorn had topped Twitter. According to British newspaper The Independent, the incident "triggered widespread anguish and raised a debate about the rights of transgender people", while the U.S.-based Boston Globe stated that it "served as a flashpoint for transgender progress in 2014".
On January 1, 2015, the Cincinnati-based LGBT rights group Support Marriage Equality Ohio hosted a vigil for Alcorn outside Kings High School. A candlelight vigil in Goodale Park, Columbus, was held on January 2 by a group called Stand Up 4 Leelah. A further vigil was organized by both The Diverse City Youth Chorus in partnership with the Cincinnati chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center for January 10. The vigil location at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center was moved to the Woodward Theater, to make way for a larger setting. The event was attended by over 500 people.
A January 3rd vigil was scheduled for Trafalgar Square in London; an organizer was quoted as saying that quote "[Alcorn's] death was a political death. When a member of our community is brutalised at the hands of oppression we must all fight back". Those who spoke at the event included politician Sarah Brown and novelist and poet Roz Kaveney. Marches were carried out in honor of Alcorn in both Northwest Washington, D.C., and Queen Street, Auckland, on January 10. The same day, a candlelight vigil was held in New York City's Columbus Circle. A memorial protest against conversion therapy and in memory of Alcorn took place in Lynchburg, Virginia, on January 24, 2015.
Among the transgender celebrities who publicly responded to the incident were Janet Mock, and Laverne Cox, while the musician Ray Toro released a song, "For The Lost And Brave", in dedication to Alcorn. Jill Soloway, the writer of television show Transparent, dedicated her Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series to Alcorn. During Diane Sawyer's interview with Caitlyn Jenner (then Bruce), which confirmed Jenner's transgender identity, Alcorn was mentioned by name and the message "Fix society. Please" was broadcast. In June 2015, the singer Miley Cyrus founded the Happy Hippie Foundation, an organization to raise awareness of homelessness and LGBT issues among young people, partly in response to Alcorn's death. To promote the organization, she released a new series of Backyard Sessions videos, the second of which, Dido's "No Freedom" was dedicated to Alcorn.
Carolyn Washburn, editor of the Ohio newspaper The Cincinnati Enquirer, stated that the incident quote "raises important issues we hope will prompt conversations in families throughout our region." Washburn had also received letters that derided the newspaper's use of Alcorn's chosen name in covering her death. When contacted by The Cincinnati Enquirer, Shane Morgan, the founder and chair of transgender advocate group TransOhio, stated that while 2014 witnessed gains for the trans rights movement, Alcorn's death illustrated how quote "trans people are still being victimized and still being disrespected", highlighting the high rate of transgender people who had been murdered that year. Since the incident, TransOhio received letters from parents of transgender children describing how Alcorn's death had affected them personally. Morgan stated that while he understood the anger directed toward Alcorn's parents, "there's no excuse for threats to the family."
Allison Woolbert, executive director of the Transgender Human Rights Institute, informed The Independent that Alcorn's case was "not unique"; the newspaper highlighted research from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that LGBT youth are about twice as likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual, cisgender teenagers. Newsweek similarly placed Alcorn's suicide within its wider context of transphobic discrimination, highlighting that the Youth Suicide Prevention Program reports that over 50 percent of transgender youths attempt suicide before the age of 20, and that the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs recently published a report indicating that 72 percent of LGBT homicide victims in 2013 were transgender women. Kevin Jennings of the Arcus Foundation, a charitable foundation focused on issues related to LGBT rights, social justice and conservation. In his view, she became "an international symbol of the ongoing challenges faced by LGBT youth", adding that her death quote "reminds us of a basic lesson still being taught to young people across America: When it comes to gender identity, it's best to be cisgender; and when it comes to sexual orientation, it's best to be straight."
Under the Twitter hashtag #RealLiveTransAdult, many transgender people posted encouraging tweets for their younger counterparts, while other hashtags, such as #ProtectTransKids, and the term "Rest in Power", also circulated on Twitter. A change.org petition was set up calling for Leelah's chosen name to be included on her gravestone, which gained over 80,000 signatures. On January 6, Adam Hoover of Marriage Equality Ohio remarked that, since the request of having Alcorn's chosen name on her gravestone seemed "like a slim possibility", they would be raising money for a permanent memorial arranged as a bench, tree and commemorative plaque. The Ohio Department of Transportation put up signs on the interchange of Interstate 71 South and Ohio State Route 48 in Warren County, where Alcorn died, to show that a group adopted that part of the road in memory of Alcorn.
A Facebook group called "Justice for Leelah Alcorn" was established, while a petition calling for "Leelah's Law", a ban on conversion therapy in the United States, was created by the Transgender Human Rights Institute to raise awareness of the psychologically harmful effects of such practices; by January 24 it had more than 330,000 signatures, and was named the fastest growing change.org petition of 2014. A second appeal demanding the enactment of "Leelah's Law" was posted to the We the People section of WhiteHouse.gov on January 3, 2015, which garnered more than 100,000 signatures as of January 30. In response to the petition, in April 2015 President Barack Obama called for the banning of conversion therapy for minors.
In December 2015, Cincinnati became the second U.S. city after Washington, D.C., to ban the practice of conversion therapy outright; council member Chris Seelbach cited Alcorn's suicide as an influence in the decision, stating that "She challenged us to make her death matter, and we're doing just that." Since then, New Jersey, California, Oregon, Illinois, Vermont, New Mexico, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Nevada have all legislatively banned conversion therapy. I’m also happy to report that the District of Columbia as well as 24 other cities outside of those listed states have also done the same.
What struck me as hugely important in Leelah’s story is the international press it precipitated, drawing much-needed attention to trans rights. Her death, as unnecessary as it was, ultimately spurred action and moved trans rights a little further down the field—her death was not in vain.