If the tragic death of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn has taught us anything, it is the need for compassion, for empathy.
“My death needs to mean something,” she wrote in her achingly poignant suicide letter.
And it already has, raising awareness of the plight of transgender youth, who are at 41 percent greater risk for suicide. In her suicide note, the youth born as Joshua Alcorn wrote that she “felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body” and had felt that way ever since she was four years old.
Yet for all the outpouring of love and support from around the world, there have been two people for whom compassion has been sadly lacking: her parents.
Carla and Doug Alcorn of Kings Mills have been subjected to a social media whiplash ever since Leelah’s suicide note was time-released on Tumblr several hours after her death. The 17-year-old walked in front of a tractor-trailer at 2:22 a.m. Dec. 28 on I-71 in Warren County.
Her parents have been criticized, even condemned, by people who never met them. Threats forced the family to reschedule the teen’s funeral and to hold a private service. A family friend appeared on a Cincinnati television station to support them, her identity masked as if she were on a witness protection program.
Leelah’s suicide note implicitly blamed her parents for failing to accept her as she was. Her last words to her parents were harshly critical. “You can’t just control other people like that,” she wrote in her suicide note. “That’s messed up.”
It must be devastating if those are the last words you ever hear from your child. Imagine, then, having your child’s last words to you broadcast to the world at large and accepted as the whole truth of your family’s existence.
Imagine being judged as a parent by people who never even knew you – or your child. What parent among us would want to be judged by the angriest words our child ever wrote to us?
Shane Morgan, executive director of the advocacy group TransOhio, told CNN there has been an “unacceptable meanness” to some of the social media feeding frenzy. “At the end of the day these folks have lost a child and brothers and sisters have lost a sibling, and we need to remember that,” Morgan said.
There has been a bullying element to some of the responses – as if complete strangers have more ownership of Leelah’s life and legacy more than her grieving family. Her mother has been mocked for her Facebook post about the tragedy: “My sweet 16-year-old son went home to heaven this morning. He was out for an early stroll and was struck by a truck.”
This post has been ridiculed because Carla Alcorn didn’t acknowledge the death as a suicide. She was called “hypocritical.” Yet it is hardly unusual for families to publicly declare suicide as a cause of death; such matters are normally respected as private decisions.
She was condemned also for calling her child Joshua and referring to him as her son. “That mother still doesn’t get it!” came the chorus. Yet who are we to dictate what name to call the child they have raised from birth?
Carla Alcorn said in a CNN interview that she had never even heard the name Leelah before the suicide, and that her son had only spoken to her once about wanting to transition into a transgender female. She acknowledged, “We don’t support that, religiously,” but added, “but we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.”
The point isn’t what the bereaved family did right or wrong; the point is, “Where do we go from here, and what do we learn from this tragedy?” As Leelah pleaded in her suicide note, “Fix society.”
Transgender advocates believe that change will happen when people look beyond their misplaced anger at the parents and work toward promoting tolerance and understanding. “This is an eye-opening event for parents about how much the lack of support and acceptance hurts us,” said Morgan, who transitioned 15 years ago. “By the time we talk to our families, we have thought about it for a long time.”
Family members don’t have to fully understand transgender people in order to accept them, Morgan said: “My grandparents admitted that they didn’t understand it, but they loved me anyway.”
Morgan is troubled in some ways that this tragedy has generated so much international attention. Raising awareness can be positive, but he doesn’t want other transgender youth to believe that suicide is a way out. “She stepped out onto I-71 and THAT’S when people noticed,” he said. “It shouldn’t have to be that way.”
Morgan understands the hurt and the anger, he said, “but it really doesn’t do anything for anybody. We should use that emotional strength to redirect and promote education and support and outreach and engagement for youth.”
Concurred the Rev. Michael Castle, senior pastor at Harmony Creek Church in Kettering, “I could be mad at the parents, but they don’t need any more guilt.” Instead, he is angry at the cruel brand of theology that tells LGBT people there is something wrong with them: “Instead of saying, ‘God doesn’t accept you,’ why not ask, ‘Where is God in this person?’ Instead of trying to enforce what we think life must be, why not look at life as we find it and not as we wish it should be? That is where we find God.”
Castle believes that Leelah’s death already is making a difference: “It is waking people up to the harm being done in the name of religion. God wouldn’t want anything to do with rejection or hateful rhetoric.”
People who oppose rights for the LGBT community often are touted as defenders of family values. Yet again and again I see evidence of families who are hurt or destroyed by such intolerance.
There could hardly be a more tragic example than Leelah Alcorn.
She left this world so filled with despair that she wrote, “The life I would have lived isn’t worth living because I’m transgender.” She concluded, “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 human beings with valid feelings and human rights.”
She is so thoughtful, so articulate, you wish with all your heart she could still be with us, fighting for LGBT rights. Morgan noted, “I wish Leelah could be here to understand she didn’t have to die for her life to mean something.”
As Leelah hoped, her death has meant something to countless people all across the globe.
But her life could have meant so much more.
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