Students mourn transgender teen in vigil

Shane Rubin speaks at a vigil for transgender teen and suicide victim Leelah Alcorn. | Jenny Kerrigan TTN
Shane Rubin speaks at a vigil for transgender teen and suicide victim Leelah Alcorn. | Jenny Kerrigan TTN

Compared to the overall U.S. population’s reported 4.6 percent of people who have experienced one lifetime suicide attempt, the rate of occurrence in the transgender population is 41 percent, according to the Williams Institute and American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.

This statistic was mentioned several times on Jan. 28, when students and members of the community gathered to honor and remember one transgender life lost to suicide: Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old trans woman. At least three different speakers at the Moment of Silence for Leelah Alcorn referenced the disproportionately high suicide rate within the trans community, also acknowledging the prevalence of violence and discrimination toward trans women and trans women of color, in particular.

The event was held one month after Alcorn, known on Tumblr as “LazerPrincess,” tragically took her own life by walking into traffic on Dec. 28. More than 25 people gathered in the Founder’s Garden on Main Campus to honor the suicide victim with a moment of silence.

At 3:30 p.m., students and some members of the community bowed their heads in silent honor and remembrance of Alcorn’s life, cut too short but now a pivotal name in a growing social movement for trans rights in America.

“I’m here because I’m a small part of the trans community,” one attendee, freshman undeclared major Noah Neville said. “When I heard what happened … I tried to reach out to as many people as I could.”

In an effort to continue and increase that movement among students on Main Campus, Temple Area Feminist Collective hosted the event to correspond with a worldwide Moment of Silence event organized by the Trans-Health Information Project. Also in attendance were members of student organizations Queer Student Union and Queer People of Color, as well as a fledgling Philadelphia organization called Serve the People – PHL.

One of TAFC’s creators, junior women’s studies major Morgen Snowadzky, and her co-member, junior women’s studies major Riley MacDonald welcomed those gathered and introduced the purpose of the moment of silence.

Junior anthropology major and QSU president Shane Rubin also spoke up before the collective moment was held, reading a personal letter to Alcorn. They said to the crowd, “I wish I had gotten a chance to meet her in person and convince her there are people who care.” Rubin recalled their own struggles with not feeling valued as they grappled with coming out as a non-binary trans man.

Snowadzky and MacDonald invited everyone to sign a poster decorated with photos of Alcorn’s face and the slogan “Rest in Power,” honoring Alcorn’s suicide note on Tumblr that called for her readers to “fix society.”

“My death needs to mean something,” Alcorn wrote in the note, which she set to post online after her death. “My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year.”

Despite the focus on remembrance and mourning for Alcorn’s death, many of those present were also emphatic that while moments of silence are necessary to promote acceptance and recognize the tragedies of lost lives, action is immediately necessary.

“Something Leelah Alcorn wanted to make known … is she didn’t want the conversation to end with her death,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald also mentioned three trans women of color who were violently killed in the month of January: Ty Underwood in Tyler, Texas; Lamia Beard in Norfolk, Virginia; and a woman dubbed Goddess Edwards by trans activists in Indianapolis, Kentucky – local media released only Edwards’ birth name, so the Trans Women of Color Collective used the pseudonym “Goddess” out of respect to her gender identity. All of the women died of fatal gunshot wounds.

Rubin reflected on the transmisogyny perpetuated by some media and those who disregard transgender and gender nonconforming people. They “found it almost impossible to find an article that did not use the birth names” of aforementioned and additional victims of violence against trans people, as well as any article respecting proper pronoun use.

“This serves not only as a memorial, but a call to action,” Rubin said.

In accordance with the “call to action” mentality, Andrea Haulcoch, a part-time Community College of Philadelphia IT major, represented Serve the People. She described the group as a “revolutionary and radical student organization.” Haulcoch advocated collectivism of transgender and non-binary people to her listeners. She said Serve the People, which was formed about two months ago, is actively seeking members and hopes to continue working with the Temple community.

“We’re not even given the basic right of self-determination over our bodies,” Haulcoch said. “We’re all extremely divided by how the system [of America] is. We have to organize more deeply in order to combat the system.”

Haulcoch said Serve the People fights for what she believes should be fundamental rights: in her words, democratic education including standard gender studies courses is a key component. She applauded the significance of Jan. 28’s Moment of Silence for Leelah Alcorn, but was vehement that in society, trans people and their allies “have to stop being silent.”

Kayla Raniero, a freshman communication sciences major who identifies as non-binary, announced to those gathered that the Trans Lifeline, a support service to transgender and non-binary people, is looking for trans and non-binary volunteers to man phones for those in need of a supportive ear. They also suggested any cisgender – meaning a person whose gender identity matches their gender assigned at birth – allies to the trans community try to get involved.

Raniero encouraged their listeners not to become discouraged or feel trapped by the tragic reason for the Moment of Silence for Leelah Alcorn or the heart-wrenching subjects discussed there.

“Energy cannot be created or destroyed,” Raniero said. “It can only be changed.”

They told the group, huddled together for warmth and support, to turn their sadness and anger at the violence and transmisogyny “into hope,” and remember “our generation is very powerful right now.”

Erin Edinger-Turoff can be reached at erin.edinger-turoff@temple.edu, or 215.204.6737 or on Twitter @erinJustineET

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