A letter to Leelah

Natalie Connors, Editor in Chief

Leelah Alcorn committed suicide at age 17 on Dec. 28, 2014. She revealed her story in a suicide note on the social media website, Tumblr, which gained international attention in the new year. Leelah (born Josh) Alcorn ended her life after struggling with depression from being forbidden by her Christian parents to transition from male to female.

Dear Leelah,

I am so sorry that you are no longer with us. 17 is too young to die, and it hurts to think that after such a short time here you found life too unbearable. You didn’t feel like you would ever have the life you wanted, and that a meaningful death would be better than a tortured life.

Leelah, I understand your pain and your choice. You were young, but you already understood that the world we live in operates around principles that are not aimed at human health and happiness. You begged in your poignant note for us to “fix society,” and I wish your death hadn’t been required to draw attention to such a cause.

Society truly does need fixing, and you have turned some more eyes toward the tragic epidemic of trans teen suicide. Over 34,000 teens will kill themselves this year, making it the third leading cause of death for people 15-24. One percent of the population identifies as trans and sadly, over forty percent of trans* teens attempt to or do commit suicide. You have joined thousands of young people who chose to leave this plane rather than suffer a life of discrimination, non-recognition and depression.

Mental illness is a complicated beast and there are years of confusion, intolerance and misinformation to work against. It’s very important to distinguish the difference between a trans person with depression and labeling being transgender as a mental illness itself, with symptoms including depression and suicide. Leelah, you were unfortunately around people who refused to acknowledge the seriousness of your condition.

Being trans is a way of being; a natural, healthy, celebratory way of being. It’s not a disease or curable condition, and the discrimination our society continues to drape around people who do not fall neatly into the prescribed male and female boxes causes severe mental distress.

Your family faith was intolerant of your beautiful, desired expression. You posted on Reddit a few weeks ago, lonely and desperate messages that revealed the toxic self-loathing that would soon froth fatally. I poured through your posts and felt the pain of your solitude.

To be 17 is to barely know what the world could possibly hold for you. To be 17 and feel your already limited worldview further tightened by hateful intolerance and hurtful care helped make suicide seem like the best option. You would have slowly learned over the years, that the world changes more than you might think at 17. And at 25 I see it changing more than ever.

But it didn’t change soon enough for you. I wonder what made you finally decide that it was time. In your note you mentioned that you failed to delete the post you had queued, which might mean there’s a chance you thought you would change your mind, and put off the decision for at least another day. Maybe this wasn’t the first time you had queue up that note. Maybe something else stopped you before. But nothing stopped you on Dec. 28.

Like most trans and many CIS teens, you probably experienced body dysmorphia, and felt uncomfortable in your own skin. Experiencing the hormonal changes of human puberty whilst being trapped in the body of a differently gendered person than you truly feel you are, combined with the unrealistic image expectations, societal demands and a dreadful fear that you will be forever marked for discrimination and violence because you didn’t start your transition soon enough is enough to make anyone consider whether life is really worth it.

Maybe your voice cracked a little lower, that morning you decided to step out in front of the tractor-trailer on I-71. Maybe the hair on your upper lip seemed darker, as you leaned in to the mirror for inspection. Maybe you thought, “Where will the line fall that I will never truly pass as a woman?” On the Reddit forum r/asktransgender, you posted,

“If I could have gone on puberty blockers as a kid or even just start hormones a couple years earlier I could have turned out so much prettier, and I’ll never be able to achieve that beauty because of something that I can’t control, like what family I was born into.”

I wish I had gotten the chance to speak to you before you made your decision. I respect your choice, but it didn’t have to be the one. You made a statement with your death and now people are talking more than ever before about transgender issues. Many people still don’t know what transgender even means or are unaccepting and hateful toward individuals who choose to see themselves differently than society says they should. This is a confusing time to be alive, and you didn’t even feel like you could tell your school friends who you really were. Coming out as gay seemed like a legitimate stepping-stone to breaking the real-truth (even if it cost you the trust of your parents and your social privileges). Society has progressed to the point where you felt comfortable enough to come out as homosexual, even with disapproving parents, but we still have a far way to go. (Though Jill Soder dedicating the Golden Globe that Transparent won, to you and the transgender community was very moving.)

If we had the chance to speak, I would have told you to hold on. I understand your decision, but also felt the passion you were carrying within you and the potential that was open to you. You would have been able to do more alive for this extraordinary cause, as an example and activist for the next several decades. You were looking forward to turning 18, and getting away from your parents. In a Reddit forum you posted your situation, asking people if your experience could be considered abuse and replied, “Luckily, I’m almost seventeen which means only little over a year until I can get the f*** out of here.” At that point you would have been able to begin transitioning, but you never made it to your 18th birthday.

Depression digs deep and hurts hard. I would have tried to tell you about meditation and acceptance, and how it can make everything in your life seem workable. I would have tried to convince you that you were actually stronger than any of the challenges you would face in the future. And I would have tried desperately to tell you that the crushing feelings of worthlessness, shame, and doubt subside with proper attention and care. The circular hateful thoughts can stop spinning if they are pulled out into the open.

You educated yourself and asked to see a gender therapist, but your parents would only take you to a Christian counselor. Seeing someone who tells you the solution to your problems is to get right with the creator that made you so miserable in the first place is not an effective healing solution.

Of course seeing someone who did not believe in your state of being would worsen your depression. Your obligatory, weekly church attendance was surely shamefully uncomfortable as well. Was only being allowed to be around people who supported the hurtful, hateful thoughts about you too difficult to stand? It was for me.

When I was 17, I too contemplated death, feeling its inevitability closer to my present than my peers. If not by my own hand, than a freakish turn of events inspired by the deity I no longer believed as savior in but still feared he would smite me down. You said in your Reddit post that you felt that God hated you because of who you were, and you may have thought you would be sent to hell. Life itself turned too hellish.

Teenagers kill themselves far too often. The aching, yet numbing pain that can accompany mental illness becomes too much to deal with, and they dip. It can be hard to imagine a life of happiness when you’ve been so unhappy in your young life. But no one wants to want to kill him or herself. The desire is borne as a solution to a problem that feels bigger than our lives.

Leelah, I am so sorry that you lost this battle. The world would be better with you in it, but in some small way I am glad that things happened this way, if only because I am able to know you at all.

And you are amazing. You said in your note, “People say ‘it gets better’ but that’s not true for me. It gets worse. Everyday I get worse.”

But Leelah, that’s not true. Everyday you were getting better. Everyday you were moving closer to understanding who you were and what you wanted, it was just clouded by too much pain to make it your main goal. But you were always good.

Rest in Power,
Your friend, Natalie