The case of Leelah Alcorn, the 17 year -old Ohio transgender teen who took her own life on December the 28th 2014, is immeasurably tragic. It’s incredibly sad to me, and clearly to many, to see another transgender person feel the need to take their own life because their gender identity is being negated by those around her.
At the same time however, the amount of exposure gained by this event had been something quite incredible to behold. News of Leelah’s death became widespread, as well as the fact that her parents had put her through Transgender Conversion therapy, a form of therapy designed to “convert” transgender individuals that is almost unanimously considered by psychiatric experts to be a contributing factor to gender dysphoria and depression.
In response the activist group Transgender Human Rights Institute posted a petition on Change.org asking Barack Obama to enact a law banning the process of Transgender Conversion therapy, and that it be named Leelah’s Law in her honour. At time of writing the petition has almost 300,000 signatures, one of the most popular petitions on the website. Awareness and exposure has followed Leelah’s tragic story like none before it. And yet despite this I am worried.
Leelah stated in her suicide note on Tumblr that she “wanted her death to mean something”. I too want her death, and every trans* murder or suicide to mean something, to be a stimulus for change, to be a reason to look at what we have made for ourselves and say “fix it”. But we run the risk of portraying Leelah as a martyr, someone whose death has improved the world at large and someone who trans* youth should aspire to, specifically in her suicide.
There is concern among LGBTQ health groups that a correlation seems to exist between LGBTQ teens committing self-destructive acts and being exposed to said acts soon before. It works in two ways.
If a bullied or marginalised in an unstable mind state sees someone who had been in a similar situation to them receive massive amounts of praise and validation after their death the potential to project that situation onto their own and come to the conclusion that they could achieve validation through their death is dangerously high.
Additionally, we need to be careful about politicising suicide so as not to portray it as a form of activism. Suicide should not be seen as a way to make things better.
Leelah Alcorn’s death, and the coverage thereof has raised awareness of important issue. But that should never distract from the fact that we should attempt to prevent suicide in every way we possibly can, including being careful about the way we portray it.
Mourn Leelah, remember Leelah, pay respects to Leelah and honour Leelah. But don’t try and make her into a political statement. She, like the 41% of trans* people who attempt to commit suicide, are so much more than the changes made in their name. She was a human life, one that we should have been doing more to protect.