Leelah Alcorn: Rest In Power
Jess Connett considers the death of trans teenager Leelah Alcorn, and looks at what impact a supportive environment can have on your self-identity.
Your teenage years are where your sense of identity begins – fragile, growing from the ashes of childhood. You begin to form your own ideas, hopes and dreams. For Leelah Alcorn, growing up in a conservative Christian family and feeling ‘like a girl trapped in a boy’s body’, her dreams could not have been more different from what her parents imagined for their child. Their reaction, reports indicate, was to force her into submission: by cutting her off from her friends, then by employing a therapist to convince her that her desire to change gender was ‘selfish’. Leelah killed herself after Christmas. Her suicide note talks of being trapped – between what she truly wanted, and what her parents thought best.
In a statement to the media, Leelah’s mother seemed to refuse to accept that her child was transgender. Her statement – ‘I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy’ – is, I feel, the ultimate insult to Leelah’s memory. Even after she took her own life, aged just 17, the Alcorn family fail to respect her decisions and her lifestyle. They continue to label her as someone she no longer was. Dan Savage, an outspoken advocate of LGBTQ rights, has accused the family of abusing Leelah. He called for an ‘example to be made’ of Leelah’s parents and that they ought to be ‘shamed’ for their role in her death.
…parents refusing to support key decisions will have serious effects on wellbeing…
For a young person wrestling with their feelings, confused about things that sit outside society’s arbitrary projection of ‘normal’, or feeling low or suicidal, parents refusing to support key decisions will have serious effects on wellbeing. This was especially true for Leelah, who had no friendship network to rely on after her parents took away her phone, her computer, and all connection with the outside world. There is widespread evidence that family rejection, victimisation and the removal of social support networks directly, and negatively, affects mental health and wellbeing.
In Europe during the last five years, 90 trans people have been murdered, just because of their gender.
LGBTQ young people are a vulnerable social group. Research published by UK charity Metro in 2014 found that, of 7,000 queer 16-24-year-olds surveyed, over 50% had previously self-harmed, and almost 45% had considered suicide. A US report suggests that the attempted suicide rates for trans people are shockingly high. The reason is not that somehow being queer makes you miserable: it is that prejudice, hatred and victimisation is outrageously common, and incredibly damaging. In Europe during the last five years, 90 trans people have been murdered, just because of their gender.
Strong family units, where parents support the decisions of LGBTQ young people and respect their lifestyles, can protect against depression, substance abuse and suicidal feelings. This isn’t a revelation – psychologists have recognised it for decades. It is just easier said than done. Parents can cut the desperately high mental health and suicide rates amongst their LGBTQ children by supporting them. By loving them, regardless of who they love. By giving their child hope, and help to achieve what is right for them, not just most convenient to save family embarrassment.
Parents can cut the desperately high mental health and suicide rates amongst their LGBTQ children by supporting them.
‘People need to know that I loved him,’ was Carla Alcorn’s statement to the media. She loved the son she had given birth to, the boy she had raised. But he was no longer that person. If the family could have found it within themselves to love and support Leelah, the way that people tweeting #TransLivesMatter do, the way the 200,000 people on Tumblr who reblogged her suicide note have, the way the USA respects RuPaul and Laverne Cox – if the family could have seen that the problem was them, not Leelah, then they might have saved her. Instead, Carla Alcorn clung onto Josh, the ‘perfect little straight Christian boy’ he never wanted to be, and desperately hoped she loved him enough.