By Rob Watson
I will never forget the stunning image of Matthew Shepard’s hate crime. A young beautiful human was beaten, tortured and left for dead in an unthinkable violation. It shocked me when I saw the images, and I was not alone. Matthew’s fate left and indelible impression that has become part of our collective culture to this day.
This week, another tragedy, another life destroyed, left a similar impression — the death of Leelah Alcorn.
One of the publishers I work with sent me a quick message on New Years Eve. “You might want to write one of your ‘Gay Dad’ letters to the parents of this teen.” It was Leelah’s story. She was known to her family as “Joshua,” and she had killed herself. A pre-published letter appeared online. In the letter she eloquently explained why she was going to end her life in more emotional detail. While certainly many other young people had ended their lives before her, Leelah’s account of what she had endured was unprecedented.
In doing so, Leelah transformed from the latest tragedy to one that emblazed into the consciousness of a mass audience. Her plead to “make her death matter” resonated.
Many progressive bloggers felt moved to write about her including John Pavlovitz, Kathy Baldock, Jillian Page and Susan Cottrell. The evangelical Christian world was starkly quiet, issuing no statements of condolence, responsibility or regret for the environment it inspired. The Christian Post offered no mention of Leelah’s death at all even though it had been broadcast across all major media outlets in the country. Charisma News offered a single article by Michael Brown that called the situation “tragic” but instead of addressing a situation exacerbated by shortsighted Christian dogma, called for “time and energy into looking for the root causes of transgenderism.”
Without a stark image of a cross like fence on a cold crystal Wyoming plain, Leelah made an impression comparable to the crucified Matthew Shepard. She had become the image of the victim of transphobia as he had the victim of homophobic hate. In this case, her own testimony was the cross, and instead of a mother who would become the forward bearer of the message, her mother was cast as the villain.
Her story, as transgender activist Miriam Nadler tweeted, is tragically shared by many. “Cis people: please understand that the death of #LeelahAlcorn is not a statistical outlier. This story is common, cruel, and preventable.”
Susan Cottrell observed, “Yet another destroyed life over people’s ignorance and cruelty.There are no words to express the collective grief over this poor girl’s death, and anger at her parents’ misguided actions that drove her to it. Leelah’s parents made several mistakes and didn’t know it – or didn’t care.”
Author Dan Savage was even more direct, “We know that parental hostility & rejection doubles a queer kid’s already quadrupled risk of suicide—rejecting your queer kid is abuse, Leelah Alcorn’s parents threw her in front of that truck. They should be ashamed—but 1st they need to be shamed.”
Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey disagreed stating, “If you think the best, most effective possible action you can take to advance transgender rights is to harass the grieving mother of a recently deceased child, you lack imagination, humanity, any experience with grief, or some combination of the three.”
For her part, Leelah’s mother, Carla Alcorn, claimed to be ignorant of her child’s struggles. She told CNN that the transgender challenge was in a single conversation and it was not until after her child had died that she had even heard the name “Leelah.” “We don’t support that, religiously “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,” she added.
Leelah’s father Doug Alcorn wrote, “We love our son, Joshua, very much and are devastated by his death. We have no desire to enter into a political storm or debate with people who did not know him. We wish to grieve in private. We harbor no ill will towards anyone. … I simply do not wish our words to be used against us.”
Doug and Carla Alcorn plan to say goodbye to someone named Joshua. The rest of the world is mourning a vibrant young woman named Leelah.
For me, as a gay dad, I have complex feelings around this horror. Front of mind for me is that Leelah’s death, in all its devastation, not be held as an event to be emulated by other transgender teens in similar situations. We must collectively strive to shut down the bloodshed on all fronts. Second, I have written to, and about, worse parents. There are parents who have wished their children dead, violently attacked and killed them. The Alcorns are not one of those. As a dad, I cannot fathom the pain they must feel. I do not know how I could possibly survive the death of one of my children. It is a strength I don’t believe I possess.
The philosophy that Doug and Carla Alcorn labored under is culpable however. As my sons have approached their adolescence, guesswork on where their inner compasses are leading them has commenced. I strive to be there to support their emotional health as they find themselves through hormonal and social growth. I cannot imagine ignoring a deep-seated plea on their part due to my own allegiance to some set of dogmatic rules. Carla Alcorn did that, and still appears to be doing so.
A wave of concern has emerged over how Leelah will be buried, and what name and the gender will be used. Her family seems to be avoiding a memorial all together to avoid the inevitable protests of their actions.
From my perspective, the death of Leelah is bigger than a funeral. Her death is bigger than failed parenting. It is the result of both a religion-based culture that ignores science and a largely apathetic public on the issue of transgender dignity. She is the mark in the sand of our collective societal consciousness. Her death asks the question on human rights — at what point have we reached the breaking point in tolerating transphobic behavior that ruins young lives. Matthew Shepard’s death asked the same question about thousands of hate crimes that had preceded him.
The religious right has framed the conversation as one of “Religious Freedom”. Fear of infringing against their rhetoric, basic human rights violations have been quieted. We have reached the point where we have to ask whether some supposed adherence to these “religious freedoms” that allow for abuse needs to be compromised in order to achieve common human rights and respect for all.
Here is my requiem for Leelah:
To the lovely Leelah, and all the Leelahs in the shadows,
You feared that you could never be loved, and yet here we are. Your absence has broken our hearts. The love for you was in the world all along. It sat quiet, waiting.
In that regard, it failed you. You needed to know it was there, that it was possible. You needed to know that it was your legacy, and it was possible for it to come not from a million strangers mourning your loss, but right back in the gaze of a man, and loving friends who saw you as you were, and met the vision of you with adoration.
I know that was there for you. But you didn’t know it.
It was a love that said, Leelah, we are waiting for you to be you, your authentic self. Whether that self “passed” as a person who was born resembling a woman to your family, or as one who transitioned physically into one— it makes no difference. Beauty is not about cis-gendering, it is not about passing as someone else, it is about being the real person. You were that real person.
I have two 12 year old sons. I thrill as each becomes more and more who he is, every day. Should I falter in being there for them, if I screwed up my parenting and tried to shove them in some role or characterization, I would want the world to step in and correct me and make me allow them to be themselves. I wish someone had done so for your parents.
I am sad that we did not make you feel welcome. I am sad that we did not give you the hope to know your life could be wonderful. I am angry that we allowed the trepidation over infringing on someone’s dogmatic belief system kept us from reaching you and protecting the very basic human rights you demanded and deserved.
As you said goodbye to us, you let us know you had a voice. It was an important voice, and still is. It may have been the most important voice some of us had ever heard, and now, it is silenced.
You are right. Saying “it gets better” is not enough. We all need to be dedicated to making it better — now, and to cry that out. It will be better because we are insisting that changes be made. We cannot thrust our precious transgender brothers and sisters into the mercy of fate and a growing understanding. We need to bring that understanding to fruition as immediately as possible. We lost you while we warmed with the idea that equality was dawning, seemingly ignorant to the fact that pockets of hell still flourished in our patience.
You wanted your death to mean something. You wanted your death to be counted among the numbers of transgender casualties that are all too common.
I would deny you nothing, beautiful Leelah, except for these two requests. I cannot honor your death. It is an event that I wish with all my soul had not happened. I will not fold you into a horrific number that I want to see reduced, not increased.
It is your life that I will honor. It is your uniqueness and the uniqueness of all the others who today suffer as you did. I will fight that all those lives come out of the shadows and live and become powerful. You were not a number. They are not a number. You, they, are incredible and important human lives and I want to feel and experience your impact.
If another Leelah is reading these words, please know that I already respect you as one of the bravest on earth. I am in awe of the discovery you have made about yourself and offer my commitment to hold your hand as people understand who you are.
I am here to fight the hard fight—to make this world safe for you, worthwhile for you, available to you. I will not relinquish.
I will fight like hell. I need you, all the hidden Leelah’s to fight like hell too. We must end the option of transgender suicide. Get mad. Get vocal. Even get militant.
Don’t leave us. Your death stunned us. I can only imagine what your life would have done.
If you are a transgender person thinking about suicide, or if someone you know is, find worldwide resources at http://www.stop-homophobia.com/suicideprevention.htm . You can also reach the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. LGBT youth thinking about suicide can also reach out to the Trevor Project Lifeline (ages 24 or younger) at 866-488-7386.