Early Sunday, 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn died after being hit by a tractor-trailer while walking along a stretch of Interstate 71 near her Ohio hometown.
The death was eventually ruled a suicide after a pair of social media posts, which the Kings Mill woman posted on the blogging site Tumblr, garnered notice and served as a flashpoint for transgender progress in 2014.
Alcorn’s suicide note, which she scheduled for posthumous posting, explained how she reached the breaking point: At 14, she came out to her parents as transgender, and they reacted by taking her to conversion therapy and cutting her off from social media. After protracted periods where she felt isolated and depressed, she wrote, “I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart.”
Alcorn’s passionate post, which talked about the despair she felt and her hopes for a more inclusive future, had been reposted nearly 200,000 times on Tumblr as of Wednesday morning.
In a subsequent note, Alcorn addressed her friends, with a particularly sharp rebuke to her parents. “You just can’t control people like that,” she said. “That’s messed up.” Shortly after her death, Alcorn’s mother Carla posted a short note to Facebook identifying Alcorn as “Joshua” (her name at birth) and with male pronouns; it has since been deleted and her account has been made private.
In the wake of Alcorn’s suicide note being made public, hashtags containing her name circulated widely on Twitter, as did more general-awareness ones like #protecttranskids.
The closing lines of Alcorn’s suicide note — “Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. .... Fix society. Please.” — are a sobering coda to a year where transgender issues were treated with more gravity than in years past.
“Orange Is The New Black” actress Laverne Cox and Against Me! lead singer Laura Jane Grace both took the pop-culture spotlight for their groundbreaking work, and their matter-of-fact presentation of themselves as transgender. But, writer Parker Marie Molloy told the Globe by e-mail, there’s still a long way to go as far as true acceptance.
“I’ve learned to be cautiously optimistic about these types of things,” said Molloy, a Chicago-based journalist who frequently writes about transgender issues. “For example, ‘The New York Times’ declared 2010 ‘The Year of the Transsexual.’ This year, ‘Time’ proclaimed that we’ve reached a ‘transgender tipping point.’... Declaring a ‘tipping point’ is great for raising trans awareness, but it makes it far too easy to ignore the struggles — such as healthcare discrimination, poverty, unemployment, and increased risk of becoming the victims of violent crimes.”
The formation of gender identity during adolescence is also one of those struggles, as Molloy notes and as Alcorn’s death illustrates.
“Trans kids need love and acceptance for who they are,” said Molloy. “A 2011 National Center for Transgender Equality/National LGBT Task Force study found that trans children who are rejected by their families are 60 percent more likely to attempt suicide at some point during their lives, compared to children who were welcomed with open arms and the type of unconditional love parents typically afford their children. “Simply put, the single most important resource a trans child can have is a loving parent(s).”
Alcorn’s Ohio hometown is approximately 25 miles northeast of Cincinnati, which this year made strides in being inclusive toward transgender individuals.
“While Cincinnati led the country this past year as the first city in the Midwest to include transgender-inclusive health benefits and we have included gender identity or expression as a protected class for many years,” Cincinnati City Council member Chris Seelbach wrote in a response to Alcorn’s death on Facebook, “the truth is ... it is still extremely difficult to be a transgender young person in this country. We have to do better.”