How do we respond to Leelah Alcorn’s death? – Reflections from a survivor

TRIGGER WARNINGS: depression, suicide, discrimination, reparative/conversion therapy.


“My death needs to mean something.”
– Leelah Alcorn

It’s taken me a while to come to terms with the death of Leelah Alcorn, a transgirl who got national attention after her suicide note autopublished to her tumblr account. There are many emotions to sort through, and I’ve spent the last few days ineffectively drowning in sadness and rage. I truly understand those who want to respond to this tragedy with violence. Leelah’s life was priceless, many more precious lives besides hers are destroyed every year, and even if the whole world burned down there’d be no justice.

There’s a lot on my mind.

For one, I live in the St. Louis area very much in the midst of the Ferguson protests, and I’ve seen both the bad and (more significantly) the good surrounding a similar civil rights issue.

More importantly, I’m a survivor of what Leelah went through. If it wasn’t for the grace of God, I’d be another unknown transgender fatality. Like Leelah, my parents didn’t take my coming out well. Like Leelah, they tried to control me. Like Leelah, I was sent to a reparative  therapist to “fix” me. And like Leelah, I was suicidal.

The difference between Leelah and I is that she had the courage to come out to herself sooner. My one saving grace was that I spent 20 years instead of 14 hating myself and trying to please everyone else. If I had the courage to come out when she did, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d be dead right now. It’s sobering for me to realize how fragile my life is; how the only difference between Leelah and I is her bravery, and for that she’s dead and I’m alive.

I was lucky: when I came out, I was old enough to be legally independent of my parents, and their control was only through my finances and education. My hell lasted a mere year, but during that year I contemplated suicide weekly. Like Leelah, my method of choice would have been stepping out in front of a car. One day in particular, the only reason I survived was I told God I’d kill myself unless someone intervened. Soon after that prayer, my friend Theophilia called me up out of the blue and said she had a spiritual sense I was in trouble! I have no doubt she saved my life. (Thank you, Theophilia <3)

Now I was inches from death after only a few months of reparative therapy during a fluke blackout in my social life, and Leelah had to endure years of it while having a social blackout enforced by her parents! It’s a wonder she survived as long as she did. What a strong girl.

What makes Leelah special is she wanted to change the world even as she left it behind. If I’d left this world when I wanted to, I’d be just another invisible victim of the transgender holocaust. In Leelah we have a name, a face, a person to mourn for. She’s more than a person who’s become a symbol; she’s a story that’s become incarnate in a person.

With that heavy background, here are some thoughts on Leelah’s death, and how we might respond:

1. It’s time to mourn Leelah’s death.

First and foremost, we need to remember Leelah on her own terms before her story is appropriated by a larger agenda. Leelah Alcorn was a beautiful, unrepeatable individual, and even though few of us knew her personally, her life has affected us nonetheless. We need to pray for her, honor her, and remember her as HER. There are so many transgender people who die similar deaths for similar reasons, but before we remember them we need to remember her.

2. It’s time for awareness.

Now that being said, Leelah is one of many lives snuffed out by a Christian culture that regards social normalcy more highly than love. I have no doubt that the statistics of transgender deaths and suicides don’t do any justice to the facts, since the majority of transgender people are repressed/suppressed and not available for a census. More than half of trans* people who are available for surveys (so only those who are out of the closet enough to be questioned) report attempting suicide at some point, almost always due to discrimination (Injustice at Every Turn, 2011). Every trans* person – Christian trans* especially – is the survivor of a spiritual genocide.

trans children

Christians need to wake up and realize how transgender people are being affected by this persecution. Leelah’s story, and others like hers, need to be at the forefront of the national conversation for this upcoming year. This isn’t an issue that needs to be debated or talked about, but one that needs to be seen and addressed NOW. No more deaths, period. Every life is precious, and no more girls like Leelah can die. Leelah’s death is bad enough, and every year countless others like her are added to the mass grave.

3. Christians cannot hold Leelah culpable for her own death.

From my own past, I know that my own escape from death isn’t a matter of moral choice, but pure grace and luck. Suicide isn’t necessarily a sign of mental illness; it’s often a human response to having what looks like no other option. When your family persecutes you, when your friends don’t know you, when psychologists and clergymen tell you you’re inherently evil, when you are robbed of health, hope in the future, identity, and self-expression; in short, when you have nothing, suicide seems like the reasonable next step. In cases like this, the finger that pulls the “suicidal” trigger is none other than society itself.

In my case, I was lucky enough to have a deeply personal relationship with Christ, and I believe this saved me on many occasions because when I truly had nothing, I at least had Christ. More specifically, what saved me was that I knew Christ not only through Christianity, but on His own terms as Christ the Person. If my relationship with Christ had been solely through the trappings of Christianity, I’d be dead, because Christians would have robbed me of God. When Christians hijack God’s word to justify their own hatred, then even God is taken from the oppressed. Left with nothing, not even God, it’s a miracle that so many transgender persons are still alive.

4. Reparative therapy needs to STOP.

Reparative therapy is like the ovens of Auschwitz, and like Auschwitz its real evil is the destruction of human souls. The mutilation of someone’s identity and dignity is the worst possible sin.

I don’t say this as an ideologue; I say it as a survivor. Granted, my reparative therapy was very tame compared to some, but even just the act of sitting across from a therapist every week, being invalidated and knowing this is where your parents want you to be, is incredibly traumatic.

There is to date NO evidence that reparative therapy works on transgender people. Even proponents of the autogynephilia theory of transsexuality, a theory that many Christian reparative therapists rely on, admit that a transgender identity does not change (citation coming soon).

Defenders of reparative therapy often cite the need for “free choice,” and that people have the right to seek out reparative therapy if they want to. The problem is that kids like Leelah don’t have a choice since these decisions are being made by their guardians. Since all evidence points to reparative therapy being inherently damaging (or at the very least potentially damaging, if you want to water down the truth), then at the very least it should be a commodity like smoking – only allowed by consenting legal adults at their own risk. Subjecting children to involuntary therapy constitutes torture.

5. Her parents need time and compassion.

I understand the anger at her parents, I really do, and it seems impossible to know how to react to their blockheadedness. On one hand they bear blame for their child’s death, but on the other hand they just lost a child!

Part of what has formed my opinion is my own relationship with my parents. My parents are similarly unaccepting, and I have no doubt that if I died tomorrow, they would hold a funeral under my masculine name and would mourn me as a son. And if people everywhere else called me “Anna,” I’m sure they would insist that these transgender activists didn’t really know their son. And the truth is, I would WANT people to protest my funeral if I was being remembered as the wrong person, and as sad as it is, I’d tell my parents that anyone who knows me as a girl named Anna, even if they’ve never met me, knows me better than they. Given what Leelah wrote in her letter, I believe she’d feel the same way.

On the other hand, knowing my own parents, I’m sure Mr. and Mrs. Alcorn are drowning in bewilderment and grief over this whole situation, and its hard to not feel compassion for them. I’ve no doubt that they thought their reaction to Leelah was out of love. Sure, unconsciously they probably acted out of fear of what the neighbors will think, and the desire to have a “perfect little Christian boy,” and these are undeniably selfish motives. But while true love doesn’t beget death, at the same time the Mr. and Mrs. Alcorns of my own life really tried (and are still trying) their absolute best to do the right thing. In all likelihood my parents will eventually come around to calling me Anna, but it might take decades. Similarly, Leelah’s parents are incapable of remembering their child as Leelah, a child they never knew, when they’re still mourning the loss of their son. Processing the death of the son they thought they knew, the daughter they never knew, and the child they raised is a lot to bear. So please, let’s show them some compassion.

This brings me to my next point.

6. Violence only begets violence.

Recently it was reported that Leelah’s funeral was cancelled due to unspecified threats against her parents. While I share in the same feelings of outrage as the blackmailers, I hold firm that the only proper response is peace. “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” Yes, we are fighting for our lives, but we’re also fighting for all transgender lives everywhere and into the future.

This war is won one heart at a time. The only way to change the world is to be the change. These sayings may be cliches, but they’re true. I’ve observed different kinds of protest here in St. Louis where people of color share our cry of “stop killing us!”, and I’ve gotten a peek at what works and what doesn’t. A looted 7-11 causes no change except that a minority 7-11 owner now doesn’t have a job. A peaceful protest that draws together people from every walk of life – that’s powerful. It brought down the British Empire in India, it brought down Communism in Poland, and it began the civil rights movements in America. Just practically speaking, the winning side is going to be the loving side.

Each and every transgender person is an ambassador to the world. We may be considered lepers, but even lepers can have the dignity of kings. As a therapist of mine once told me: “when you are faced with indignity, the only way to win is to respond with dignity.”

7. Spread our stories!

How, then, do we respond?

The powerful thing about Leelah’s story is the clarity with which she lays out her reasons for dying. Finally we have in writing the truth that every depressed transgender person already knows: that society pulls the trigger. As of yet the would-be detractors have been silent. Why? Because you can’t argue with the witness of a person’s life and death. Leelah’s death has stopped people in their tracks enough to want to listen and understand. If the world is willing to listen – a rare thing indeed – then we need to be willing to talk. And how do we do that? Let’s share the beauty

First, we need to share the loss of beauty: the shattered lives of wonderful people who’ve been done in by persecution. We need to spread stories like Leelahs and keep them in conversation so that the price of these battles – human lives – is kept in view. This isn’t a battle for cosmetic surgeries – it’s a battle for human souls.

Second, we need to share the triumphs of transgender people. For too long the world has thought of us as a bunch of decadent, dirty, promiscuous, crazy, ugly clowns. Dispelling these lies is as easy as showing the truth, but the truth still needs to be shown! The greatest argument for giving transgender people dignity is each and every transgender person who radiates their own dignity in the midst of adversity.

As we start a fresh new year, let’s resolve to make 2015 a year of dignity for trans* people, and let’s keep the dignity of Leelah Alcorn alive by not letting her be forgotten.

Leelah Alcorn, we love you! Rest in peace, dear sister, and may God wrap you in the embrace you were denied on Earth.

19 thoughts on “How do we respond to Leelah Alcorn’s death? – Reflections from a survivor

  1. Thank you for your post, esp. your compassion for her parents’ loss, while rightly holding them to account for their rigid religious approach lacking in openness to grace and awe at their child, whom God created as trans, with a destiny to fulfill in transition. Religion is not meant to be rigid, but always open in awe to what God is doing in our lives.

  2. Hi,
    …Katerina/Curtis P…. Heimberg. Just, another transgender person, who could not come out until she was 66, for reasons like Anna’s and reasons like Leelah’s.
    The one other great factor is that I am still a Catholic, and they have always been, against this action. That helped delaying my transition, until in every way imagainable to me, I am free of all opression.
    For me being free of all opressors, and really not having a choice as all homosexuals know and as all of us transgendered know, finally with zero options I started to do what is said to be correct. Transition. Instantly the worst of the horror was gone. Dysphoria. Later the horrors of humanity started to ebb. Haters who hate. God in my case had already showed me this was okay, but it still took me six more years to figure this out, due primarily to deceptive language used by those I went to for help. (Another story of fact.)
    God is the most interesting part of this, and maybe the reason I am writing, for had it not been for a rather Galileo moment of our present age, my parents might have helped me transition at age 5. You Christians in name only out there, and you Christians who are deceived by some of what you are told, if being transgendered or homosexual is really a Hell offense to God, then why precisely is he constantly in the lives of people like me, PERSONALLY, AND IN A POSITIVE WAY? Is he in the lives of others who are not reviled, not criticized, not in life and death moments? Do you see Him. Do you talk to Him? Does He talk to you?
    For too many of the transgendered and homosexual group to be normal that is their life. Why? It is because they have a difficult life.
    In my case, Christians and Catholics, why would God be involved with me if I am transgendered? He reviles that you say. So why is God in my life then, not telling me I am wrong but helping me. Jesus in His colors and energy were actually with me in my first psychology appointment. The entire Trinity, and Mary for you Catholics escorted me and had me greeted at the local Benidictine Abbey, just after I was prescribed treatment by the Government of The United States of America, for being transgendered. I am not the only one like this. Other transgendered Christians, and other Homosexual Christians I am certain have experiences like this. If God is for me and people like me, how can you be against me?
    …Katerina, the name God The Father called me one day, even though my birth certificate says Curtis, and male.

    I am seriously hurt by this type of event, even if is not for my group. I just feel the pain now of others before me, like the African Americans in the past century who were treated even by the churches, just like the transgendered are today.
    If God is for me, who can accurately be against me?

  3. Thank you so much for writing this. Personally, I find it very difficult to remain levelheaded while discussing gender within my Catholic community. Your thoughtfulness and compassion are unparalleled. THANK YOU for sharing your invaluable perspective. I look forward to passing it along.

  4. I’m a catholic priest and fully in sympathy. We must learn to listen to and value the experiences of others rather than talk about them, usually in ignorance.

  5. Hi Everyone,
    Tonight;; finally;;; I Cried;;;; just, for sweet beautiful Leelah.
    ….Katherine et. Al. and et al.

  6. My name is Jackson… I’m in RCIA. At my parish the priest and sister have welcomed me with open hearts. I came out to them as transgendered before I entered RCIA. Now here is where Gods love shines…. The sister at my parish here in southwest Missouri – a lone nun here in Bible Belt Springfield Missouri…. Actually has a nephew who recently transitioned…. Can you believe my luck? For all my adult life I’ve been called to become catholic BUT my fear of rejection kept me from proceeding… This year as I turned 50 (6 years living as a transmale) I decided to be brave and ask if I could enter RCIA and was told of course… I love my RCIA classes and they are the best part of my week. I’m blessed on many levels. My parents (father deceased 2/17/2014) are amazing. At 84 and 81 they love me. They have not rejected me… Do they struggle? Yes. But sheesh who wouldn’t? If I struggled then why can’t they? But in their struggle they never tossed me to the curb. They remained. I allowed them their grief. Their confusion. Crikes I have also had grief and confusion as I found and was able to express my dual male/female nature. So we must give each other room to process these revelations. I embrace the parents and the child in this scenario as both have suffered. All suffering requires compassion. I do NOT however condone the catechisms teaching on sexuality. In face I am deeply considering forgoing the Eucharist until the church quits labeling me and my LGB brothers and sisters as in a state of mortal sin and intrinsically disordered. How can such a beautiful faith have such (to borrow Anna’s word) BLOCKEHEADEDNESS?!!! Sadly it’s this very core belief that a Catholics child is in the state of mortal sin that freaks parents out to the point of dragging their kids to reparative therapy and other reactionary behavior. Until the church changes this belief many Catholic families will continue to inadvertently harm their children out of true fear for their souls…. They’ll justify any means, any method to save their child form MORTAL SIN… So while Leelahs parents seem like the perpetrators they too are victims of the DISORDERED thinking of my beautiful Catholic Church on these matters. Argh! So what do I as a newly forming Catholic do? How do I peacefully protest my church’s beliefs on these matters? The only thing I can thing of is to not take th Eucharist. Not because I do. It deserve it…. But rather as a spiritual fast of sorts. Because each day our LGBT brothers and sisters are bing fired form their jobs for partaking in the sacrament of marriage… While my priest will happily give me th Eucharist I am pretty sure the Bishop would not… Do I take this food and perhaps a state away or a country away my brothers and sisters are being denied this healing balm? I am at a crossroads in my journey. I’m praying. Please pray for my strength and wisdom and humility…. I’m not trying to create a scene or even be political by refusing the Eucharist. I respect my church I just do NOT agree with her… I do this for Leelah… I do this for my friend Ethan who’s parents return his mothers day and Father’s Day cards to him… I do this because I do not know what else to do to say “no” to my beloved church on these matters… I’m not ashamed of my dual male/female nature. I feel I am blessed by it…. Seriously. I thank God for this creative life he has given me… This unique experience. I have many many blessings. One of which is this blog… Thank you all for listening. Thanks Anna and others here for sharing your thoughts…

    Most sincerely

    • I’m so excited you found a home! I’ve been similarly blessed. There’s a Church a few blocks from my house that just so happens to be completely embracing of me and trans* people in general.

      I feel you on the frustrations with the Church’s teachings on sexuality. As a “loyal daughter of the church” I try to tow the line as best I can even when I don’t completely understand, but from a theological and scientific standpoint the gender and sex assumptions the Church uses to justify its teaching about LGBT issues are so flawed that I cannot bring myself to defend it on those issues. I’m currently struggling with what the proper response is. So far I’ve taken a page from St. Thomas More, who when forced to either speak out against his king or his church, chose to remain silent. Faced with the choice of accusing either my church or my lgbt brothers and sisters, thus far I’ve been silent. Wilfull silence can be its own form of protest (or so I tell myself), but while my conscience has problems with speaking out directly against any church teaching, it has even bigger problems with being silent while innocent people (like Leelah) literally die.

      All this is to say I’m happy for you, I feel your dilemma, and we should pray for each other!

    • Every blessing for you, Jackson, and your parents and parish…
      It is wrong to speak of a child being in a state of mortal sin. To be that s/he must freely chosse to do what s/he knows to be gravely wrong, five conditions! That cannot be inplied to any child. Prayers and love.

      • Do you take communion? I too think the church is 100000000% wrong in regard to its teachings on sexuality. However if I am understanding the catechism – it would appear that the church is more than happy to define what a mortal sin is… And by gosh I am very willingly transgender… I am also willfully refusing to aknowledge my sin (per the church) and I’m fully conscious of doing so… I’m just in a state of “what do I do”. I can take the Eucharist BUT I am out as transgender. When will the Bishop be told by some well intentioned parishner? Then the healing balm be withdrawn… Worse yet the priest and sister could get in trouble for being brave on my behalf? Argh…. Yet I stand back from my teeny tiny problem and observe the derth of suffering in the world and I say to myself “don’t worry Jackson. Hold your head high. Adhere to the churches teaching. But if anyone asks tell them the truth about why you have not fully joined the church. Continue to serve and love and the Eucharist will be yours in some form some how some way even after death…”

        • Thanks Jackson. My comment above came from my own fear whenever I see the expression ‘state of mortal sin’ applied to people or situations. Like Pope Francis, we need to say ‘who am I to judge?’. Children can never be in a state of mortal sin and my reading of the Catechism bears that out. The knowledge and choice I mentioned are to do with one’s own moral understanding. Again I find no reference in the Catechism to transgender. Knowledge and choice of who we are is honest, not sinful. There remains the word ‘disordered’ which needs to be explored, it is clearly unsatisfactory. Thank God it is the book of the Gospels that we venerate at Mass and not the Catechism! Stay close to Jesus and be confident. Like you I love my Catholic Church but as with family life it is not always comfortable.

        • I do take communion. It’s a distinct possibility that one day I’ll be refused communion, but it isn’t an inevitability. There’s no actual teaching on gender transition, so how the hierarchy reacts to a transgender person pretty much comes down to what any particular priest/bishop happens to believe on the issue. If I get unlucky and my particular bishop happens to be one who has a strong opinion on gender transition, then I’ll be in for a rough ride.

          If the Church ever comes out with a defined teaching that gender transition is immoral, I don’t know what I’ll do. It’s not even that I’d disagree with the Church as a matter of opinion, but that I COULDN’T agree with the Church as a matter of fact. My entire life would bear witness to their inaccuracy. It would be like an astronomer being asked to not only stop teaching heliocentrism, but to stop believing that astronomy is even a discipline of science. I hope that doesn’t ever happen because my brain would just fry from cognitive dissonance.

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