On December 28, 2014, Leelah Acorn jumped in front of a truck and died. Not long after her death, a scheduled post to her tumblr appeared on the internet — her suicide note.
Why did she die?
She details it in her suicide note; how her parents forced her into conversion therapy, isolated her, and in the end she saw no hope for herself. Yet even in her darkest moment, she hoped for a better future. In her own words:
“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.”
So many people within the trans community have seen her post, read her words, and thought similar thoughts: “That could have been me.”
A friend of mine wrote me a text three weeks ago. She wrote, “I tried to hang myself.” I remember sitting there, my phone in my hands, and tears blurring my vision. “Never try to hang yourself,” she wrote, “it hurts and my neck is still really red.” She tried to make light of it, but the words still sat there between us. If her mother hadn’t stopped her, hadn’t gotten her help, I would have been standing at her funeral, watching as they buried her in the ground. My hands shook as I begged her to please not try again. To please stay alive. That there is hope, but even as I typed those words, I wondered, is there hope?
She believes she will never pass as a woman, and that she will never be able to live her life as her true self. Just last night, she sent me a text about her feelings of hopelessness. I don’t know how to help, because she can’t see what I see. She does pass; she is a woman and has always been, but she can’t see that because society beats us down again and again with messages that trans lives don’t matter. How we identify doesn’t matter. How we present doesn’t matter. Our bodies are a public billboard for people to smear their hate. In some parts of the world, coming out means being forced into conversion therapy or even being murdered. What hope do we have?
46% of trans men and 42% of transwomen have attempted suicide according to a new study by the Williams Institute and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. What drives people in my community to suicide? Most media outlets will try to paint us as mentally unstable and broken, as less than human, and that’s why we do it. It is hopelessly ironic that very attitude is part of the reasons. Society vilifies us, paints us a sexual deviants, as freak shows, as less than human, our bodies public. If any of us transition and this is discovered, it’s treated as an expose, as if we are the ones cheating and lying to society about our “biological sex” and thus the hate mail and harassment escalates.
In March 2013, Lucy Meadows killed herself. She worked as a primary school teacher, and only wished to live as her authentic self. Instead, she received hate mail, harassed by the media, and her life turned into this public display — a circus firestorm that painted her as a freak for transitioning. Everyone who had sent the hate mail, the media that had torn apart her life — all of them are complicit in her death. The sad truth is this is far too common, where the media paints us as freaks to dissect and mount like a butterfly pinned to a display board.
Each time a trans person dies by suicide, society is complicit in their death. Leelah died because her family rejected her true self and forced her into conversion therapy, cutting her off from her friends and support groups. That’s psychological abuse, so yes, her family is complicit in her death. Even now they deny Leelah’s true self, trying desperate to erase her words and her self and paint her how they wish to see her. They deny her identity, and in turn wreck damage even in her death. Leelah will not have a memorial or a funeral to her true self. Her family will not give her such dignity or respect. They claim to love her, but they reject her true self, and when you reject someone’s true self, how can you ever claim to love them? Do you not love the image of who you want them to be rather than the person?
Trans lives do matter. We do exist. We should be treated with respect, dignity, and equal to the rest of humanity. We are not less than human. We are not broken freaks. Our identities are true and right for us, and that should be respected and honored.
Yet, that is not how society is. That is not how we are treated. Being trans is often like a death sentence, where we walk on this border between life and death in a society that vilifies us and often hates us. We do not choose to be trans; it is a fact of our lives, inescapable.
So many of my trans friends have no jobs, not because they can’t work, but because no matter how hard they try, very few companies are willing to hire them. We struggle to obtain healthcare for our needs; some of us being denied it to the point of dying from lack of it. We struggle to earn enough money to eat and afford shelter, yet so many of us homeless and starving. We struggle to live as our authentic selves, where so many of us are rejected by our families; so many of us are victims of abuse, domestic violence, and/or rape. Where some of us are murdered for being trans. We struggle to have the dignity to use the bathroom, where so many of us are banned from using restrooms, forced to hold until we find a safe place or worse forced to use the restroom that puts us in danger of our lives. We struggle to stay alive, and if we dare to fight back against our attackers, some of us end up in prison — often in the wrong gendered dorms. The statistics are bleak, and our stories often not heard. Often times, cis (non-trans) people will rewrite our lives, erasing our identities, in order to avoid acknowledging we even exist. Is it any wonder that so many of us seek relief through death?
How many of us must die before society changes? We must do better. We have to try.
Leelah’s plea echoes in my ears. “Fix society. Please.”