In Memoriam

A gay dad’s requiem for Leelah Alcorn, the Matthew Shepard of our time

Hundreds gather in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday, Jan. 2, for a candlelight vigil for Leelah Alcorn. Twitter

Hundreds gather in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday, Jan. 2, for a candlelight vigil for Leelah Alcorn. Twitter

Hundreds gather in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday, Jan. 2, for a candlelight vigil for Leelah Alcorn.

I will never forget the stunning image of Matthew Shepard’s hate crime. A young beautiful human was beaten, tortured and left for dead in an unthinkable violation. It shocked me when I saw the images, and I was not alone. Matthew’s fate left and indelible impression that has become part of our collective culture to this day.

This week, another tragedy, another life destroyed, left a similar impression — the death of Leelah Alcorn.

One of the publishers I work with sent me a quick message on New Years Eve. “You might want to write one of your ‘Gay Dad’ letters to the parents of this teen.” It was Leelah’s story. She was known to her family as “Joshua,” and she had killed herself.

A pre-published letter appeared online. In the letter she eloquently explained why she was going to end her life in more emotional detail.  While certainly many other young people had ended their lives before her, Leelah’s account of what she had endured was unprecedented.

In doing so, Leelah transformed from the latest tragedy to one that emblazed into the consciousness of a mass audience. Her plead to “make her death matter” resonated.

Many progressive bloggers felt moved to write about her, including John Pavlovitz, Kathy Baldock, Jillian Page and Susan Cottrell.

The evangelical Christian world was starkly quiet, however, issuing no statements of condolence, responsibility or regret for the environment it inspired. The Christian Post offered no mention of Leelah’s death at all even though it had been broadcast across all major media outlets in the country.  

Charisma News offered a single article by Michael Brown that called the situation “tragic” but instead of addressing a situation exacerbated by shortsighted Christian dogma, called for “time and energy into looking for the root causes of transgenderism.”

Without a stark image of a cross like fence on a cold crystal Wyoming plain, Leelah made an impression comparable to the crucified Matthew Shepard. She had become the image of the victim of transphobia, just as he had become the victim of homophobic hate. 

In this case, her own testimony was the cross, and instead of a mother who would become the forward bearer of the message, her mother was cast as the villain.

Her story, as transgender activist Miriam Nadler tweeted, is tragically shared by many.  “Cis people: please understand that the death of #LeelahAlcorn is not a statistical outlier. This story is common, cruel, and preventable.”

Susan Cottrell observed, “Yet another destroyed life over people’s ignorance and cruelty.There are no words to express the collective grief over this poor girl’s death, and anger at her parents’ misguided actions that drove her to it. Leelah’s parents made several mistakes and didn’t know it – or didn’t care.”

Author Dan Savage was even more direct, “We know that parental hostility & rejection doubles a queer kid’s already quadrupled risk of suicide—rejecting your queer kid is abuse, Leelah Alcorn’s parents threw her in front of that truck. They should be ashamed—but 1st they need to be shamed.”

The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey disagreed stating, “If you think the best, most effective possible action you can take to advance transgender rights is to harass the grieving mother of a recently deceased child, you lack imagination, humanity, any experience with grief, or some combination of the three.”

For her part, Leelah’s mother, Carla Alcorn, claimed to be ignorant of her child’s struggles.

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