The death of Leelah Alcorn has led to protests against the oppression of trans people. Neil Rogall reports from a vigil in Trafalgar Square.
Up to 200 mainly young people attended a vigil on the afternoon of Saturday 3 January for seventeen-year-old Leelah Alcorn, a young woman from Ohio who died on 28 December after she was hit by traffic near her home. Leelah had written on her blog that her devout Christian parents had forced her to undergo “conversion therapy” to change her sexual orientation and that “I feel like killing myself”. She wrote, “Mom and dad: Fuck you. You can’t just control other people like that. That’s messed up.”
There has been an unprecedented outpouring of grief and anger at Leelah’s death. Vigils are being held around the globe, and around 250,000 people have signed a petition calling for Barack Obama to ban “conversion therapy”.
The organisers announcing the protest declared, “the vigil serves four purposes. First it is there simply to remember a life cut so short by someone that shared our struggles, a girl killed by systemic trans misogyny. Second it is there to remind people that her death was a political death, that when a member of our community is brutalised at the hands of oppression we must all fight back. Third it is a reminder to other folks that we are more than just individuals in this struggle, that as a community we are stronger and that we can create positive change. It is deeply saddening that Leelah’s parents are still refusing to give her the basic respect she deserves, even in death, and so the fourth purpose of this vigil is to do what they will not and mourn a sister.”
The mood of the vigil was sad and angry. Rowan, one of the organisers, said “my first response is hopelessness – 48% of trans women under 26 try to kill themselves, 78% suffer harassment. But we can act, we need change, we are ok to be who we are.” Kae followed, saying that “every trans friend has suicidal thoughts. But it gets better when we organize. It is important to challenge cis-exclusive feminists”.
Those statements echo research by charity GIRES on the mental health of trans people in the UK: two-thirds of the trans people surveyed had attempted suicide or knew someone who had. One of many issues trans people face is that they can spend a long time waiting for treatments such as hormones and surgery: while some people have good experiences, 1 in 3 people had to wait between 1 and 3 years. The mental health of trans people typically improves greatly once they have transitioned.
Sarah, who spoke next, raged against Leelah’s parents for sending her to conversion therapy. “It is a lie, it does not work. If you block trans people in transition you put their life in danger… There are no laws regulating it. These people are killing our young people”.
Since Leelah’s death her mother has made statements which ignore Leelah’s gender identity, referring to her repeatedly as male and claiming 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.” Several speakers referred to this. Jane talked of the silence and erasure of trans people. Lorelei, a 17-year-old trans woman said she was furious at character assassination by parents who are trying to erase Leelah’s identity. “She is dead. Now they are murdering her name.”
Finally, Annie spoke out of anger: “We are who we want to be. We will not go silently into the night. We will be here and you cannot silence us”. Protesters then lit candles and held a two-minute silence. Though deeply sombre, the memorial showed the solidarity of trans people and the willingness of others to support them. Out of that pain can come anger and organisation.
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Mermaids provides support for transgender teenagers and their families in the UK. London Friend provides counselling for LGBT people and various social groups, including one for trans people.