Smiles for Leelah Alcorn, Who Asked Us to ‘Fix Society. Please.’

leelah alcorn

As I was scrolling through Facebook today, I came upon a post about the suicide of 17-year-old transgender teen Leelah Alcorn. After reading the article, which included the suicide note she posted on Tumblr, I went to her Tumblr page and read both the notes she left and continued to scroll through the many posts and pictures she had reblogged. While there were many pictures indicating desperation, there were also pictures of Asian pop idols and anime. I smiled to myself thinking about this young girl sitting at a computer in her room, sharing pictures she related to and felt spoke of her true self. That smile was instantly shaken as I began crying, almost uncontrollably. Another teenager lost. Another useless death.

Throughout the day I just couldn’t shake my thoughts about Leelah. It wasn’t that I was just sad about a teen suicide; I was almost consumed with thinking about her life and what led to those last moments. When I read that her mother had misgendered her by writing on Facebook, “My sweet 16 year old son, Joshua Ryan Alcorn went home to heaven this morning,” and apparently erased her suicide by adding, “He was out for an early morning walk and was hit by a truck,” I was even more saddened that a parent could still be in so much denial and possess such a lack of respect for a human life, especially that of her child.

I don’t believe in shaming. I can’t imagine living the rest of my life knowing that my direct actions and words had led to the death of my child. Forgiveness is much more powerful and usually more difficult. I don’t think shaming Leelah’s parents will make the situation any better, and in her suicide note Leelah clearly states that their actions weren’t the only reason she decided to kill herself. But if her parents had been different, would her situation have been more bearable? Maybe we can learn from her and not allow her death to be in vain.

Years ago I saw an interview with writer Toni Morrison on The Oprah Winfrey Show. During the interview Morrison said:

It’s interesting to see when a kid walks in a room, your child or anybody else’s child, does your face light up? That’s what they’re looking for. When they see you, they see the critical face. Let your face speak what’s in your heart. It’s just as small as that you see.

Oprah responded, “And that’s how you learn what your value is — not by what the person is saying to you but what you feel.”

I’ve often thought about that statement, especially since validation of others has been so important to me since I was a small child. Last year I made a conscious effort at attempting to smile at people on a regular basis — in the store, at the bank, when my clients walk into their appointments, at family members, at my friends, and especially at my husband. I have been absolutely amazed by how few people smile back or even acknowledge me.

My intention behind smiling more often wasn’t only to see people’s reactions but to meet people where they are with a smile and a little bit of happiness. When we see strangers and even people we know, we have no idea what they might be dealing with or what might be troubling their heart. Maybe the power of a smile, or just someone looking at them with happiness in their eyes, might affect them positively.

I have a friend who seems to have a pretty spectacular life, at least to those of us on the outside looking in, yet she is depressed on a regular basis. One time I was chiding her, telling her that she needed to be more grateful. She replied, “I get that I have a better life than lots of people. I get that I have a nice car and a nice house, and I definitely should be more grateful. But today, in my reality, I am miserable.” It was such a powerful statement to me, because I realized that no one really knows another person’s life and perspective. And most of the time we don’t take the time to respect what they have to say, or even ask what they have to say.

To Kill a Mockingbird is my all-time favorite book and movie. In fact, when I was writing my book The Before Now and After Then, I referenced To Kill a Mockingbird several times to draw a parallel between the father, Atticus Finch, and the parents in my book, who are compassionate and accepting of their gay son. In To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus passes on this piece of wisdom to his daughter Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Why is that so difficult for us to comprehend? I just don’t understand why, with all of the hatred, war and disease in the world, we aren’t more loving and accepting of each other, especially our children. It doesn’t matter if someone is cis or trans, gay or straight, black or white, rich or poor. Really, it doesn’t matter. And that should be the lesson we learn from Leelah Alcorn. Life is really, really short. Live with intention. Be a kinder person. Make every day matter. Smile at someone. Make their world just a little bit better, not a whole lot worse. It’s very simple.

In her suicide note Leelah issued the following request: “Fix society. Please.” If we all just sat back, shut up and listened to our children, not just our biological children but all our children, we might learn a thing or two. They’re speaking to us, and we’re not listening. That’s why the teen suicides continue. That’s why drug use is rampant and kids don’t believe in the It Gets Better Project. We’re not listening to them, and we’re not doing anything to make it better. Teenagers don’t have any power, but we do. It’s our time to make a difference before it’s too late and one more teenager dies.

In her suicide note Leelah wrote:

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. I’m never going to transition successfully, even when I move out. I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say “it gets better” but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.

That’s the gist of it, that’s why I feel like killing myself. Sorry if that’s not a good enough reason for you, it’s good enough for me. As for my will, I want 100% of the things that I legally own to be sold and the money (plus my money in the bank) to be given to trans civil rights movements and support groups, I don’t give a shit which one. 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. 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.

“My death needs to mean something.” Wow, that’s pretty profound. They’re just kids, right? They’re just teenagers, and they don’t know anything about the world, right? Well, I think Leelah taught us all a very valuable lesson: Life is very precious, and it needs to mean something.

I never knew her, but I wish I had. It probably wouldn’t have changed anything; I know that. I don’t have that much power. But she has changed me. Forever.

And from now on, whenever I look into a stranger’s eyes and smile, I’ll be thinking of Leelah. And hopefully you’ll do the same.


Need help? In the U.S., visit The Trevor Project or call them at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.