Adolescence is a wretched place—a charnel house chock full of freshly formed skeletons waiting to be shoved into closets and strange erogenous urgings that spring up at the most inappropriate moments. It is a time of kinky little hairs that never used to be there and dozens of little oily eruptions—Vesuvian ranges of whiteheads and blackheads that blossom across your forehead at the very moment you begin caring about your appearance. Your once straightforward childhood existence lies in tatters, turned overnight into a pubescent maelstrom of insecurities and hormones that attract drama and self-loathing to you like iron shavings to a Wooly Willie's mouth. Adolescence is when you need to fit in.
I repeat, adolescence is when you need to fit in.
Not want to fit in. NEED.You need to fit in. It is a biological imperative every bit as important as sleep and procreation. If Maslow wrote a teenage hierarchy of needs, “fitting in” would be down at that 1st level sitting beside food, water and shelter, because fitting in means acceptance and acceptance is everything. For a teenager, there is no greater currency in this world than the ability to walk into a room or a conversation and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you belong. More so than in any other part of your life, that sense of belonging is crucial in adolescence because that is the time when you begin to form your own identity and it is damn difficult to make that identity a positive one without a peer network that encourages and understands you. In the absence of this sort of support, your only real hope of making it into adulthood with your sense of self worth intact is to have a family that tries to accept you for the way you are.
Accept you for the way you are. By all accounts, Leelah Alcorn couldn't get many of her peers and her family to acknowledge her for who she was, much less accept her. Fitting in is hard enough for teens living a gender normative adolescence, but for a transgender girl like Leelah growing up in hyper-conservative confines of Warren County, Ohio(1), it was nearly impossible. At the age of 14, Leelah (who was born Joshua Ryan), learned what it meant to be transgender and wept with joy. Not that she hadn't always known that she was “a girl trapped in a boy's body” (she had known that since she was 4), but that she wasn't alone in feeling the way she did and wanting the things she wanted. There were other teens in the world just like her—teens who looked at their bodies in the mirror and watched their peers and heard their names being called and realized that the life they were living wasn't right, like every day the world was forcing them to put their left feet into right footed shoes and act like it didn't hurt. For the rest of her truncated adolescence Leelah tried everything in her power to convince her parents that she had been born with the wrong shoe on the wrong foot, that she wasn't “Joshua”, but it was to no avail. And so, on the morning of December 28th, Leelah Alcorn stepped in front of a tractor trailer on I-71 and took her life.
A photo of Leelah Alcorn taken from her Tumblr page.
The only reason that you or I or pretty much anyone else knows about Leelah Alcorn's story is because she had the prescience to queue up a suicide note on her Tumblr page that was posted after her death for all the world to see. Her death is tragic, but by no means unique. Statistics on suicides by transgender youth are hard to come by, but a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force back in 2010 showed that 41 percent of the 7,000 transgender people they surveyed had reported suicide attempts in the past. And, in what might be an even more telling statistic, a recent study has shown that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth that come from families that strongly reject their personal understanding of their sexuality are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their LGB peers who experience little or no family rejection.
Leelah's parents, who are devout Evangelical Christians, seem to have firmly entrenched themselves in the camp of the strong rejectors. Instead of listening to their daughter and learning to love her as she was, they plugged their ears and chalked their daughter's behaviors and feelings up to being “a phase”, refusing to pay for treatment that would medically transition her into womanhood. In fact—according to her suicide note—Leelah's parents went so far as to send her to “Christian therapists” who tried to reinforce the idea that Leelah was not and never would be a woman. After a while, her parents took Leelah out of school and away from what little support network she had, essentially quarantining her from the outside world and leaving her in an emotionally toxic environment where her depression and self-loathing could balloon to suicidal proportions.
In what amounts to a cruel, if potentially healing, irony, Leelah's suicide has garnered her the outpouring of support and acceptance that she always sought, only at a level infinitely grander than she could have imagined. Whereas in life she was unable to find a way to fit in and feel loved in her exurban Ohio home, in death she has built around herself a community that is international in its scope and potentially transformative in terms of its impact on young transgender men and woman all across the globe. In her suicide note, Leelah wrote, “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.”
And, while Leelah's wish for transgender equality may eventually come to fruition, it seems as if it would have to come against the wishes of her tragically tone deaf parents. One quick look at a post her mother made on her Facebook page says it all. "My sweet 16 year old son, Joshua Ryan Alcorn went home to heaven this morning.” she wrote. “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.” It's a lovely statement if you ignore the fact that she got her child's age (17, not 16) and gender (female, not male) wrong and if you're untethered far enough from reality to believe that teenagers take walks on the Interstate at 2:30 in the morning. It's also the sort of sentiment that reminds me of a little poem Phillip Larkin once wrote that I think Leelah could've identified with:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra just for you.
(1) Just as a sort of baseline metric, it might help to know that 69% of Warren County, OH voters cast their votes for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.