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After Leelah Alcorn's Suicide, Trans Youth Fight Broader Bias

Mally H. is a transgender woman living in Washington, D.C. She hopes that Leelah Alcorn's suicide prompts a larger conversation about discrimination against transgender people.
Mally H.
Mally H. is a transgender woman living in Washington, D.C. She hopes that Leelah Alcorn's suicide prompts a larger conversation about discrimination against transgender people.

In a moment many have called "the transgender tipping point," the news of Leelah Alcorn's suicide and her plea that someone "fix society" for transgender people have garnered massive attention, moving from conversations on social media to national news outlets.

But for many transgender people in their teens and early 20s, the story of Alcorn's death, while devastating, is not exactly news. Their social media feeds are too frequently populated with stories of violence, discrimination and oppression. For some, this story was so distressing they needed to create some emotional distance and couldn't bring themselves to read the suicide note. Others went to vigils and posted their own stories of coming out or facing bigotry.

Alcorn's struggle is not limited to children of religious parents in small towns. In the aftermath of this tragedy, some young transgender people are worried that while thousands have shared her story on social media, few truly understand the unique problems trans people face every day.

Mally H., a 21-year-old transgender woman who lives in Washington, D.C., transitioned about a year ago. She works at Casa Ruby, a drop-in center for LGBT people in the city's Columbia Heights neighborhood. She first saw the news of Alcorn's death on Facebook, but she hasn't read the note. Mally calls it "an act of violence" for Alcorn's parents to reject her. "Your parent is someone who pledges to love and protect you," she says. "How is it that the world has to protect you from your parents? That should never be the situation."

Growing up, Mally experienced verbal abuse that resembles what Alcorn described in her suicide note; she says it "fractured my psyche." But Mally hopes to emphasize and bring public attention to the broader issues facing the trans community when talking about Alcorn's death.

"No offense to Leelah Alcorn, may her soul rest in peace, but where is the press coverage of the eight to 10 African-American transgender girls that have been murdered this year?" she says. Mally insists that the conversation around Alcorn's death should include violence against black and Latina transgender women.

It is difficult to get accurate information about hate crimes targeting transgender Americans. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs is a group that does track these incidents. According to their research, transgender women of color made up two-thirds of the victims killed in hate crimes targeting LGBTQ and HIV-positive people.

In Alcorn's home state of Ohio, four transgender women have been killed since March 2013. Three were women of color. Tiffany Edwards was a 28-year-old woman murdered in June by a man who allegedly found out she was transgender while giving her a ride home. Ohio's bias crimes law does not include violence against LGBT victims, and so her death wasn't charged or investigated as a hate crime. Transgender people of color also reported higher rates of sexual assault than did whites, and trans women of color are particularly vulnerable to violence if in jail or prison.

"Don't just take up the mantle for Leelah Alcorn. Take up the mantle for all trans girls who are abused or getting thrown out," Mally says.

Mally is currently living with an acquaintance and says homophobic and transphobic language are commonplace in the house. Like abuse from family or on the street, Mally says she deals with this hostility by "taking up the activist role." This means standing up for herself, but also taking police to task when they don't believe trans women who are victims of violence. "I have a tongue that can lash you better than a whip. You have to be that way. It's sad sometimes," she says.

Still, white transgender youth are hardly immune to discrimination, violence and the despair that drove Alcorn's suicide. "Absolutely, I know Leelah Alcorn's story," says 14-year-old David G. of Toronto. He saw the news of Alcorn's death on Facebook last week. At first, he didn't want to know too much about what happened. He's had suicidal thoughts before and, though his own family was supportive when he came out as transgender a little more than a year ago, his older sister warned him that reading the note might be "triggering."

David sees therapists to help him cope with his gender identity and mental health issues, but he talks about his transition in largely positive terms. The key, he says, is having "confidence in your identity."

"As long as I know who I am I will eventually be able to live as that person," he says. He dates his official coming out to June 26, 2014, the day he cut his hair short. It's also when he set up a brand new Facebook page under the name "David" and sent requests to all his current Facebook friends explaining that he was male and wanted to be addressed by his new name.

To drum up the courage, David pictured a worst-case scenario, with all his best friends rejecting him. He decided that if that happened, he could handle it. David says that when "you're able to support yourself if you lost everyone you came out to, you might be OK."

He's careful to qualify that, however. David says he could never have survived without his parents' support. Thankfully, his best friends and most of the people around him have been accepting. Some of the guys at school give him a hard time about using the boys' bathroom, or tell him he isn't actually a guy, and he copes by immersing himself in the trans and queer communities. "I'm always telling myself, I'm a boy but I have a different boy body than most other boys," he says.

David thinks that Alcorn's story blew up online because the note was so specific and moving, and he cites the statistic that over 40 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide. But he also believes that the problem is much bigger than one suicide.

"This should be a gateway to recognizing what needs to be done," he says. "We're gonna light candles for Leelah Alcorn — it's great — but I think we should be lighting candles for all the trans lives lost to ignorance. It's not like she's the first. She unfortunately won't be the last."

Mally thinks that, even after all this attention, it'll still be up to her and other trans people to honor Alcorn's final request, and "fix society."

"At the end of the day, if you are for the community, you love the community, and you help the community grow, it will show you the love you show it," Mally says.

This story uses initials instead of surnames to protect the interview subjects' safety.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nicole Pasulka