“If you are reading this, it means that I have committed suicide,” wrote Leelah Alcorn, 17, on her Tumblr page before taking her life last December. She was born Joshua Alcorn and was transitioning to female, but struggling emotionally due to depression and her parents’ refusal to accept her gender identity. “The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in because I’m transgender,” Leelah wrote in her suicide note. “To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4.”
Leelah’s case is shockingly common. According to the Trevor Project, about 50 percent of young transgender people ages 10 to 24 have considered suicide, and one in four attempt to take their lives, because of the challenges they face not fitting into a gender-defined society. This year alone nine other transgender teens committed suicide in the US (and these are just the reported cases).
Rather than being perpetrators of violence, as recent local debates over public bathrooms would have you believe, transgender people are, in fact, frequently the targets of violence. Sixty-four percent of transgender individuals have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. A study reported in the Boston Globe found that transgender children who are rejected by their families are 60 percent more likely to attempt suicide than those who are supported by their parents. Nearly 80 percent of transgender people were harassed at school because of their gender expression. Transgender women of color are 1.6 times more likely to experience physical violence than other members of the LGBT community, as one in 8 are likely to be murdered. In the US, this year, 21 transgender people were reported murdered, with the latest killing occurring in mid-October, according to the International Business Times.
This Thursday, Nov. 19, is Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual international commemoration day. Transgender Day of Remembrance began in honor of Allston native Rita Hester, an African-American transwoman. On Nov. 28, 1998, Rita’s body was found, having been stabbed over 20 times. Most believe this was a hate crime, evidenced by the lack of theft or forced entry and the cruelty of the assault.
The violence against transgender people is often due to bias against one’s gender identity and expression. Gender identity refers to how an individual identifies oneself in terms of gender, regardless of one’s sex assigned at birth, and gender expression refers to how an individual demonstrates one’s gender such as through their clothing and language. For example, a transgender woman refers to a woman whose sex assigned at birth is male but identifies as a female.
But gender nonconformity is normal, say many scientists, not a mental disorder. “It’s not a disease. It’s not perverted. It’s just a natural part of the scope of human diversity,” said Jonah Yokoyama, the Transition Care Services Director at the Heartland Trans Wellness Group in Ohio. “Nothing that the parent or anyone did made this child transgender. That is the way they were born and they can’t change who they are.”
Leelah’s last words were, “Fix society. Please. My death needs to mean something.” Violence against marginalized groups are often due to fear of something “different.” Nonetheless, fear should never justify oppression. We could all emulate Pope Francis, who when asked about his views on homosexuality, replied, “Who am I to judge?” This idea is also reflected in a core Jesuit principle, cura personalis, or caring a person as a whole by respecting one’s unique circumstances. As a cisgender woman (meaning I identify with the gender to which I was born), I can’t fully understand the struggle that transgender people experience every day. But I can empathize with them, respect their dignity as much as mine, and be their ally. We, as individuals and in community, can work towards creating a safe, welcoming spaces for everyone, where no one feels left out or despised.
Differences in our race, sex, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression should not make us a target of discrimination or violence. Echoing transgender actress Laverne Cox, “It is okay to be different.” We can learn to value difference rather than fear it.
In remembering transgender and gender non-conforming victims of violence and discrimination, let us keep vigil against hatred. Please join the GLBTQ Leadership Council (GLC) on Transgender Day of Remembrance, this Thursday, Nov. 19th at 5 p.m. in O’Neill Plaza for a candlelight vigil to commemorate our departed friends, loved ones, and community members.
Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Graphics