A couple of weeks ago, Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl, walked in front of a tractor-trailer on an Ohio interstate in the middle of the night. She left behind a prescheduled-to-post suicide note on her Tumblr page (which has since been deleted, presumably by her family) that explained in explicit detail the abuse she had experienced at the hands of her parents. They denied her identity; met her coming-out by removing her from public school, taking away her cell phone, Internet, and social media access; refused to allow her to see friends; and insisted that she receive mental health "counseling" from Christian therapists who told her she didn't exist, that she needed to be a boy, a straight boy.
I don't think I will ever forget how it felt to be surrounded by adults who told 17-year-old me that I was "wrong" and that the most important thing was that I be "normal." These adults were the usual suspects -- my mother, the adult friends I spent six months living with after I ran away from home -- but most disturbingly, I was told I was wrong by the adults put in place by the system to protect me. My "victim's advocate" assigned to me by the court after my mother pled guilty to felony assault, explicitly blamed me for the violence in childhood home. I still have copies of her official opinion that I should be good and listen to my mom and not cause her so much stress (by coming out). She said I should be "normal" so that I could go "home." I got away. I found a community of queer adults and other homeless queer youth who built community and family with me. Even today, nearly 15 years later, queer youth are being told the same damaging messages about themselves that I heard, and those words are killing them.
Since Leelah's death, many (myself included) have taken to Twitter and Facebook and demanded that Leelah's parents (who show no remorse for their actions appearing in the media referring to Leelah by her government name, and with male pronouns) face prosecution on child abuse charges. Although I would like to see justice for Leelah and believe that her parents are guilty of her murder, I don't think making an example of them in the criminal justice system will make any systemic difference in the lives of the thousands of vulnerable transgender youth who are in need of support. I believe our resources and efforts would best be spent doing what Leelah asked of us, to make a better world for Transgender youth, so that no one else will feel as hopeless and isolated as she felt.
At the time of publication there is a petition on Change.org with over 300,000 signatures, demanding that Leelah's Law, banning transgender conversation therapy, be enacted. Currently only California and New Jersey have laws that banning "reparative therapy" for minors, meaning that in 48 states across the country gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth can legally be subjected to dangerous and damaging conversion programs. We need to do better, our youth deserve the right to grow up free from persecution by pastors playing therapist.
For LGBTQ people, our parents are often the enemy. This is particularly true for LGBTQ youth, who are generally legally dependent upon their abusers for food, shelter, and other basic needs. Domestic violence survivors and advocates have done incredible work educating about how damaging and dangerous it is to encourage survivors to maintain relationships with or stay living with their abusers, it's past time for us to share the same messages about LGBTQ youth and abusive parents. It has been refreshing amid the sadness of the last week, to hear queer activists and advocates publicly acknowledge that parents are the problem and not the answer, and that transgender youth should be removed from homes where they are unsafe due to unaccepting and abusive parents. But where will they go?
In October, Leelah posted in the online forum Reddit asking the community if what her parents were doing to her was abuse, and she posted again on Christmas about how she feared that if she wore a dress, she would be kicked out of the home. If we are going to heed Leelah's powerful last wish, to make the world safer, it's not enough to ban reparative therapy, and to say that transgender youth should be removed from unaccepting homes. We must center the experiences of transgender youth who have run away or been throwaway, and we must fund the organizations providing direct services to those youth. It is impossible for us to truly understand Leelah's suicide, the dangers of reparative therapy on the lives of LGBTQ youth, unless we understand the intersectionality of child/adolescent abuse, reparative therapy, dysfunctional foster care systems where LGBTQ youth aren't safe, and the epidemic of LGBTQ youth homelessness. It is one thing for us to demand that transgender youth be removed from unaccepting and abusive homes, it's another to provide the services they need not only to survive, but to thrive.
Today it's 9 degrees in New York City, where, according to
a study by the Center for American Progress, the average age a transgender youth becomes homeless is 13.5 years old. The streets are dangerously cold tonight, and yet with 3,800 homeless youth we only have 250 youth shelter beds. You don't have to be good at math to know those numbers don't add up to a warm bed for all the youth who need one. As dire as the situation in New York is, we must remember that 40 percent of all homeless youth across the country identify as LGBTQ. LGBTQ youth homelessness is not just a problem in large urban environments. Although LGBTQ youth run away and are pushed out of homes in every region in this country, many cities and communities (like the county I'm from) don't have any youth shelter beds, let alone any that are culturally appropriate for LGBTQ youth. I'm not very familiar with Ohio specifically, but my Internet searches tell me that Leelah was one to three hours away from the closest LGBTQ youth program.
It is not enough to ban conversion therapy and to pay lip service by saying that transgender youth shouldn't live in homes where they are abused. We must open our hearts, our homes, and our wallets. We must work in partnership with youth to create LGBTQ youth centered programs that will care for them, and we ourselves must care about them too -- while they are still alive. We cannot go back in time and save Leelah, but we can work to improve the lives of the thousands of transgender youth like her. We can listen to their stories, we can help them to build the lives that they want and deserve. We must make Leelah's final haunting words were a heartbreaking call to action:
"My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say, 'that's fucked up' and fix it. Fix society. Please." -- Leelah Alcorn
SASSAFRAS LOWREY is a straightedge queer punk who grew up to become the 2013 winner of the Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award. Hir books -- Kicked Out, Roving Pack, and Leather Ever After -- have been honored by organizations ranging from the National Leather Association to the American Library Association. Her next novel, Lost Boi, will be released by Arsenal Pulp Press in the spring. Sassafras lives and writes in Brooklyn with hir partner and five furry beasts. SassafrasLowrey.com