Please check out this scholarship in honor of Bryn.
Please check out this scholarship in honor of Bryn.
*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).
*Trigger Warning* This post discusses suicidal thoughts and suicide. Details are minimal, but I have placed a *TW* in front of a paragraph that may be especially triggering. Please take care of yourself. <3
The last time I saw Leelah, she was smiling. She was a kid who was easy to remember. Cincinnati Trans Community Group isn’t a huge program, but it’s big enough that sometimes I need a minute to remember names and faces. Strangely enough, the people I remember best are the ones who rarely attend. Something in their face burns into my memory; I can see how much they want to there, to meet someone like them… It is a feeling I know very well. So, when those rare-comers come to sit in my black plastic chairs, they get the bulk of my attention, even if the meeting is packed. When I was little, I learned a story that said, “When a shepherd of one hundred loses one, he will leave the ninety-nine to seek the sheep he has lost.” Similarly, a person can be separated from the community and to find us, they must brave the wilderness. I go to find them as I once wanted someone to find me. Leelah braved the wilderness, and that is how I met her.
While running group, I am either watching faces, or listening as I look down at a circle of shoes. Once Leelah wore sneakers, another time she had chunky heels. Her eyes were dark, nearly matching her hair which she swooshed to one side over her eyebrows. Usually I can see the sadness in someone’s eyes, even when they smile. Leelah smiled quite a lot. I could see her sadness and I saw what looked like hope each time we spoke, or as she spoke to other trans people in group. That is what I have chosen to carrying with me. It’s a gift from her. I could not anticipate the rest.
In the trans community, suicide is a common part of the conversation. In fact, suicide has become such a normalized part of the trans narrative that many people, especially youth, consider it to be a probability for them. According to a 2014 study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the rate of suicide attempts within the U.S. non-trans population is 4.6%, whereas the rate within trans populations is a staggering 41%. And while most trans people don’t know this exact statistic, we know that suicide and trans identity are well acquainted. And in case you are thinking that maybe this trend is crowdsourced, keep in mind that my organization serves trans kids seeking help for suicidality who are as young as ten years old. These kids have never met another trans person in their life, but once they do meet us, they start to get better. Trans people do not struggle with suicidality because we are trans. It is because we are oppressed; we are exposed to negative things in our lives that make us doubt the safety of the world around us, and doubt ourselves.
It is not weak to want to end your life. The desire may even be understandable. At least, I understand it. I am not a spokesperson for all who have practiced self-harm or considered suicide, but I am one of those people. Sometimes I am nervous to admit it, but I am not ashamed. From recent event, one particular instance has been popping from my memory. When I was 16, I sat on a high story window ledge with concrete below. The details are mine to keep, but I will tell you that my dad came in to talk to me. He made me feel loved despite all the things I felt were “wrong” with me. He made me feel accepted, even when I felt like a freak. He left the room, I made it to the next day, and here I am now. When someone dies too soon, especially from suicide, I wonder why I made it when they didn’t. I’ve heard many people say that it is luck. The pills didn’t take. The phone rang. The sun came up. Maybe it was luck that my dad came in when he did, but one thing is certain; if I didn’t know people who make me feel like I deserve to live my life, I surely would have ended it a long time ago. I don’t consider myself dependent on others to survive in a literal sense, but I recognize that my mental and emotional wellness is linked with participating in a loving community. The need to belong is one of the most powerful forces we humans know. It drives us to seek out others for companionship, for affirmation, for recognition, and affection. I used to consider myself weak for needing other people and was fairly certain I could survive well enough without them. Being a radical trans activist who came out some years ago in a hellishly conservative Midwestern city with no visible trans community, one can come to understand the terrorizing impact of isolation very quickly. However, my battle with isolation didn’t start then. It has followed me from my early days as a gender non-conforming, disabled, just plain weird Indian kid. For many years, I thought being alone meant I was strong but I confused isolation with independence. Independence is a healthy state; being isolated is unhealthy or even dangerous. Isolation is not the action of one or even a handful of people, it is a systematic method of violence. Isolation may well have been my first enemy in life, and so it continues to be a primary objective in my work. It’s a violence that can strike anyone, and those who are shunned by society are easy targets. It has the power to rob us of our own sense of humanity and tear our souls apart. Such is the struggle of many trans people. Society tells us we do not belong. We are separated, singled out, and confined to where we cannot equality participate and many cannot meet even our most basic needs. In that rejection, we are told we are not worthy of love, or life. As a result, some of us take our own. Suicide is merely one of the many forms of violence trans people face and it is the result of trans oppression. In order to survive its impact, we as trans people need sources of strength. Without making the assumptive comparison that I know every reader here is going to make about a certain family, I grew up with a consistent source of love and, no matter how faint, the sensation of being loved. I was able to feel accepted on the most basic level which made me able to bear the rejection I find elsewhere. I can’t say I have borne it well, but I made it to adulthood. And as an adult, I was driven to fight that rejection, which turned into activism. My passion for activism gave me what I had been lacking; it wasn’t a will to survive, but a drive to make my survival mean something. That is why I am still here today.
I want to be clear; I do not struggle with self-harm and suicide because I am trans, but the oppression I experience as a trans person has impacted my life and wellness significantly. Fortunately, it is no longer an everyday battle for me to stay alive. That is a privilege. I have seen threats of death, from both inside and outside of myself. I have learned the value of life, and the benefit of love and friendship. And while life holds many obstacles, it brings many opportunities too. The longer I live, the better I am able to comprehend life as a gift, and not a burden. It is possible to light the darkness, and keep it lit. If I had jumped, I would never have learned that. I wish I had said this revelation louder, and to more people. Maybe if I had, one person would still be here. But, one person’s death is not the problem; it is a symptom of society’s attempt at trans erasure. Our community does not need to “come out” – we are already here. We have always been here. Others will try to isolate us, tear us from each other and from our own sense of self. It is up to us to fight, to stay present, and if we can, survive. If we look at the practical elements of the lives of trans people, what happened to Leelah is not hard to comprehend. In the past week, I have brought the same statement to every news interview, meeting, and microphone: Leelah’s situation is not unique. I work with people like her every day; people, mostly youth, that are cast out from their families and communities; are rejected and refused, controlled and destroyed by the wasteland that is my beautiful Midwest. And it is more than geography. It is our inability to access resources, often because the resources do not exist. Those of us on the front lines of trans activism continue to struggle to meet our people’s needs; to combat the transphobia, the racism, the poverty that tries to smother us. Yes, there are trans people on TV, but I am too busy trying to keep the trans kids on the street alive to watch it. I hate the fact that I have to explain the death of a kid as a “reality of our community.” I resent the response of shock from those who I have been begging for help all these years. Each day cisgender straight and gay systems continue to appropriate trans experiences for their own agendas; they ignore trans voices and draw resources away from our community to pad their own. They only notice us when they find it in their best interest. They do not understand that their self-oriented good intentions are contributing to trans erasure. While these outsiders are gaining a sense of freedom in “unity,” I am feeling suffocated by their sudden demands. I know the high road is not to focus on how an ally got here or how long it took, but that they’ve arrived. I truly, honestly am glad to see them. I can’t wait for more to show up. The trans community is speaking, the rest are learning to listen. But while society has been taking its time to get here, I have been scanning the landscape, wondering if those lost people ever made it. I remember every trans voice that never called back, every kid that stopped showing up, every face that has disappeared into the wilderness. I carry them with me and I will always wonder if I could have done more. I know I have the right to feel angry at late-comers, but I am striving to process that hurt into forgiveness, and then friendship. We must do the best we can, as it is all we can do. I am grateful to anyone who is willing to join the trans movement. But even the best efforts can result in failure. I am grateful for what little support I was able to give Leelah. I have few joys comparable to what comes from seeing trans people truly connect with one another; seeing them smile. I saw Leelah smile. In the end, what I had to offer was simply not enough. It is not my fault, but I feel the guilt of this loss. I try to embrace these feelings because in this sorrow is the remembrance of all those we have lost. Each time one of us dies, I see the work I have not yet done. I know I cannot control this society, but I am angry at my failures to protect my people from it. I want to be the shield for the bullet, and I would take a bullet if it meant no one else ever would.
Due to a lot of factors, I’m simply not at my best right now. After Tiff’s death, I felt very helpless, and now I find those feelings returning with the loss of Leelah. When I am feeling powerless, it helps to create something, so this week I have created as many spaces and outlets for my trans community as I can. It wasn’t until I found myself weeping in the grocery aisle, lamenting that no brand of cookie could fill the holes death has left in my community that I fully realized how raw my soul has become. Later that night, I walked a room full of trans people; one after another, people sought me out for comfort. Each time, I am struck with a mix of gratitude and desperation. I am grateful for the chance to help, and I am desperate to be able to give it. In these people, I see myself. Their struggle is mine, and I want to help us all. I am overcome by the desire to better our lives, so much that sometimes it makes me weak. When I am with my people, listening to them and offering support, I am filled with the richness of life. Where I was empty, I am full; where I was broken, I am healed. As trans community of trans people, partners, and family members (chosen and blood), we are strong and whatever strength we are lacking, we can find in each other. And while I am here in Ohio, there is someone in Pennsylvania, in Michigan, and everywhere that trans people are fighting to save each other. And I am slowly finding that we are not alone. In the last week, I have witnessed a greater outpouring of support, encouragement, and activism than I have ever experienced as a trans organizer. After so many years of working for a cause that few to none were willing to acknowledge, I am unsure of how to react to the kindness I have been receiving. It is heartbreaking to me that this surge of attention came at the cost of a kid’s life. It disturbs me that the death of one white young woman is noticed more than the death of countless young women of color. But despite all of that, I am grateful to everyone who is taking action, be it by sending an email after we haven’t spoken for years, bringing me food, making yourself visible for the sake of supporting others, writing to the media, or planning/attending an event. I am grateful to my fellow trans people, locally and around the world, who work to fight injustice. Thank you for sharing your hearts; you are filling mine in this moment of grief.
I will remember Leelah for the rest of my life. I will remember Tiff. They are not the first to be lost and they will not be the last, but I am here to fight for them and for our community. I have been building a beacon for my people to see and I am calling to anyone who might hear me. I am waving the light I so desperately sought when I came out. This light is heavy; it burns my hands and sears my eyes, but I am waving it to you with dedication and desperation. Come find me. Wait for me. I am looking for you. Don’t jump.
RELATED FOLLOW UP POST: Fixing Society: Leelah Alcorn, Cis Allyship, and Trans Erasure
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 us at 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.