On December 28, 2014, 18-year-old Leelah Alcorn died. To be fair, it’s inaccurate to pin her death on one specific date; it was a protracted and painful process, partially exacted by her devoutly religious parents on the child they called their son.
Leelah Alcorn was a transgender girl; she had been assigned “male” at birth, named Joshua and raised that way by her parents. When she first heard the term “transgender” at age 14, she said she “cried of happiness” at the discovery of a word that described how confused and frightened she had felt for over 10 years.
Three years later, in the early morning after Christmas, she completed suicide.
Leelah was raised in a conservative religious household in Ohio where her parents hoped, in Leelah’s words, to raise a “perfect straight little Christian boy.” When she came out to her parents, they refused to accept her identity. Leelah said in a note she left on her Tumblr that her parent-chosen therapists only exacerbated her depression: they told “me I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.”
Leelah’s Tumblr letter makes it clear that her death was at least partially symptomatic of so, so many problems surrounding gender and identity that we’re only beginning to confront in society. Leelah’s depression was exacerbated not only by hatred and fear from the people around her at the moment, but by her fear of facing a lifetime of it for being unable to “pass” — that is, appear conventionally feminine to suit her identity. Leelah’s parents forbade her from undergoing transition (hormonal and surgical alterations) before she was 18 (when she would legally be able to transition herself), at which point she said she feared it would be too late to pass.
“Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he was a woman or I live as an even lonelier woman who hates herself,” she said.
Transgender people — those whose gender differs from that assigned to them at birth — are among the most oppressed people alive today. The average lifespan for a trans woman is 30 years, their lives truncated either by murder or suicide. Trans Respect Versus Transphobia Worldwide (TVT), an international research project, reports that between January 1, 2008 and March 31, 2014, 1,509 transgender people were murdered for their identities.
But transphobia can be subtler—and more dangerous—than outright killings. Trigger warning: transphobic language in this paragraph. Transphobia manifests in media and conversation as jokes about “chicks with dicks,” negative portrayals of men in dresses on TV and in movies, dehumanizing language like “shemale” and “herm” and countless other microaggressions that make people afraid to be themselves. Afraid that the world will never accept them, feelings of fear and dysphoria (linguistically opposite euphoria—the feeling of disconnect associated with outward appearance mismatching one’s gender; sometimes likened to phantom limb syndrome) can lead to higher rates of depression.
One thing that’s important to clarify when discussing trans rights and transphobia is that trans people are not “trapped in the wrong body” or “born a boy/girl.” While this is not universal — the ultimate verdict of experience always falls to the identity declared by the person — for the most part, gender and biology have no bearing on one another. Hence the terms “DMAB” and “DFAB”: Designated Male/Female At Birth. This language asserts that a trans woman/man/etc. was never the gender everyone said they were — the doctors just got it wrong.
Even in death, Leelah was clear that she could find no peace. Following the news of her passing, Leelah’s parents called her their good son and buried her in a suit.