Last month, Twitter was ablaze with the news of the heartbreaking suicide of teenager Leelah Alcorn. Born Joshua Alcorn, Leelah was a transgender 17 year old who reportedly took her own life after her strictly religious parents refused to allow her to transition into a female.
Leelah, as she wanted to be known, left an achingly honest suicide note on her Tumblr account in which she claimed that her mother took her to Christian therapists in an attempt to rid her of her ‘phase’. The therapists told her that she was “selfish and wrong” for wanting to be a girl, despite the years that Leelah had felt as though she had been born in the wrong body. She wrote:
“Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out.”
Tragically, after composing this suicide note, Leelah stepped in front of a tractor trailer and ended her life.
If this teaches us anything, should it not be that compassion should not be restricted by our differences – religious or otherwise?
Too often the phrase ‘real woman’ is thrown around in a malicious way designed to insult or to ostracise. But the definition of ‘real woman’ is altered, selectively changed to belittle and to create an unnecessary divide.
Over the years there have been numerous templates that the ‘real woman’ of the time have had to fit.
‘Real women’ are not defined by their weight or their curves.
They are not defined by their diets.
They are not defined by their clothing.
They are not defined by whether or not they wear make-up.
They are not defined by the length of their hair.
They are not defined by their sexuality.
These factors are all irrelevant. If you empathise with women, sympathise with them, encourage them and empower them, you are a real woman. If you lift up and fight for other women instead of tearing them down or criticising them, you are a real woman. But most importantly, if you identify as a woman, you are a real woman. Leelah Alcorn was a real woman.
Imagine if you woke up tomorrow in the body of the opposite sex but with entirely the same personality and preferences. Imagine that you were trapped in the body of a different gender, and trying to explain to friends and family who you really were, only to be told that you are wrong.
I cannot even begin to comprehend the frustration and pain that Leelah Alcorn felt. It would be all too easy for me to criticise her parents or their Christianity, but when I am not feeling their grief, and when there are Christians who openly encourage love and acceptance of all sexualities and the LGBT community, I cannot. It would be not only ignorance, but exactly the same intolerance that drove Leelah to suicide.
Besides, she did not want her suicide to cause hate or spread cruelty or threats, so to do so would be nothing less than disrespectful. Her death brings to light just how urgently we need to champion tolerance, empathy and understanding. Not just as women, but as people. Not just as transgenders, but as human beings.
If harsh words and rejection can end a life, think how many more can be saved if we simply try and embrace those who are hurting rather than add to their pain. Leelah’s death, although tragic, need not be futile. We can learn from her. Starting with these words that I am writing and you are reading, we are already fulfilling her final wish; “My death needs to mean something.”