“My death needs to mean something:” Transgender teen posts heartbreaking letter before taking her own life
(CNN) — When Josh Alcorn voiced a desire to live as a girl, the Ohio teenager’s parents said they wouldn’t stand for that.
“We don’t support that, religiously,” Alcorn’s mother told CNN Wednesday, her voice breaking. “But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.”
Crossing out the name “Josh,” the 17-year-old signed the name “Leelah” in a suicide note posted to Tumblr.
The note was programmed to publish after Alcorn’s death Sunday. The teenager was struck by a tractor-trailer on Interstate 71 around 2:15 a.m., about four miles from home in the tiny town of Kings Mills, northeast of Cincinnati.
The Ohio State Highway Patrol is investigating the death as a suicide.
“Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender,” the note said. “I could go into detail explaining why I feel that way, but this note is probably going to be lengthy enough as it is. To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally ‘boyish’ things to try to fit in.”
The teenager’s death has ignited intensely emotional reactions across social media. The hashtag #LeelahAlcorn is carrying messages of support for all transgender people. Many posts are hateful and vengeful notes directed at the teen’s parents.
In her interview with CNN, Carla Alcorn referred to her child as her son and used male pronouns.
After the death, a Facebook post apparently from Carla Alcorn said her child “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 thoughts.”
Some on social media have seized on that post and reposted her message, crossing out the male pronouns and the name Josh and replacing them with female pronouns and the name Leelah.
‘He just quit talking about it’
In Leelah’s note, she explains that when she was 14, she first understood what transgender meant and “cried of happiness.”
“After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids,” the note says. “Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self [sic]. That’s exactly what it did to me.”
Carla Alcorn told CNN that her child was depressed and that counselors and a psychiatrist gave the teenager medication.
“He just quit talking about it (being transgender),” she said.
She worried Wednesday that hateful messages directed toward her and her husband are making them out to be “horrible people,” she said. She has other children, she said, and they are incredibly sad about losing a sibling.
She said that there has not been a service for the teen because people have threatened to protest.
Her child came to her only once to talk about being transgender, Carla Alcorn insisted.
The first time she heard the name Leelah was on the teen’s suicide note.
“He never said that name before,” she said.
‘The cruelty of loneliness’
Leelah’s suicide note, however, says she struggled for a long time to gain her parents’ acceptance as a transgender teen.
“My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian [sic] therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians [sic] telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.”
At 16, she wrote that she realized her “parents would never come around” and that she would have to wait until she was 18 to start any kind of medical treatment to transition to being a female.
That, she said, “absolutely broke my heart…I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life.”
Carla Alcorn recalled her teen asking for transition surgery.
She told her child no, she said, because “we didn’t have the money for anything like that.”
In her suicide note, Leelah said she cried herself to sleep that night.
Leelah told her friends she was transgender.
She came out as gay at school, a move that was supported by friends but made her parents angry, she wrote.
“They wanted me to be their perfect little straight christian [sic] boy, and that’s obviously not what I wanted.”
Carla Alcorn said that she took away her child’s access to social media because the teen was looking at “inappropriate” things on the Internet but would not say what those things were.
Leelah describes what it was like to not have social media to connect with friends: “This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parents’ disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.”
It all began to feel like too much weight to the teenager, she wrote. Convinced she had few friends, and feeling the pressure of saving enough money to move out of her home, keep her grades up and face people at church who she felt had only judgment for her, she decided to end her life.
“I’m never going to find a man who loves me,” she wrote. “I’m never going to be happy.”
Give all of her things and money to the transgender civil rights movement and to transgender support groups, Leelah instructed.
“The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year…Fix society. Please.”
Two days after the teen’s death, grieving in that stomach-punch way that only parents who have to bury a child understand, Carla Alcorn kept repeating that she loved her child.
“He was an amazing musician and artist,” she said. “He was an amazing boy.”
More education, time and compassion
Not far from where the Alcorns live, Shane Morgan was thinking a lot about Leelah.
The executive director of the Columbus-based advocacy group TransOhio said the teen’s suicide evoked memories of what it was like 15 years ago when he struggled with telling friends and family he was transgender.
“I came out as gay…I didn’t understand what gender identity was at that time,” he said.
As Morgan got older and met different people and had new experiences, he gained confidence and courage.
He wrote a letter to his family and friends telling them he was transgender. With the exception of his father and brother, he said, everyone was loving.
Morgan said he understands the anger some people feel toward Leelah’s parents, but “there’s no excuse for threats to the family.”
Since Leelah’s death, parents of transgender children have sent TransOhio photos and letters saying how much the tragedy has shaken them and that they love and accept their children no matter what.
Their greatest fear is that their child will feel unloved. And statistics show that that can lead to suicides like Leelah’s.
A 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 41% of 6,450 responding transgender and gender non-conforming people had attempted suicide.
If he could have talked to Leelah, Morgan would have said that he understood how tough it is and how awful it feels. He would have told her that when she got a little bit older, she would be freer to adopt another kind of family — one of friends who would accept and cherish her.
“I wouldn’t have told her that it gets better, but it changes,” he said. “There are people she could have met. I don’t know if she ever met a transgender person. But she could have seen something else, she could have been given some hope.”
Aidan Key also knows well what it’s like to endure a transgender adolescence. The founder of the family education and support organization Gender Diversity in Washington grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household and now works with families with deep religious beliefs to help them understand what being transgender means.
He considers himself lucky to have a mother and twin sister who adored him and loved him regardless of his gender identity.
“My compassion is there for the parents. All any parent wants is love for their children, for their children to live good lives. Transgender is such a new thing in society and we’ve not faced it or discussed it as a society. We’ve kept it in a dark corner where some people still think it’s some deviant sexual behavior,” said Key.
“If the parents would have reached out for more information, or said ‘This is a lot. We need some time,’ or if they had access to a group that would welcome them to talk, that might have made the difference for Leelah.”
Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note posted to Tumblr reads as follows:
The full letter reads as follows:
“If you are reading this, it means that I have committed suicide and obviously failed to delete this post from my queue.
Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender. I could go into detail explaining why I feel that way, but this note is probably going to be lengthy enough as it is. To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally “boyish” things to try to fit in.
When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.
My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.
When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart. The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn’t receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep.
I formed a sort of a “(expletive) you” attitude towards my parents and came out as gay at school, thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as trans it would be less of a shock. Although the reaction from my friends was positive, my parents were pissed. They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight christian boy, and that’s obviously not what I wanted.
So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.
At the end of the school year, my parents finally came around and gave me my phone and let me back on social media. I was excited, I finally had my friends back. They were extremely excited to see me and talk to me, but only at first. Eventually they realized they didn’t actually give a (expletive) about me, and I felt even lonelier than I did before. The only friends I thought I had only liked me because they saw me five times a week.
After a summer of having almost no friends plus the weight of having to think about college, save money for moving out, keep my grades up, go to church each week and feel like (expletive) because everyone there is against everything I live for, 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. As for my will, I want 100% of the things that I legally own to be sold and the money (plus my money in the bank) to be given to trans civil rights movements and support groups, I don’t give a (expletive) which one. The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s (expletive) up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.
(Leelah) Josh Alcorn”
There is more information than ever about transgender people — from new research to a freshly written book of personal essays, “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves” to the critically acclaimed new Amazon series “Transparent.”
What is transgender?
Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior does not conform to the sex they were assigned at birth, according to American Psychological Association, which recently posted a Q/A on the topic. Sex is different than gender — sex refers to genitalia and gender is the cultural construct society has created to differentiate between men and women.
Transgender also gets confused with sexual orientation. Just because someone is transgender doesn’t mean they are gay, lesbian or bisexual.
It’s also important to know the difference between transgender people and transsexuals. Transsexuals alter or want to change their bodies by using hormones, surgery or other means to come more in line with the gender with which they associate, the APA says. Not all transgender people want to change their bodies.
While it may seem like a relatively new topic, transgender people have been documented since antiquity in many cultures throughout the world.
A transgender person has told you they are transgender. What’s the first thing you should say?
Some experts say you should try this: “I love you and support you.”
That first reaction from a friend or family member whose judgment matters is critical, said Aidan Key, the founder of the family education and support organization Gender Diversity in Washington. “Consider that they’re facing many other challenges, and you can offer a place where they can simply be accepted, a place without struggle.”
Chances are very good it’s taken a tremendous amount of courage for your friend or family member to come to you.
Elizabeth Crankshaw, who was born a male but identifies as a woman, said it’s also ok to “say you don’t understand, because how could you? You’d have to be trans to get it.”
Crankshaw grew up in the 1970s when there was no commonly parsed language about being transgender. She was married and came out first to her ex-wife and then to her sister.
“It was terrifying. I had so much anxiety,” she recalled. “You have to think of the worst things that could happen. How will my employer will react? Will I lose my job? Will my coworkers treat me differently?”
If a transgender person is renting a home, she added, they could be afraid of backlash from a landlord.
If you feel the urge to ask a transgender person if they’ve physically changed their genitalia, think twice.
There’s no steadfast rule on this, say transgender people and experts who study gender and sexual identity issues. This is where sensitivity and some common sense come in and generally it’s best to not ask this question. Put yourself in their shoes. Would you want them to ask you about your body’s most private parts? As Matt Kailey writes on his highly read blog, “Tranifesto,” transgender people should be afforded the same respect as anyone. Their bodies are their own.
“Trans people are not public property,” he writes. “Touching something on a person to see if it is ‘real’ or asking personal questions about a person’s body or sex life is inappropriate — unless the person has invited you to ‘ask me anything.’ Otherwise, do not do or say anything that you would not do or say to anyone else.”
Is it alright to ask, ‘When did you know you were transgender?’
Don’t ask this question — instead, try directing the question at yourself, advises Crankshaw. When did you know you were a girl or a boy? Can you pinpoint that as a choice you made or did it happen subconsciously?
“Transgender people knew just the same as you,” said Key. “The difference is that we didn’t have the language to describe it.”
The pronoun conundrum — what is appropriate?
Most transgender people want to be referred to by the pronoun of the gender with which they identify. “This is the shortest, simplest way to say, ‘I see you, I acknowledge you,'” Key said.
If you don’t always get it right, don’t freak out. Don’t make big deal of it, Kailey writes on “Tranifesto.”
When Ryan Casseta, a transgender 21-year-old, told his mother years ago that he felt like a boy rather than a girl, she immediately showed him love and acceptance. But it took practice for Fran Cassata to call him the new name — Ryan — that he wanted.
She laughs, recalling the experience. “I kept using ‘she’ and then I finally said to him, ‘Well, you try to call me by a different name. Don’t call me mom anymore. You can call me, ‘Your Highness.'”
Mother and son navigated a very difficult experience with humor, a method she encourages.
How do you parent a child who identifies as transgender?
Ryan Cassata is now a singer who performs and travels around the country giving speeches about his experience. There are usually parents in the audience who are just beginning to go through what he and his mom did years ago.
“I understand that it can feel really hard,” Fran Cassata said. “But I ask them to take some time to think about whether it is really, really that hard.”
At first, parents might go through a mourning period because they are grieving the loss of a son or daughter — the child’s assigned gender.
“For me it didn’t last very long because I realized Ryan was still the same person,” she said. “Your child is still your child. They still have the same laugh, their favorite color and foods are the same. It’s all the same love. It’s just now your daughter is your son or your son is your daughter.”
Try to resist reacting overly emotionally, say parents of transgender children.
Take some time and get information. A great book to check out is college English professor Jennifer Finney Boylan’s “Stuck in the Middle with You: Parenthood in Three Genders.” Finney Boylan, who can be heard in this Fresh Air interview, transitioned from male to female.
Experts also point to the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, which offers support and a wealth of information to help keep families talking and together. Clinical social worker Caitlin Ryan directs the project, which in the past 14 years has trained more than 60,000 families, mental health providers and clergy in the United States, China and some Latin American countries.
Could it be a phase?
Key works with a lot of families and children, especially elementary school students who are just beginning to express a gender that is different than the one assigned to them at birth. Some parents will be inclined to ask: “Is this a phase?”
She advises parents to give themselves permission to think of it as a phase if it helps them.
“What if it is a phase? Take that question further,” she said. “Don’t we as parents want our children to be able to explore and learn?”
A parent should be concerned with sending an immediate message to their child that they accept them.
The phase question is tied, of course, to: “What if my child changes his or her mind?”
“Well, OK, then they do!” said Key. “Give them that freedom.”
Do you think your religious beliefs don’t allow you to accept transgender people?
This is a far more complex discussion than can be had in this story. But Key has some insight. He was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household. His mother happened to adore him, he said, and he always felt accepted. Leelah Alcorn said in her suicide note that she felt rejection from her Christian parents. A transgender person may also struggle when it comes to religion — if they believe, they may fear that their God will ultimately reject them.
Key works with families of various religious beliefs who have a transgender relative.
“I always tell them to start with the core values of a religion — love and acceptance and non-judgment,” said Key. “There may be an inclination to go talk to a pastor or some other leader.”
Rethink doing that, he said.
A person who is not the child’s parent isn’t likely going to have the same bond or the same level of concern, said Key. And it could feel like a scary betrayal to a child if you go to another adult that they’ve not consented to knowing about their transgender identity. Believe in your connection with your child and that will resonate with him or her.
How hard can it be to navigate this world as a transgender person?
Beyond emotional challenges and questions of self, a transgender person has to live in a society that is defined by “male” and “female.” In 2013, for example, CNN wrote about a transgender first-grader who was born a boy but identified as a girl.
The child’s parents won a long legal battle for their child to use the girls’ restroom at her Colorado elementary school.
The Colorado Rights Division said that keeping Coy Mathis, born with male genitalia, from using the girls’ bathroom created “an environment that is objectively and subjectively hostile, intimidating or offensive.”
It was a first-of-its-kind ruling in the country regarding transgender students’ rights.
That sounded like progress to Fran Cassata.
When Ryan Cassata was in school less than a decade ago, he was told he could not use the boys’ or girls’ bathroom but had to go to a nurse’s station to sign in, his mother said. He always signed the name “Ryan.” One day the nurse told him that he couldn’t go to the bathroom unless he signed his birth name, Fran Cassata recounted. So the teen went to principal, who told the nurse that the teenager could say he was Superman, just let him take care of business.
“You hope there are kind people your child will encounter,” she said. “You hope there are people who help them rather than ridicule them.”
But there will be people like that nurse. There will be people far worse.
“Just be a parent,” she said. “Trust that they can handle themselves and give them your strength when they need you.”