Transgender suicide rates rise; make deaths ‘mean something’
On Dec. 28, a 17-year-old Ohio teen Leelah Alcorn committed suicide by vehicular impact when she stepped in front of a semi-trailer. She died instantly.
In the month since Alcorn’s death, media quietly exploded. Alcorn was transgender — assigned male at birth, but identifying as female. Before her death, she posted a suicide note on her Tumblr blog, explaining that her life wasn’t “worth living in” as a transgender teen with little support.
What resulted was a he-said, she-said debate, fueled by a Facebook post by Alcorn’s mother, Carla, in which she said Alcorn was “hit by a truck,” and incorrectly said her daughter was 16 years old. Most damningly, she referred to Alcorn by her birth name, Joshua. To say that’s a faux pas in the transgender community is a gross understatement.
Alcorn’s death hit the transgender community hard. It wasn’t shocking. It was very, very familiar.
Associate director of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program Guillermo De Los Reyes said that although five transgender people — who were also people of color — were killed last month as the result of hate crimes, we don’t know anything about them.
“We don’t value the lives of transgender people as a society. It’s not necessarily a problem in the transgender community, but we as a society don’t necessarily value the issues of people of color, the people who don’t have the privilege,” De Los Reyes said. “That’s why we think their lives are disposable. That’s something we really need to address as a society, address as a group … We need to stop the violence among members of our community, particularly people of color.”
A Washington State youth survey found that over 50 percent of transgender youth will attempt suicide at least once before they turn 20. Transgender youth are more at risk for abuse, violence, unemployment, drug use and mental illness.
The transgender community, and the greater LGBT community, is aware of this, but the rest of the population seems to be more or less ignorant. For many cisgender people – even those that aren’t straight – it’s easier to see transgender people, especially transgender women, as a boogeyman rather than a person.
The myth of the big, hairy man in a skirt in women’s bathrooms persists, even though such cases are virtually nonexistent. In fact, 70 percent of transgender people have been denied entrance to a bathroom or assaulted inside, according to a Williams Institute study.
In her suicide note, Alcorn said she wanted her death to mean something.
“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,” she said. “Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better.”
The community tried to oblige. On Feb. 2, a whitehouse.gov petition to ban conversation therapy just squeezed through with 114,637 signatures.
Alcorn’s parents sent her to a Christian therapist who tried to “convert” her into being a straight male — it didn’t work. The petition, called “Leelah’s Law,” said that such therapy is not just ineffective, but unethical.
Whitehouse.gov petitions only ensure Congressional representatives will acknowledge the petition, not actually pass any laws. It’s a big step for only a month, but it’s a step that — if it fails — might end up with the community back where it started: with a few half-hearted anti-discrimination laws and a paltry mention of their very existence in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address. It’s not enough.
“That sort of change is going to require a very long process,” said computer science junior Levi Dooley. “(Alcorn’s death) wasn’t that recent, but it’s recent enough that … as long as that is remembered, not only her, but also the countless other victims of that sort of bigotry are remembered and acknowledged, then perhaps we can start making a change as a society.”
Alcorn’s parents built up an image of a son, and it’s clear they loved that image. The problem was, like so many unsupportive parents of transgender children, their image was inaccurate.
They refused to show the acceptance that their daughter needed. The last pages of Alcorn’s Tumblr showed graphic images depicting suicide; she was clearly depressed, so much so that she would step in front of a semi-trailer in the early morning to escape.
Transgender teens like Alcorn are going to continue to seek suicide as a way to escape a world that doesn’t understand them, and that is not going to change any time soon. For many, the only place transgender people have is the punchline to a joke — a quick cut-away gag on late-night television — not as a community of real people worthy of discussion and protection.
Alcorn was not alone in wanting to change that, and her death cannot be the end of the discussion. Don’t stop talking about Leelah Alcorn. If you want people to remember her, remember what she wanted, and don’t stop fighting for transgender rights.
Opinion columnist Laura Gillespie is a print journalism junior and may be reached at [email protected]