CINCINNATI >> Leelah Alcorn wrote a note on her Tumblr blog, then walked several miles through the night and into the path of a tractor-trailer rumbling down a highway. In the final message attributed to her, she pleaded: “My death needs to mean something. … Fix society. Please.”
Although many details about her life and tragic end are still unclear, the transgender Ohio 17-year-old became, within days of her death Dec. 28, the new face of a growing movement of people hungering for acceptance.
From the parking lot of her former suburban high school to London’s Trafalgar Square, thousands have attended vigils in memory of the teenager named Joshua at birth. Tens of thousands have discussed her on social media or signed online petitions in support of transgender people. And a Golden Globe winner dedicated the award to her on national television.
“It was the right time and place for Leelah’s story,” said Jill Soloway, creator of the TV series “Transparent,” about a father who comes out as a transgender woman. “There are so many people like Leelah. There are so many stories.”
Alcorn’s selfies and poignant messages hit home among many transgender people who say they have faced disapproving families, discrimination or violence. Many hope the discussion generated by her death will lead to more acceptance of transgender people and reassure them that they are not alone.
Studies have found extraordinarily high suicide and attempted suicide rates among transgender youth. A 2010 survey found 41 percent of transgender people responding said they had tried to kill themselves.
While there’s concern among experts and transgender leaders that the immense attention to Alcorn’s death could lead to copycat suicides, some say it has belatedly pushed important issues into the spotlight.
“I think this had to happen at some point,” said Greta Martela, founder of San Francisco-based Trans Lifeline. “I think that we have to have a discussion about this as a society.”
Martela said calls to her organization’s crisis hotline shot up from 60 a day to nearly 150 immediately after reports about the death began spreading.
Alcorn was a talented artist who had attended high school in Kings Mills and worked at the nearby Kings Island theme park but had enrolled a year ago in an online school. She had friends in school and didn’t mention any problems in her Tumblr post with bullying.
But in it, she complained of depression and isolation, lamented that her life would only get worse, and expressed frustration that her parents wanted her to be “their perfect little straight Christian boy.” She said she was taken to “Christian therapists” who were “very biased.”
Some who knew Alcorn said they knew of conflicts with her parents but were stunned by her apparent suicide, which took place at 2:20 a.m. on Interstate 71. The Ohio State Highway Patrol said investigators are awaiting laboratory results and other evidence before making a final determination about the death.
Many have lashed out at Alcorn’s parents online for everything from continuing to refer to Alcorn as Joshua to allegedly subjecting her to “conversion therapy,” which involves the use of prayer or other means to try to change someone’s sexual orientation. New Jersey and California have passed laws against it.
Alcorn’s parents, Carla and Doug Alcorn, have said little publicly other than to express their love and grief for the child they lost. But Tim Tripp, the family minister for Northeast Church of Christ involved in counseling the Alcorns, emphatically denied using conversion therapy.
“I do not do nor have I ever done or attempted ‘conversion therapy’ for anyone related to issues of gender or sexual identity,” Tripp said in an email. “I do offer counseling here at the church, but it is primarily pastoral in nature and seeks healing for individuals, marriages and families experiencing some sort of struggle in their lives.”
Of the family, Tripp said he continues “walking with them through immense and all-too-public grief in their loss.”
Public events in Alcorn’s memory continue.
In Las Vegas, Jackson Nightshade, 27, took part in an awareness and information session Thursday — spurred by Alcorn’s death — at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada.
“As tragic as Leelah’s death was, it could be kind of a catalyst for ‘fixing society,'” Nightshade said.