It goes without saying that Leelah Alcorn’s suicide is about more than just Leelah Alcorn. It’s about the thousands of LGBTQ young people in the United States and abroad whose collective torment led about a third of them to attempt suicide by the age of 18. Of the hundreds or thousands of LGBTQ youth who committed suicide in 2014, why is it that Leelah has become the focus of the debate? Because of her note. Her note, controlled and alive in the face of unimaginable pain, shows us an inescapably real human being in an inescapably real tragedy. Her voice, more than any photograph, breaks through the noise and forces us to recognize her.
Anger has been a large part of the reaction to her suicide and note; anger at her parents, now grieving the loss of a child as they receive harassing phone calls, messages and death threats daily; anger on behalf of a generation of LGBTQ youth at the society that did this, with her suicide note ending in a simple request: “Fix society. Please.”; anger that her society didn’t listen to her.
This anger, among many reactions, is justified, but the focus of the reporting and the discussion must be on LGBTQ youth across the United States, not on Leelah’s parents or the individuals around her. (Although she has no notes to be read, Leelah’s mother is a real person too, a person who has just lost a child.) Focusing on only Leelah risks doing a terrible thing: contributing to the danger that affects a whole generation of LGBTQ youth.
Four times as many LGBTQ youth attempt suicide as heterosexual youth. It’s a fact that the risk that an LGBTQ teenager will attempt suicide is high. At a time when an LGBTQ suicide has entered into the sympathies and minds of hundreds of thousands or millions across the country, that risk becomes highest. Leelah’s note, originally posted on Tumblr and subsequently shared by many media outlets, has likely been read by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. In it, she says it doesn’t get better, that it gets worse, that all that awaits her is a life of loneliness. There is no way out.
We need to be careful about sharing this message in a country with millions of LGBTQ youths at risk. We spread these messages of despair as messages that must be read and taken in, that must not be ignored. It puts a nation of LGBTQ youth in danger to share these urgent messages of despair without also spreading messages of hope. It can get better. Life is long, and loneliness, misunderstanding and pain are not all that awaits you. Do not do as Leelah has done.
Leelah’s note ends with a glimmer of hope. After saying that all of her possessions should be given to trans civil rights movements, she ends her note by writing, “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was. … 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 fucked up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
We can’t let her down by focusing only on her and not the generation of LGBTQ youth who are still alive and still in danger in America. By sharing Leelah’s note with no context other than statements of agreement with her and the urgency of her message, we risk encouraging hopelessness, anger and suicide in the minds of many young people. We need to talk about Leelah as well as about a generation of teenagers who can be saved. Together with the story of this tragedy, there is one thing that also needs to be heard: that it can get better.
Jeffrey Sun is an LSA junior.