On March 3, Leelah Alcorn walked along highway I-9 for three miles before being struck by a semi-truck traveling down the highway. An elaborate diary entry she had written prior to her death included “The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender.” With the higher homicide rate for trans people — and an even higher one for trans people of color — the higher suicide rate for transgender teens, the legality of practices used to prohibit transitioning, and the frequency of similar cases that gain far less attention, Alcorn’s suicide cannot be seen as an isolated incident but rather a stark indicator: America has yet to be a safe and welcoming place for transgender and non-gender conforming people.
Leelah’s letter describes in detail the discovery of her gender identity as female, the elated realization that transitioning is a real option, and her inability to do so under parents who refused to recognize her as a daughter. One of the most vivid excerpts from Leelah’s letter is her recounting of her experiences at conversion therapy, a tactic that attempts to change sexual orientation or, in Leelah’s case, to convince her that she must identify with the gender she was assigned at birth. She recalls her therapy sessions, describing: “I only got more Christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.” These views of transitioning as unnatural or wrong — further fueled by conversion therapy — are often predecessors of greater depression and anxiety. They’re used to invalidate identity and impose guilt; most frighteningly, they’re still legal today.
But Leelah’s death shows more than the damage of conversion therapy and the burden on those transitioning — the attention garnered by her death contrasts the lack of attention for the all too frequent deaths of other trans and non-gender-conforming people, especially those of color. Blake Brockington, a black transgender activist and a homecoming king, made few national headlines.
Already by February of this year, there were seven homicides of transgender women/non-gender conforming people: Bri Golec, Lamia Beard, Taja DeJesus, Penny Proud, Ty Underwood, and Yazmin Vash Payne. All were ignored by mainstream media. Leelah garnered national attention, but only in death. Others, especially those of color, are erased and have been erased for years; the alarming rate and the consistency of violence against transgender and all non-gender-conforming people is blatantly ignored and needs to be recognized.
In her statement on visibility, transgender activist Janet Mock noted: “The names of our sisters shouldn’t only make headlines when we walk a red carpet or lay in a casket.”
And what she describes is the state of current media. We live in a time when TIME-magazine-covering actress and activist Laverne Cox is in high demand; when the trans community simultaneously lacks visibility off screen and off the red carpet; when in 34 states, it’s still legal to fire an employee based only on the fact that they are transgender; when trans people are succeeding — i.e. trans woman Wendy Carlos who composed the award-winning and stunning soundtrack for “A Clockwork Orange” — but the media only mentions either the celebrity names or the victims.
We cannot claim to live in a society that stands for civil liberties when transgender people are being murdered, degraded, and ignored for pursuing their identity: change needs to happen now.