Fixing Society: Leelah Alcorn, Cis Allyship, and Trans Erasure
*Trigger Warning* This post discusses systematic violence and suicide. I have placed a *TW* a few sentences before text that could be especially triggering. Please take care of yourself. <3
A year ago, Leelah Alcorn died* as a result of trans oppression and violence. How she died and the words she left behind sparked shock and outrage among cisgender people around the globe. To trans people, who face trans discrimination every day, it was a familiar event in a string of losses that make up our people’s history. And as I see facebook events and news articles about Leelah appear, I think back to exactly six months to the day before Leelah’s death, when 28 year old Tiff Edwards, a young trans woman of color, was murdered.** Like the first vigil, on the anniversary of Tiff’s death those of us remembering her did so without visibility. Part of what made Leelah so well remembered, in addition to her whiteness and viral post-death statement, is that she asked the world to “fix society” to keep others from living, and dying, as she did. In the past year, as demand for trans resources continues to rise, the issue to be “fixed” is not the presence of trans oppression, it is the absence of trans liberation.
I have been working as a trans activist since the day I came out, which will be ten years next month. The majority of my work has centered on my, and Leelah’s, home town, Cincinnati, Ohio. Like Leelah, I came out into a dark void of isolation, fear and anger but unlike her, I was privileged in that I was older, 21,; I was not entirely rejected by my family or friends, and though I was poor, I was independent enough to fend for myself. I was fairly green as an activist, but I thought if I worked to fix what caused trans suffering, eventually I would stop suffering too. I hoped that if I made myself seen, other trans people would find me. This eventually lead me to found Heartland Trans Wellness Group, a Midwest focused organization that primarily addresses Cincinnati area trans community needs. People often ask me how I learned to do this work, to which I always respond, “I learned how to swim by trying not to drown.” And that is what activism among the oppressed is like. We are in the sea of oppression trying to save our community from drowning without drowning ourselves.
When working on behalf of your own community, a lot of activism doubles as a mode of survival. As organizers struggle to support ourselves, we become less and less able to provide for our communities. When a community lacks resources, it is difficult for new leaders to emerge. Here we see the vicious cycle of every oppressed movement. The trans movement does not appear to move slow or in spurts because we are disorganized. It is because we are distracted by the need to survive. Upon hearing this, many people say, “That’s where allies come in!” and I don’t entirely disagree, however at this point in the trans movement, allyship is primarily being used as a misnomer for representative. Few cis allies will purposefully usurp trans leadership, but when you look at how trans people are treated in media, human service, and the non-profit industrial complex, the result more than speaks for itself.
A local Cincinnati newspaper published an article asking if anyone has “fixed society” in the last year. Written by a cis ally, it presents an important discussion on progress and problems related to the trans movement. The article is long and thorough, covering national events and statistics as well as issues specific to Cincinnati. Of the eight people interviewed for the article, two of them are trans. 25% of an article that is 100% about trans people comes from the perspective of trans people. If anyone feels compelled to reiterate the “not enough trans activists” argument, that can be easily dispelled. Here we have two experienced trans service providers, one in medicine and the other in mental health, each of whose work is entirely dedicated to trans needs and work with trans people every day. Knowing them both personally, I can attest to their exceptional competency and expertise on Cincinnati’s trans community and yet in the 2,244 word article, only 70 of them are quotes from trans people – that is 3%. What’s more, the cis voices given the most space are in the same professions as the trans providers right down to their specialty population (Yokoyama and Conard both serve trans youth; Yokoyama also serves trans adults while running the city’s only trans service organization). It is also notable that both trans interviews are placed in the middle of the article, neither setting the initial tone for the piece, nor closing with the final thought. Both of those critical spots where given to a cisgender physician who in each quotation uses Leelah’s dead*** name, an action that to trans people is considered one of the most significant forms of psychological violence. The good intentions of the article are lost behind the veil of cis privilege, leaving an inarguable example of systematic trans erasure. If you search for articles addressing Leelah, including those written by LGBTQ media outlets, you will find a primary absence of trans interviews. When looking at coverage of Cincinnati’s political response, including the installation of a memorial sign and two about the city’s “conversion therapy ban,” none include trans voices or the voices of trans or queer youth. I also can’t help but point out the irony of Cincinnati city council member Chris Seelbach, a relative newcomer to trans allyship, who immediately took the media stage upon Leelah’s death, stating the importance of addressing transphobic language when he has avoided accountability for his own transphobia as recently as last Spring. I do believe a person can learn to be an ally regardless of their past behavior; however, it is not appropriate for a cis person brand new to trans allyship to claim a lead voice in Cincinnati’s trans movement. Seelbach is a prime example of a cis person who has been repeatedly called upon by trans people to back up, and yet is still found quoted in nearly every news address of Cincinnati’s trans movement.
So who should be the lead voice in discussing Leelah? We must look to the community most directly impacted by this tragedy, trans youth, but you will not find them in any of the the aforementioned articles either. Trans activist and young person Jason Hettesheimer offers critical perspective as he recalls a meeting he recently held with trans and queer high schoolers, *TW* “…They didn’t know their rights or how to find support. We could use the momentum from Leelah’s death to work on empowering trans kids but instead we spend it on impractical policies and vigils for someone who died a year ago.” Memorials and vigils serve many purposes, including being a healing space, demonstrating the need for change, and most importantly, motivating people to make that change happen. Hettesheimer says, “Instead of using dead trans youth as the face of trans youth activism, we could empower living trans youth to fight against the systems oppressing us.” His statement speaks volumes about communities experiencing epidemics of violence, torn between survival and remembrance. Despite the violence, there are countless trans organizers around the globe, but as the community and its needs increase, so does the pressure on trans organizers to fill the gaps left by cisgender run systems of healthcare, housing, education, and human service to name a few. And when unsupported activists burn out, we are finding fewer and fewer people to replace us. For six years Hettesheimer has been one of the most vocal trans youth in Cincinnati doing everything from creating youth groups, to lobbying for policy change, to teaching workshops. Now, he finds himself against a wall. “Adults like to tell me how smart and strong I am,” he says, “They love to invite me to events, but when I speak they don’t listen. I don’t want to work with people who only care about trans kids when we are dead.” Yesterday he posted an announcement on his Tumblr stating that due to ageism and a lack of action in Cincinnati, he will no longer participate in the city’s trans activist movement.
Hettesheimer is far from the first trans activist to step back as a last choice for self care. Over the years I watched activist after activist back up or burn out in minimal time from Cincinnati’s toxically conservative environment which, in one way or another, mirrors all cities including more “progressive” ones. I could never blame a person for leaving the movement, or more frequently the city, for the sake of self care, but I couldn’t avoid the heartbreak that came each time a glimmering hope of a comrade fizzled out. Speaking for myself, while my work in Cincinnati filled me with humbling gratitude and joyful purpose, over time my work drained me emotionally, physically, and financially. In the eight plus years I worked on Heartland Trans Wellness Group, over six of which I was the only full time organizer, I averaged a 50-60 hour week and never once received a paycheck or benefits. Because the organization had no funding, I took touring gigs and odd jobs alongside my activist work and paid Heartland’s bills with the same checks that paid my rent. I worked in consistent isolation, suspiciously monitored, and in a few cases harassed by colleagues and other members of the LGBT community. I was constantly stressed out by my inability to provide enough resources, haunted by the people I’d lost to violence, and the impeding doom of losing more.
*TW* After Leelah’s death, Heartland experienced a huge spike in service requests from within the trans community. After the news broke, Jonah Yokoyama and I worked three days and nights to address trans community distress; Jonah was juggling a full time job on top of it. In addition to addressing the community’s and our own emotional upheaval, we fielded responses from the media and the cis community. The organization had been little more than a wallflower to the cis community, but cis shock and guilt quickly elevated it to being the most popular kid in school. But that popularity didn’t last, and when the dust settled promises of volunteers, donations, and fundraising never materialized. Some of these promises came from the very people who continue to block trans voices with their own. Heartland continues to strive to meet trans needs, and Yokoyama presents a positive picture of its growth, but what is not mentioned is that it is still an unfunded organization resting on the shoulders of a few trans community members, primarily Yokoyama, who continues to go under-recognized and unpaid for their work.
*TW* When we talk about “fixing” society, it is important to pay attention to where it is broken. The trans movement is not easily split into heroes and villains; there are complex systems of oppression at work here. When you think about trans community leadership, who comes to mind? How many people are celebrities versus those working on the ground every day? This lack of representation is not because trans leaders don’t exist and it is not accidental. It is a symptom of systematic trans erasure which is caused by the glass ceiling of cissexism and privilege. It keeps trans people trapped in the water, drowning, and society only looks down when one of our bodies floats to the top.
To be clear, I am not promoting the idea of a “trans only” movement where you have to be within the trans community (including partners and family members) to contribute. There are a lot of awesome, hardworking cis people contributing to the trans movement and the best, most credible folks are doing it quietly, not giving interviews and speeches. Whoever is involved in the work, the focus of the trans movement must always be on trans people and trans experiences, being told by trans voices – more specifically by the voices of those who are the most targeted such as trans people of color and trans youth. Yes, trans activists struggle, but like gentrification, the solution is not for cis people to take over or for LGB non-profits to adopt trans projects and siphon funding away from trans lead ones. It is to support the people and organizations who are already doing the work. Give us your money, collaborate with us on a grant and give us control of it, give us spaces to meet, educate yourself, and volunteer with a closed mouth and an open mind. This is what will help the trans activists of our movement and create ways for more trans community members, including partners and family, to take on leadership. It is common knowledge that there is strength in numbers, but strength is relative. I truly believe that any person that feels compassion for trans people is capable of valuable, important work. That said, capability does not equal competency. There is no exchange for a trans voice for a cis one. It is only through supporting and empowering trans communities that we can hope to combat our oppression.
If you are struggling, remember that it is a sign of strength to ask for help. Talk to the people you love. If you are in the Midwest, you can call Heartland Trans Wellness. You can send me an email to talk it out. OR 24/7 call Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800) 273-TALK, or Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386. If it is an emergency, call 911. You are not alone.
If you would like to help the efforts of Cincinnati’s trans community, you can donate to Heartland Trans Wellness Group, offer to volunteer, or share the link and encourage others. Thank you for the support.
*I chose news articles from smaller media outlets because they did not include text from suicide notes, mug shots, given names, or misgendering. **TransGriot is run by the well respected trans activist, Monica Roberts.
*** Common label used by trans people, especially youth, to describe the name given to them at birth (verses their chosen or true name).