Leelah Alcorn Deserved Better: Here’s How We Can Make the World Better for Trans Teens

On December 30, 16-year-old Leelah Alcorn committed suicide. At a time when most teenagers are fighting with their parents over boyfriends and spending money, Alcorn was being punished for expressing her true gender identity, while suffering with major depression. In a suicide note posted after her death,  Leelah Alcorn attributed her suicide to her family, and society at large’s, refusal to acknowledge that she was was transgender.

When stories like these surface in the media, everyone but the most hateful bigots recognizes that the death of transgender teenagers is a horrible tragedy. What we don’t often acknowledge, though, is the role that we all play in perpetuating a culture that is extremely dangerous for transgender people.

Even in 2014, when Laverne Cox and Janet Mock are making massive strides in bringing visibility to transgender people and the issues that this oft-ignored community faces, transgender teenagers are still struggling. Around the same time that Laverne Cox was gracing the cover of TIME, lawmakers across the country were mulling over laws to keep trans kids out of the bathroom facilities that most closely matched their gender identities.

As a culture, we functionally tell transgender kids that their identities are not valid, or to be taken seriously. Leelah Alcorn’s parents, like many others, told her that she was just “going through a phase,” and that she could never be a “real girl” because “God doesn’t make mistakes.”

Trans teenagers are acutely aware of the world that awaits them. Without support from family, they are forced to live with gender dysphoria that is often left untreated because the treatments are very costly. Gender dysphoria is an illness that kills, evidenced by the fact that nearly 25% of transgender teenagers have attempted suicide. Without a supportive family, trans teens are also left to deal with bullying and depression that often accompanies transition all alone.

These teenagers deserve better, and we can start by taking some of Leelah Alcorn’s advice. “Teach gender in schools, the earlier the better,” she writes in her final Tumblr post. Issues of gender are rarely discussed in schools, even in sex education classes. A lot of hatred and fear stem directly from ignorance, and exposing children to gender issues in their earlier years can have a profound impact on how they treat people who don’t conform to gender norms.

As adults, though, we have a broader responsibility to transgender children. Instead of meeting their decisions to transition with skepticisms and admonishments that they’re just going through a phase, we should enthusiastically encourage children and teenagers to explore their gender identities and respect their decisions if they choose to transition.  There are many of us who are uneducated about transgender issues, but that is no excuse to be insensitive to their concerns.

This lack of respect for trans identities is pervasive. Media coverage of Leelah Alcorn’s death, especially in her home state of Ohio, refused to grant her the basic respect of identifying her with her appropriate gender. A post on Alcorn’s school’s homepage mourns the death of Joshua Alcorn, her assigned name that Leelah deliberately did not identify with. In a Facebook post, Alcorn’s own mother mourned the death of her “sweet son,” and refused to acknowledge that her death was a suicide caused directly by transphobia.

In perpetuating her misgendering and refusing to acknowledge both her wishes and her pain, we are essentially proving the points that she made in her suicide letter — that she just didn’t feel like she could be accepted as a transgender woman in a society that refuses to acknowledge her existence. Until we make our society more welcoming to transgender people, countless other transgender teenagers will follow Leelah Alcorn’s devastating path.

Most important of all, parents have a responsibility to ensure that their children grow up in an environment that is welcoming of their child’s unique identity. After spending years wiping snotty noses and cleaning dirty diapers, one would think that allowing a child to express their own identity would be a breeze. Navigating the world as a transgender teenager is immeasurably difficult, but family support can go a long way in ensuring that they grow up feeling like they are valuable and worthy of respect.

In this tragedy, there are plenty of lessons to be learned so that more deaths can be prevented. In her final note, Leelah Alcorn wrote “my death has to mean something,” and hopefully her story will help start a conversation about how to make the world a better place for transgender teens. Transgender teens, and people of all ages, deserve better than a culture that refuses to treat their identities with dignity.

In doing that simple thing — treating trans people with dignity — we can make steps toward a society that is safer and more welcoming of people who don’t conform to traditional gender norms. We owe Leelah Alcorn at least that much.

Image via Leelah Alcorn’s Tumblr page. 


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Marianne C.
Marianne C4 years ago

I feel an enormous compassion for any mother who loses her child.

But in this case, I think the mother is still deeply in denial. She still isn't acknowledging who her child was or why her child felt that suicide was the only way out. She's certainly avoiding recognition of her own role in WHY he child thought death was the only way out.

In too many of these cases, it's a parent or both parents who need to be in therapy, not the transgendered child. The child just needs support and acceptance.

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa4 years ago

Thank you

Lora Flynn
Lora Flynn4 years ago

Se was one of God's children and he would've accepted her decision to change. Her mother must ask herself was it worth losing her precious child. It only sicken me more that even in her death she referred to her as her "sweet son" and listed her name as Joshua?? Are you serious? she was a woman in every sense of the word. May GOD Bless and watch over you Leelah and may your death not be in vain. I PRAY that your death WILL change the minds of otherwise bigoted people.

Deborah F.
Deborah F4 years ago

So sad.

Michele V.
Michele Vernet4 years ago

Yes, Leelah did not need to die. Yet she made the decision to, because she, in her heart, knew that her life would never be without serenity. She knew that her first important supporters, her parents, would not be there for her. Not now, when she needed them! I'm sorry that America is still a country of bigots! I'm sorry that LIVE AND LET LIVE is a lovely maxim! Because for some, letting life take its course is too simplistic!

Gene Jacobson
Gene Jacobson4 years ago

"When stories like these surface in the media, everyone but the most hateful bigots recognizes that the death of transgender teenagers is a horrible tragedy."

Do they? Do they really? It isn't like this is the first time this has happened, that a child or young adult, has been driven to suicide by bigotry. I wonder are we ever going to learn better? To learn to just accept people as they are without bringing some invisible deity whom no one has EVER seen into it? Having lost both of my sons, I can tell you that there is no worse pain for a parent. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I am wondering what her parents are thinking now. Was what they told her, how they treated her really worth losing her forever? There are things you simply cannot take back. We as a global society cause SO much pain, so much harm to our children in every way imaginable from turning them into suicide bombers to shaming them into suicide. Is anything, any idea, any preconceived notion, any religion worth even one of those precious young lives? They have SO much to teach us and we not only will not hear them, we shun them and kill their bodies and their spirit. We are such a horrid world, such horrid people and then we blame it all on some entity no one has ever seen, met or talked to. Nor will anyone ever. Not here. Here all we have is each other. And we are not handling that responsibility very well at all.

Angela P.
Angie P4 years ago

May she rest in peace.

Janis K.
Janis K4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Rhonda B.
Rhonda B4 years ago

Very sad. Rip beautiful Leelah.