The apparent suicide of an Ohio transgender teen has struck a chord across the country and brought to light some of the crippling hardships LGBT people face while growing up.
Seventeen-year-old Leelah Alcorn, who was assigned a male gender at birth and given the name Joshua, was buried Friday in a private ceremony amid threats of protests and disruptions. Her death triggered a wave of grief-stricken responses and anger toward Alcorn’s parents, who were not accepting of the teen’s gender identity.
“He was a good kid, a good boy,” Alcorn’s mother, Carla, told CNN this week, stressing that she and her husband “love him unconditionally.” A day later, Alcorn’s father, Doug, wrote an email to local news station WCPO saying, "We love our son, Joshua, very much and are devastated by his death."
However genuinely sorrowful those words may have been, Alcorn’s parents nonetheless fueled public outrage over their continued use of male pronouns and refusal to acknowledge that their child was transgender.
In a heartbreaking suicide note, which Alcorn scheduled to post on her Tumblr account shortly after she walked into the path of a truck on Interstate 71 Sunday, the teenager described feeling rejected by her family and peers, experiencing some form of the medically discredited “conversion therapy,” and believing gender reassignment surgery was out of reach.
“Fix society,” she pleaded. “Please.” To be sure, society offers no shortage of areas where we can start.
Suicide rates among LGBT youth are alarmingly high, and nearly half of young transgender people have seriously considered taking their own lives, according to a 2007 study. Among the factors relating to suicide attempts, the study found, were experiences of past parental verbal and physical abuse. Alcorn gave no indication that she faced physical abuse in her suicide note, but she did describe coming out as transgender to her mother and receiving an “extremely” negative reaction.
“[My mother told] me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong,” wrote Alcorn. She also said her mother removed her from public school, temporarily cut her off from social media, and took her to Christian therapists who told her she was “selfish,” “wrong,” and that she should “look to God for help.”
This kind of therapy is shockingly prevalent. In fact, only two states — California and New Jersey — ban mental health providers from trying to change kids’ sexual orientation or gender identities. The District of Columbia will also soon ban the practice. The process, known as conversion therapy, has been denounced by medical professionals as ineffective and psychologically damaging, yet as many as one in three LGBT people have been subjected to some form of it, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Since Alcorn’s death, more than 200,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling for “Leelah’s Law,” a bill to ban transgender conversion therapy across the U.S.
Another grim statistic: As many as 40% of homeless kids identify as LGBT, according to the Williams Institute, despite making up only 5% to 10% of the overall youth population. Cincinnati, not far from where Alcorn lived, was actually one of two cities selected last year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to launch its own initiative geared toward ending LGBT youth homelessness.
“This is the most vulnerable population,” Dr. Ann Robinson, executive director of the Montrose Center in Houston — the other city selected by HUD to tackle LGBT youth homelessness — told msnbc in an interview this past fall. “LGBT youth are overrepresented in the homeless population because they are pushed out of their homes without much planning, and they don’t have anywhere to go.”
Schools often present another set of struggles for LGBT kids, 55% of whom have been verbally harassed because of the their gender expression, according to GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey. Alcorn stressed in her suicide note that “gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better.” That advice certainly applies to students responsible for bullying and scorn — but it also concerns parents and administrators.
Though the Department of Education has stated that transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination as prohibited by the federal statute Title IX, some schools still try to restrict students from behaving in accordance with their gender identities. Less than two months ago, a rural Virginia school board approved a policy limiting the use of restrooms and locker rooms “to the corresponding biological genders.” The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Virginia have since filed a federal complaint against the Gloucester County School Board on behalf of a transgender male student barred from using the boy’s bathroom.
“At the school board meeting, people referred to him as ‘girl’ and ‘freak,’” said Joshua Block, attorney at the ACLU’s LGBT project, in a recent interview with msnbc. “What the school board does in terms of policy relays a message about how students are expected to treat other students.”
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines “gender dysphoria” as “clinically significant distress” arising in people whose gender assigned at birth differs from the one with which they identify. Treatment options include counseling, cross-sex hormones, social and legal transition to the desired gender, and sex reassignment surgery.
Yet often, those treatment options are difficult to access, especially for kids. Teenagers need a parent’s permission for sex reassignment surgery before the age of 18. And even if a teen chooses to wait until adulthood or is able to get permission beforehand — which seems unlikely in Alcorn’s case — many transgender people are still denied health insurance coverage altogether. For those who do manage to acquire insurance, almost every public and private program has language in its contractual terms that excludes transgender-related services from coverage.
“I felt hopeless,” wrote Alcorn, “that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life."
It’s impossible to know if Alcorn’s life would have turned out differently had any of these societal problems been fixed. But doing so will undoubtedly save the life another. Through her painfully honest and eloquent last words, Alcorn created a lengthy to-do list of sorts, pinpointing the areas that require our attention and focus to lessen human suffering. “My death needs to mean something,” she said, just before signing off. Already, it has.