THE BLOG
01/13/2015 10:51 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Leelah's Legacy Needs Help: A Trans Woman's Call to Arms for the Absolute Right to Exist in Serenity and Safety

shaunl via Getty Images

This is not a culture war. It's a physical and social war for survival, and we need reinforcements.

We may be reaching the transgender tipping point; however, following a tipping over comes the spill. The mix of silence and literally homicidal aggression that we're seeing all over the country shows how incredibly far we still have to go. If the escalated violence that we've experienced since the suicide of young trans girl Leelah Alcorn is any indication, things are going to continue getting worse before they get systematically better for trans people.

You may or may not have heard of the suicide of Leelah Alcorn. I will repeat it for those who haven't. If you're trans and you know the story, please don't feel obligated to transport yourself to Leelah's darkest night yet again. If you are not trans, please read this story until you hurt as much as the community of trans women who never had the chance to be there for her and show her what true love, support, empathy, and celebration mean.

Shortly after midnight on the cold morning of December 28, 2014, 17-year-old trans girl Leelah Alcorn walked along Interstate 71 near her hometown of Kings Mills, Ohio. According to historical weather data, temperatures hovered around 30 degrees, and the skies were overcast. It was dark and cold, and Leelah was there because she had come to a final decision. She had written a heartrendingly eloquent suicide note on her account with the social-networking site Tumblr and set it to post automatically if she did not cancel it by a certain time. Further details of her time on the interstate are unknown and unnecessary, except for one final, soul-crushing fact:

Leelah stepped in front of a tractor-trailer and was killed.

In her suicide note, which has since gone massively viral (and has been deleted from Tumblr along with her account, which had become a shrine of sorts), Leelah recounts her previous three years spent realizing and coming to terms with who she was and the reactions of those around her. At age 14, after years of pain and confusion, she learned that transgender people exist. Her mother "reacted extremely negatively" to Leelah's subsequent coming out and began sending her to Christian therapists who offered only pious condemnation. At 16 she was pulled out of public school, her laptop and phone taken from her, and she was kept away from social media -- the 21st-century version of solitary confinement for a trans girl. It was a punishment for claiming the right to exist in accordance with her true identity, which evolved quickly into an actual death sentence.

Not long after losing her social contacts and her dream of becoming a fully realized and authentic version of herself, Leelah gave up hope forever.

How do we fight the injustice and alienation that are experienced to one degree or another by every trans person I know, especially trans youth?

Politics is not enough. This fact is demonstrable when, in the days since Leelah's death, we see renewed efforts by those who would see more trans people dead:

  • TERFs, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, a small but viciously aggressive, myopic, and repugnant group of extreme "feminists," have weaponized their own personal wounds to declare trans women Public Enemy No. 1. They harass us continually, especially those of us who dare to stand up for ourselves in any form. They scour the Internet and rifle through personal and legal records in order to publicly release information and details of our lives, often with catastrophic consequences. This week they have upped their campaigns to include trolling the Trans Lifeline, a crisis hotline. According to Greta Martela, founder of the Trans Lifeline, "There has been a coordinated campaign of concern trolling. They are asking if we do background checks. It's so that they might pivot and suggest that trans women are dangerous predators. For the record, we don't do background checks, because it would be costly and triggering and generally negative for our volunteers due to issues with dead names."
  • Young, white, racist, patriarchal self-styled computer hackers have also declared war on the Trans Lifeline.
  • On Sunday, January 4, two women were attacked verbally with homophobic and transphobic slurs on a bus in San Francisco. They were then followed off the bus, and one woman was stabbed. Despite the inherent problems with the prison-industrial complex and hate-crime legislation, the San Francisco Police Department took two days to follow their own laws and label the attack as qualifying for hate-crime charges. It bears repeating: This happened in San Francisco, a supposed haven for the LGBT community. It has never been more apparent that the "T" in "LGBT" is attached in name only.
  • A sister in my online community was lost to suicide just a few days ago. I've seen more trans women post notes and feelings of despair, including suicidal ideation, in the last two weeks than in the last two months.

What else will it take to sufficiently value trans people, especially trans youth?

Politics, trans visibility, and supportive campaigns are good and necessary, but they aren't nearly enough. Isolated trans people like Leelah have, at times, access to the Internet and thus access to a virtual world full of other trans people who are experiencing challenges, successes, and failures similar to those that she encountered. For example, two Reddit posts have emerged (here and here), reported to have been left by Leelah, looking for advice on dealing with her situation. Access to an online community was not enough to sustain Leelah's hope or sense of community. Even when her online presence was cut off by her parents, she must have realized that, if nothing else, her connection to distant support and information would eventually return -- sooner rather than later, in the grand scheme of things -- regardless of whatever else in her life was going to or not going to change.

There are a number of young trans people like Leelah -- a number of trans people of all ages, in fact -- who continue to experience profound alienation in the absence of people who are physically present and available with them. More than anything, they need people who are actively listening, understanding, and truly empathizing with their struggles.

My friend Andromeda, who is 22 years old and agender, wrote a post the other day that reflected these limitations of connectivity in an even more profound way than my own recent experiences (reprinted with permission; emphasis mine):

The people who stood up and shouted "it gets better" from rooftops were never the ones that inspired me to move on. It was always good but it wasn't what sparked me thinking or what helped me when I was really down. The people who told me to "get over it," or that my pain "was to be expected" or said "you'll grow out of it" were never the ones I looked up to or respected. Hope and positivity are good, they're great ways to combat the crushing nihilism that exists in the world but they leave you at arms length from kids who build up walls around the sort of empty rhetoric they grew up being fed by families, friends, and lovers who didn't really give a shit about them. I steeled my heart a long time ago and it took a lot of work and love to open me up and I know I can't be alone in that. And it's hard day by day but it still hurts to think of where I would be without these people in my life. Let's strive for honest and earnest dialogue that leaves us all as vulnerable as the people we're trying to help because the only way we can move forward is together, and day by day.

This needs to end now. Those of us with the resources to fight in any way need to continue to stand up to those who are actively working to see more trans people dead, and we need to be absolutely present with those trans people who, at any given moment, may have fewer emotional or material resources than we do.

We need everyone to share this information. These stories are not just for trans women to read, share, rage about, and tremble along with in the darkness. These stories are for all those on the right side of history and of humanity who realize that gender variance has always existed across cultures and history. Far from being a threat, gender variance and the authentic lives of transgender people enrich culture and the human experience.

2015 must be the year that the systematic isolation, marginalization, and killing of trans people, whether through physical attack, psychological warfare, or systemic violence and oppression, are made explicitly, implicitly, legally, and socially unacceptable.

If you believe this is true, take a deep breath and dive in with us. We need you to listen to us, to fight with us, to amplify our messages, and to love and honor us and our right to simply be -- now more than ever.

Have you ever thought of past struggles for civil rights and had your conscience speak to you in a silent wish that you could have lived during a particular time and fought on the right side of history? Dreamed of what an asset or force you could have been?

Here is your chance. Right here, right now.

What will you make of it?

Need help? In the U.S., visit The Trevor Project or call them at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.