Throughout the day today, I have seen post after post on social media about the one-year anniversary of the death of Leelah Alcorn, the young transgender teen from Kings Mills who took her life by stepping in front of a truck on I-71 north of Cincinnati. As I have seen the posts, I have continued scroll past them, unable to let myself feel the weight of the day. Why? Leelah death and, more importantly, her life deserve my attention and recognition.
|Leelah Alcorn 1997 - 2014
Leelah and I have almost nothing in common. I have no idea what it is to be a transgender teenage girl. I have no idea what it is to live in a household with parents who isolate you from outside influences in an effort to, out of their own desire to love their child, force them into isolation and into therapy to change who you are.
My story is different. I am a cis gendered gay man. I knew who I was from a very early age, even though I didn’t always have the language or the courage to verbalize it. I isolated myself through my inability to live authentically as who I am. My parents, even if they would have been so inclined at the time, didn’t put me in therapy to change who I was because I couldn’t even be honest enough to tell them who their son was.
In many ways, I respect Leelah. I respect her bravery and boldness to be who she knew that she was, even when those who were entrusted to care for and nurture her told her that she should be someone else.
Leelah and I only really have a handful of things in common. First, I feel connection to her through her birth name of Josh, given to her when she was assigned the gender of male at birth. Even though I was very much closeted as a child and adolescent and even as a young adult, knowing that her parents called her Josh at home strikes something within me. Even though my internal struggle was self imposed in many ways, I know what it is to be a young child knowing that there is something inside you that is struggling to get out, something that you know you can’t let out because you know it will bring unwelcome consequences if you do, and, yet, know that you cannot deny that it’s there.
The second point of connection that I feel with Leelah is, of course, the experience of conversion therapy. I, as an adult, walked willing into the process to allow others to tell me that there was something broken inside of me. Leelah was forced into that process. Those years were hard enough for me at times. I have memories of hating the very core of my being for the thoughts that inadvertently passed through my head. I oppressed myself as well as trying to oppress others by encouraging them to enter the same sort of “victorious” life that I was living. If I, at that time, had encountered someone like Leelah, I would have reached out to her. Absolutely I have. I would have wanted to hear her story, listening for the very moment that I could identify a moment of weakness or doubt within her. I immediately connected with the conversion therapy aspect of Leelah’s story. I had always assumed that it was because of our common pain. Now, tonight, as I reflect, I realize that it stems from unresolved guilt that I feel over the paid that I knew I might have inflicted upon had our lives aligned differently and our courses in life taken on different direction than they have.
The third and final point of connection that I feel with Leelah comes from a place of connection with the current me, not the former. While there are still tinges of guilt from the old me, the reality is that I wasn’t very effective, thankfully, at leading people, including myself, out of a life of what I would have termed at the time “sexual brokenness.” To my knowledge, there is only one soul who is, partially because of my influence, still trying to deny his true self. He has his own internal demons and familial influences that he has to battle and push past though in order to set himself free. Leelah left us with a plea, to “fix society.” In this edict, I see my final point of connection with Leelah. We both have an indomitable desire to make the world a better place. I wish that she could have had the opportunity to do so with the tragedy of her life rather than the tragedy of her death. I have been vocal and will continue to be vocal in advocating for bans on conversion therapy on the state level for Ohio, but that is not enough. This needs to be a national conversation, and the battle cannot stop with our licensed counselors, therapists, and social workers. It must extend to every church, mosque, synagogue, and temple as well. No longer should who we are and what we believe be so intertwined that one is contingent upon or disqualified by the other. We must learn to embrace all aspects of our identities within ourselves and within each other. I wish that Leelah had not died, but I cannot change that now. I can do something, we can do something, for the millions of young people who are left behind and struggling just to be able to say, with authenticity, this is who I am.