At the end of December 2014, a young girl named Leelah Alcorn took her own life. She was born Joshua Ryan Alcorn and was raised in a conservative Christian household. When she was 14, she came out to her parents who then didn’t accept her identification as a woman and refused to let her undergo transition therapy. They instead sent her to Christian conversion therapy, withdrew her from school and tried to ban her from social media. All of this pushed Leelah over the edge, and she posted her suicide note on the social media platform Tumblr. In it, she stated that she hoped her death would start a conversation about the abuse and lack of support that transgender people face.
After the note was posted, the Internet exploded. Screenshots of Leelah’s mother’s Facebook status about her daughter’s suicide surfaced, showing that she continued to misgender Leelah by referring to her as “him.” Details of Leelah’s parents’ abuse continued to leak out. This started a dialogue about the understated abuse that many transgender youth face.
However, positives managed to rise from the ash of this horrible tragedy. Under the hashtag #RealLifeTransAdult, many trans people told their stories on Twitter and gave advice to younger members of the transgender community. Petitions were started for the creation of “Leelah’s Law,” a ban on conversion therapy.
Recently, the media has been picking at Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, due to the fact that their child, born Shiloh, has expressed that he wants to be called John. At the premiere of Jolie’s movie “Unbroken,” John wore a suit and various magazines jumped at the opportunity to attack Jolie and Pitt. Star Magazine released a picture of John on the cover of one of their issues with the title “Why Is Angelina Turning Shiloh Into A Boy?” They accused Jolie and Pitt of being bad parents, saying they were forcing John into dressing in stereotypically male clothing.
This type of reporting is not only offensive, but also damaging to all who read it. It enforces strict gender roles and leaves no room for the positives that this situation reflects. By allowing their children to express themselves and dress how they feel comfortable, Jolie and Pitt are refusing to be their child’s first bully. They are providing a great example for all of how to be supportive of your children by disregarding stereotypically “correct” ideas of gender and allowing them to grow into who they believe they were meant to be.
Positive trans representation has been seen recently through TV shows such as “Transparent” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Both feature plotlines with transgender characters and were nominated for multiple awards at this year’s Golden Globes Awards. Laverne Cox, who plays Sophia on “Orange Is the New Black,” has used her fame to bring the rights of trans people into the light. Jeffrey Tambor won the Golden Globe for best actor in a TV series or comedy for his role as Maura Pfefferman on “Transparent.” Tambor dedicated his acceptance speech to the transgender community, saying, “Thank you, for your courage, for your inspiration. Thank you for your patience, and thank you for letting us be part of the change.”
Although we are living in a time where many are openly accepting, transgender people still often face a slew of negative retaliations when they make the decision to transition. Many young trans people such as Leelah aren’t accepted by their parents and face abuse or neglect at home. Many are specifically targeted victims of violence on the street, and the homicide rate is highest for trans women. The unemployment rate for the trans community is twice the national average, and for trans people of color, the rate jumps to four times the national average, according to November 2009 findings from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.
Trans representation in movies and on TV is a great start, and it shows progress. However, this positive change needs to continue on a massive, global scale so trans people can have the rights and safety they deserve. It’s unfortunate and upsetting that it takes continued, very preventable violent acts against a certain group of people before many start to notice that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Transphobia is still alive and well in many places, and that is truly unsettling.
We as a society need to be better allies for transgender people. It’s not hard to use others’ preferred gender pronouns. Embracing gender nonconformity could possibly change everything. If we didn’t stick ourselves and others in such strict gender codes and roles, maybe there would be more acceptance toward those transitioning or questioning the sex they were born as. Anyone coming to terms with how they identify, whether they be 5 or 85, should receive compassion and support from those around them, instead of fearing that they will not be accepted.