Leelah’s mother Carla Alcorn is my mother.
My mother and Carla Alcorn have a lot of things in common. They both live in Warren County, Ohio, a Bible Belt community sandwiched between Cincinnati and Dayton. They both are deeply religious, belonging to Evangelical churches where their pastors preach that LGBT people are going to hell. They both vote in a county that blindly elects Republicans to local, state and federal offices, and they continually send Speaker John Boehner back to Washington where he lords over gridlock and prevents the House from voting on issues like ENDA that would protect LGBT Americans from discrimination.
I grew up in Warren County, Ohio long ago at a time when being gay was criminalized across the United States. The Stonewall riots that triggered the modern gay rights movement happened in 1969 when I was in high school. The very idea of gay marriage was not on anyone’s mind when they feared every day that they could be arrested for being true to their identity.
Leelah grew up in Warren County many years later, but sadly it appears that little has changed there in the years that have passed since I lived there. The 17-year-old from Kings Mills threw herself in front of a tractor trailer in the middle of the night on a lonely stretch of Interstate 71, crushed to death just three days after Christmas. I know the spot where she died, having driven that route many times during my young adult years before I bolted Ohio for friendlier states. When I learned of her death, it profoundly affected me during my holiday vacation and I have yet to erase the tragic news from my mind.
The utter despair that Leelah felt must have been unbearable. She bravely tried to come out to her parents as transgender, only to be rejected by them and forced into “reparative therapy” that has been rejected as junk science by all reputable psychological and psychiatric organizations in the United States. Leelah felt utterly alone and abandoned.
Sadly, she planned her own demise. She wrote a heartbreaking suicide note and scheduled it to run on her Tumblr account after her tragic death on Dec. 28, 2014. According to Wikipedia, she wrote:
“I have decided I've had enough. I'm never going to transition successfully, even when I move out. I'm never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I'm never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I'm never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I'm never going to find a man who loves me. I'm never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There's no winning. There's no way out. I'm sad enough already, I don't need my life to get any worse. People say "it gets better" but that isn't true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse. That's the gist of it, that's why I feel like killing myself. Sorry if that's not a good enough reason for you, it's good enough for me.”
News of Leelah’s death quickly spread on the web, indeed becoming international in scope and unleashing a fierce storm of emotions.
Leelah’s mother fueled further anger by failing to acknowledge Leelah’s gender identity, much less her suicide, writing on Facebook:
"My sweet 16-year-old son, Joshua Ryan Alcorn, went home to Heaven this morning. He was out for an early morning walk and was hit by a truck. Thank you for the messages and kindness and concern you have sent our way. Please continue to keep us in your prayers."
Then the family took down Leelah's Tumblr account, erasing the urgent message that Leelah wanted everybody to hear, especially her mother and father.
Carla Alcorn spoke to CNN after Leelah's story went viral. She said she loved her child "unconditionally" but could not accept her child's sexual identity because of her religious beliefs.
Like my mother, Carla Alcorn lives with her head firmly planted in the sand. Instead of accepting that they have birthed a child who is LGBT, they deny the obvious and choose to live in an alternative universe where all children are straight. By living in denial, they do not have to confront reality nor do they have to challenge the belief system that they cling to religiously, so to speak.
This warped thinking does not mean that Carla Alcorn or my mother doesn’t love their children ... it sadly means that their love is NOT unconditional despite their public protests otherwise. It shows their tragic human flaws, their lack of education and sensitivity, and their blind adherence to a faulty belief system that fails to understand the complex nature of human sexuality.
My mother is now in her early 80s and no amount of talking with her about issues near and dear to me ever register in her brain, frozen in a time warp of the 1940s and 1950s when she was learning her belief system. I blame her lack of education, her limited exposure to a world outside the bubble she lives in other than the real one I force her to visit on occasion, and her devotion to her faith as the main factors for her ignorance and inability to comprehend the importance of acceptance, tolerance and respect. I don’t know what Carla Alcorn’s excuse is, but it probably flows in the same vein of ignorance as my mother's.
I know that my mother loves me … and I will accept that Carla Alcorn loves her child who killed herself. I have never considered suicide, largely because I rejected religion at an early age as well as my parents’ belief system, because I was a kid who read a lot and was curious about lives that were so different than my own. Somewhere in my DNA is a gene of self-survival that has benefited me all these years when I could have easily given up.
But I totally understand Leelah’s pain even though I am not transgender, and I am dismayed that nobody stepped up to support Leelah in her time of need. Fellow students went on local TV to express how they were accepting of Leelah’s new identity, but they didn’t seem to be there for Leelah when she needed them the most. It's an indictment of how we all get wrapped up in our own little worlds and fail to look out for others who are in need.
Leelah was trapped in a bleak situation, misunderstood by her parents who took punitive measures to deal with her new gender identity. She was forced to go to "conversion therapy," a horrific process that has been outlawed in California and New Jersey and which has been scientifically proven to be a fraud and so damaging to youth who are already in a fragile state of mind. She was taken out of school at Kings High. She had her connections to the outside world taken away from her, including her cellphone, Internet access and social outings. She had become a prisoner in her own home, punished for being true to herself instead of supported and loved.
She had heard all the messages about things getting better. But she could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. She was so desperate that she planned to end it all, leaving messages to the world that we have to fix society so that there are no more Leelah stories to report.
Three days after Christmas, Leelah left home in the middle of the night, walking a long and lonely path on a very cold night in Ohio until she got to a dark stretch of Interstate 71. This would be how the pain would end. She would become another tragic story, another cold statistic: 4 out of 10 of transgender youth attempt suicide.
Some LGBT activists have attacked Carla Alcorn via Social Media, but I’m not sure how that will solve the universal problems facing suicidal LGBT youth. Carla Alcorn will have to live with this tragedy for the rest of her life on Earth, so this is truly a living hell for her. We should be reaching out to her instead of burning her on the cross. We need to show her how understanding and knowledge are keys to preventing future suicides. In a perfect world, Carla Alcorn will become an advocate for transgender rights … not the enemy.
Carla Alcorn is my mother. She could be yours as well. Let's find a way to solve this life-or-death situation. For Leelah's sake.
* * *
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.
* * *
Please share your thoughts on this emotional issue. An important dialogue could change public opinion and truly make things get better.