By Kerensa McElrath
This Christmas season was made perhaps a little more sombre by the suicide of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenage girl from Ohio, on December 28th. In a note posted to her Tumblr, Leelah described how her conservative Christian parents had refused to accept her identity or allow her to start living as a girl on the grounds that “God doesn’t make mistakes” and that she “would never truly be a girl.” She also described how they cut her off from school, her friends, and social media and sent her to conversion therapists in an attempt to “fix” her and to force her to live as the perfect heterosexual son that she wasn’t and could never be. It is very likely that her parents’ refusal to accept her identity contributed to her expressed belief that her life would not be worth living because she was transgender and her referenced self-hatred. Leelah also wrote in her suicide note that she felt that there was no way out of her situation, that she felt that she would never be able to be happy or satisfied with herself, her friends, or her life in general.
Reading Leelah’s suicide note (which has since been removed from Tumblr due to backlash from her parents) and seeing her anger and despair is heart wrenching, as it should be because her death was both tragic and unnecessary. And Leelah is not the only transgender person to ever choose to end her life; according to responses to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 78% of transgender individuals who experience violence or discrimination in response to their gender will attempt suicide. The attention that Leelah’s death has garnered has jump started a movement to outlaw conversion therapy, which is a form of reparative therapy that attempts to “cure” LGBTQIA individuals of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Conversion therapy increases depression, anxiety, and sometimes suicide ideation in its recipients, but is incapable of “curing” them. It is only outlawed in three states so far.
But Leelah’s death has implications beyond the negative effects of conversion therapy. The way we as a society think about gender is flawed. We are taught not to question the gender assigned to us at birth, and we are wary and uncomfortable with those who challenge society’s idea of a gender binary. At birth we are all assigned a Gender Box (TM), and we are expected to trim off extraneous pieces of ourselves to fit into it without ever even thinking. When someone rejects the readymade identity they’ve been assigned, or rejects the very concept of gender, or decides that their identity includes more than one gender, or that it shifts, or that they have a gender completely outside of the concepts of male or female, our societally-conditioned reaction is to distrust them rather than accept and support them. Out of the entire LGBTQIA community, transgender and nonbinary individuals are the ones that receive the least acceptance and acknowledgement. Isn’t it time to change that? Why try to police others’ identities when we can instead celebrate them?
Oh, and quick tip: When someone tells you what pronouns you use, you start using those pronouns. No, it’s not always easy. Nope, that’s not an excuse.
May Leelah Alcorn rest in peace, wherever she is.
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