Around 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 28, Leelah Alcorn walked into traffic to end her own life. She was a 17-year-old, middle class, white girl from Cincinnati. While many people struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, Leelah was a member of a group disproportionately affected – she was transgender.
Transgender women and girls are people who were assigned to the category of male at birth but feel themselves to be female, and identify as such. They experience extremely high mortality rates when compared with cisgender women, the term for women who were assigned to the category of female at birth and have continued to identify that way. Suicide is one of many causes for high death rate of this population; others are murder, hate crimes, police brutality and homelessness, all of which transgender women experience at disproportionately high rates.
For those in the transgender community, their allies, and anyone with a belief in human rights, the question is obvious: What is it about our society that exposes transgender women and girls to such high levels of violence, or makes them feel that life is not worth living?
In a statement Leelah wrote the night before she died in a Tumblr post scheduled to release after her death, she discussed her conservative Christian parents’ “extremely negative” reaction when she came out, telling her, “it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong.”
Leelah’s parents refused to sign a consent form allowing her to medically transition – a process that can include many different methods and procedures, done legally and safely to help transgender people feel more comfortable in their bodies. She said she needed therapy to deal with her depression, but her parents took her to what she calls “Christian therapists,” who told her that she was “selfish and wrong,” and “should look to God for help.” She faced familial rejection, denial of her identity and untreated depression.
Leelah’s death was tragic, unnecessary and unacceptable. It sparked mourning and outrage in the trans community, and greater LGBTQ community, and is receiving international media attention because of the publicness and poignancy of her post on Tumblr.
But the deaths of trans women do not usually make such big waves.
This past summer in Baltimore two transgender women were murdered within six weeks of one another. Mia Henderson and Kandy Hall were both Black and from low-income neighborhoods. Being a trans woman is only one part of a person’s identity, yet strongly affects how likely that person is to experience violence or death.
Sadie Michaela, a trans woman alumna, has a few ideas as to why this is. She said, “trans women, especially trans women of color, are being murdered and committing suicide all the time and don’t get nearly the amount of attention that Leelah has.” Michaela refers to the situation as an “epidemic,” concurring that “it’s no coincidence” because “we’re not allowed to work, we’re disowned by our families and we’re forced in a situation that feels like the only options are unemployment, sex work or death.”
A former student, Harmony Rodriguez, left Temple because she said she “lived in terror” after being raped in her dorm room, according to a piece she recently published on feministing.com. The Temple News reported on her case in December, after the university went under investigation for possible Title IX violations. Rodriguez states that the university mishandled her case, by destroying and ignoring evidence. Rodriguez said that the administration told her, “in no uncertain terms,” that it was because she is transgender.
Rolling Stone reported in July 2014 the story of CeCe McDonald, a trans woman who was attacked while walking to the grocery store late at night and was forced to go to a male prison. Her story follows a narrative quite like Rodriguez’s, and discusses her constant fear of being attacked at proportionally higher rates than cisgender people.
The idea that these women feel they are under attack is not just in their heads. According to a 2012 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 53 percent of anti-LGBTQ homicides were transgender women.
Rodriguez explained that the rejection and abuse that led Leelah to suicide causes other trans women to “just leave home or get thrown out completely.” But Rodriguez believes the problem is complex, acknowledging, “even trans women who are embraced by their family, have great jobs and have seemingly perfect lives get murdered.”
She believes the high mortality rates send a clear message.
“We experience higher rates of suicide and murder because our lives are not valued,” she said. “Our lives don’t matter and that is the connection between these phenomena.”
While the problems are known, it is everyone’s task to find and implement the solutions, for Leelah, for Mia, for Kandy, and for all the other transgender people, living or dead, who have been exposed to violence and abuse. Rodriguez has a few ideas about how we can start this process here, on Main Campus.
Rodriguez explained some experiences leading up to her attack at the university that caused major problems for her as a trans woman. She said that if a transgender person has not legally changed their name and gender marker on their birth certificate it “can be a hassle” to get professors to use the correct name and pronouns in class and that on-campus living is a major struggle for people who do not identify with the gender they were born with.
A 2003 Campus Climate study of transgender students’ treatment on college campuses by the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force makes a number of recommendations about how to transform college campuses into safe and accepting places. This includes providing training for campus health care professionals and security workers to “increase their sensitivity to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity” and the special needs of this population, providing more gender neutral bathrooms, and providing a “clear, safe, visible means of reporting acts of intolerance,” which they said the university should respond to “expeditiously.”
Michaela also has several recommendations for our campus specifically that would make life safer and easier for trans students including gender neutral bathrooms, housing based on gender identity rather than birth assignment and “requiring or encouraging professors to ask everyone’s pronouns on the first day class.”
University Housing and Residential Life Director Kevin Williams said that the way to change is through student groups and organizations, like Temple Student Government and the Residence Hall Association as well as bringing up concerns in the classroom.
“Continual student pushing for their voices to be heard is the way that change will be made,” Williams said.
These changes are necessary for the university to meet, and could begin to make a difference in the lives of transgender students at Temple, and make them feel like respecting their identity is a priority in our community. Those of us that value the lives of our trans peers and neighbors must begin to think practically about how to make these changes happen.
The need is urgent and the alternative is unacceptable, because in Rodriguez’ words, “either we start to believe that we don’t matter or other people around us do, and whether it’s by us or them, our lives are taken.”
Sarah Giskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org