January 31, 2015
Quiet fell in the chapel on Wednesday afternoon for a candlelit vigil in honor of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old girl who committed suicide on December 28, 2014. Alcorn’s death became a flashpoint in the trans rights movement when pre-scheduled posts appeared on her Tumblr account citing her conservative Christian parents’ refusal to accept her transgender identity as a reason she ended her life.
“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,” Alcorn said in a post.
“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,” Alcorn wrote.
Swati Acharya ’16 began Wednesday’s vigil by telling Alcorn’s story and speaking out against the “disdain and violence that plague the trans community.” She also honored Lamia Beard and Ty Underwood, two trans women who were murdered this past January. “Trans people and their struggle are largely invisible,” Acharya said.
Acharya, a member of the Womyn’s Center e-board, said that once she thought of hosting a vigil in Alcorn’s memory, she contacted campus organizations that advocate for trans rights. In addition to the Womyn’s Center, the Rainbow Alliance, the Feminists of Color Collective, the Days-Massolo Center and college chaplain Jeff McArn made the service possible.
“My hopes [for the vigil] are to, first, give everyone who feels deep sorrow for Leelah the opportunity to send their condolences. My second objective is to raise awareness of trans issues. Trans people and their issues are invisible in our society as no one addresses the violence and derogatory attitude inflicted on them,” Acharya said. “The main reason Leelah got the media attention that she did was because she was an active Tumblr user. There are so many other cases like Leelah that no one hears about because they are not covered.”
On Tumblr, Alcorn wrote that she “cried of happiness” when she discovered the word ‘transgender’ at 14 because she had felt like, what she described as a girl trapped in a boy’s body since the age of four. However, when she told her parents, they told her it was just a phase and refused to let her start any kind of medical transitionary treatments. She struggled with depression but her parents would only take her to so-called conversion therapy, pseudo-scientific treatments aimed at changing the sexual orientation or gender identity of non-heterosexual or non-cisgender people. Hoping to ease into coming out as trans, Alcorn came out as gay at school. This angered her parents so much that they removed her from school and took away all access to social media, effectively cutting her off from her friends.
“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 shit because everyone there is against everything I live for, I have decided I’ve had enough,” Alcorn wrote.
In her post, Alcorn expressed the wish that her belongings be sold and the profits donated to transgender rights movements. “My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year,” she wrote. A January 2014 survey referenced by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide, dramatically more than the 4.6 percent rate among the overall U.S. population.
In the aftermath of Alcorn’s death, the news attracted attention from international media outlets and social media. Alcorn’s parents were criticized for misgendering her and referring to her as their “son” on Facebook and in an interview with CNN. The hashtag #LeelahAlcorn trended on Twitter and candlelit vigils were held around Alcorn’s home state of Ohio as well as in London, Washington D.C. and New York City. A petition to ban conversion therapy on minors in the United States, called Leelah’s Law, accrued more than 300,000 signatures in a week.
“This issue is strongly connected to the Hamilton community. Through this vigil I want to inform our trans students of the organizations that are willing to provide them support,” Acharya said. Isla Ng ’16, Joany Lamur ’17 and Emma Wilkinson ’16 read poetry written by trans women of color to amplify the voices of this marginalized group.
“The poetry was very touching,” Laura Whitmer ’18 said. “I am glad to be on a campus with organizations that hold these types of events.”
Around 40 students and staff gathered in the chapel on Wednesday. Alan Yeh ’18 said it was uplifting to see such a turnout for the vigil. “I hope that we can continue to talk about and learn from these kinds of issues,” Yeh said.
Diana Suder ’18, meanwhile, expressed surprise that more people did not come. “But trans issues are ignored as a whole, so maybe it wasn’t so surprising after all,” she said. Nonetheless, Suder thought the vigil effectively showed support for Alcorn and the visibility of trans women.
After the reading, candles were passed around and all those in attendance observed a minute of silence. “I hope that we as a community can become more aware and understanding of trans identities and not render them invisible by misgendering them,” Acharya said in closing.