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Leelah Alcorn was a transgender teen who had a life full of possibility and potential, until Sunday morning, when she walked to Interstate 71 in Cincinnati and was struck and killed, in what was obviously a suicide. On Monday evening, a post she scheduled on her Tumblr noted that “my death has to mean something,” and in a sense, it did: the Twitter hashtag #RealLiveTransAdult allowed numerous transgender people to speak out about their experiences, as well as addressing issues of suicide and trans youth. Her life raised many questions about how transgender people are treated in American society, but it also highlighted a critical shortfall: We are failing to teach children about gender identity, and that needs to end.
Alcorn was transgender without a net, struggling with depression, and alone despite the online support network for transgender people through sites like Tumblr. Her family denied her gender identity and attempted to force her to undergo “counseling.” Alcorn was enrolled in a distance learning school and isolated from daily interaction with her peers; she hadn’t even heard the term “transgender” until her teens—something that is not unusual for transgender people, even in an era when gender identity has become a subject of broad discussion.
It’s perhaps not surprising that a country with such woeful sex education has an even poorer record on gender education, but discussions about gender should be integrated into education about sexuality, health, and self-identification, because too many trans youth are dying, and too many people are growing up intolerant of trans identities. “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better,” Alcorn wrote. If things continue as they are, she may never rest.
The dehumanization of Alcorn began almost as soon as she died, with her mother posting her birth name and misgendering her on social media, and the media joining her in mixing up Alcorn’s name and pronouns. Rather than consistently using her correct name and referring to her as a girl, media disregarded best practices, repeating her birth name and using male pronouns to refer to her. Girls like Leelah Alcorn face transmisogyny in their daily lives, and their deaths reproduce the exact same patterns.
I struggled with my gender identity until college, for precisely the same reasons Alcorn did—I knew that something was wrong, but I didn’t have a word or context for it. It was only after I met real live trans adults that the possibility of transness opened up to me; it was only then that I learned that I wasn’t a freak and that there were other people like me in the world. I wasn’t the only graduate in my class who began identifying as transgender in college, with an entire network of us arising across the trans spectrum.
We’d been fortunate enough to go to school in a district with excellent comprehensive sexual education, including discussions about sexual minorities that affirmed sexual identities and encouraged students to be comfortable and ask questions. But when it came to gender, we were clueless. We didn’t know about the myriad presentations of gender in the real world, about how people could perform gender, identify with it in different ways, and engage with each other in expressions of gender we might have found totally unfamiliar. Discovering transness was like coming home for many of us.
Leelah Alcorn lived in a world where transgender people are devalued and the people around her didn’t understand her. In part, that was a failing of the conservative Christian culture under her roof, but it was also the fault of a health education system that rarely integrates discussions of gender, and an education system that is often hostile to transgender students. In 2012, for example, the reversal of a school district policy in Aurora, Ill., that welcomed self-identifying transgender students made national headlines; for every step forward, it seems, we take one back, feeling almost frozen in place.
The United States is not a friendly place for transgender youth. Alcorn was hardly alone when it came to making the decision to end her life. 41 percent of transgender and gender nonconforming people report suicide attempts over the course of their lives, and that number jumps to 50 percent for transgender youth—the seeming mathematical impossibility in the disparity between these numbers reflects those who transition later in life—which is a nearly ninefold increase over the national average. Suicide attempts increased to 69 percent for those who had experienced homelessness—of the estimated 1.6 million homeless youth in the United States, approximately 20-40 percent are gender and sexual minorities. Precise breakdowns by identity are difficult to obtain, which in and of itself speaks to the dehumanization of transgender people, who are often lumped under the umbrella of “sexuality” instead of “gender,” as though the two are equivalent.
Reformers pushing for changes to health education in U.S. schools also need to be including gender identity in comprehensive overhauls. Accurate, detailed, and respectful sexual education is key for young adults learning about their sexual identities and bodies, but so is education about gender. Students need to learn at an early age that gender is not static, that some people experience fluidity in their gender over time. They need to discover that for some people, gender is a more fixed entity, and they need to transition to feel comfortable in their bodies. They need to be introduced to concepts like gender play, and to more serious transgender issues. They need to learn that non-normative expressions of gender are OK.
Accessing health education about transgender issues would provide tremendous benefits to transgender students, who often feel isolated and confused by their gender identities. They may struggle to understand what is happening to them and why, because they have no framework for expressing their identities and experiences. Experiences of shame can be reinforced by bullying and abuse from other students and parents; some transgender women, for example, start out thinking they’re gay, as that provides the only familiar framework for expressing some of the feelings they’re having. Gender dysphoria and confusion are significant contributors to depression, a major risk factor for suicide—and trans people are more likely to experience depression along with other mental health conditions.
Education about transgender issues can also be beneficial for people who are not transgender. Many of us fear the unknown and lash out with hatred when we encounter it. Providing a thorough grounding in transgender subjects offers an opportunity to reach out to students early, before children develop attitudes that will be difficult to reverse in adulthood. Instead of learning that transness is alien, frightening, and unacceptable, children could be learning that it’s just a normal variation and facet of human identity, and they could be bringing that forward into the way they interact with the world. Our next generation could practice inclusion, turning respect for gender identity into an unremarkable aspect of daily life.
For parents who panic at the thought that their children might learn about their own bodies, identities, and tolerance for others, it’s time to push through conservative domination of school curricula. Conservatives are already dominating what kind of science and history can be taught in public schools and they’re killing sexual education. Age-appropriate health education should be an integral and entirely normal part of the educational experience, from an introduction to gender fluidity in younger years to a larger discussion about gender identity in middle years to a more detailed, intensive exploration of gender and transgender people in high school.
There’s been a slow push in the direction of change. In Minnesota, a school just created an official policy to support transgender students. In New Mexico, Albuquerque schools are exploring a trans-inclusive policy. In Tucson, yet another school crafted new policy to address changing social norms around gender and identity. Such policies often attract considerable attention and controversy, however, with conservative parents rallying to oppose them.
One death is too many, but not, evidently, in the eyes of much of the United States. The deaths of undervalued minorities like trans teens often pass without a ripple, and it’s disturbing to think that Alcorn’s death may too fade from the public eye, despite the growing prominence of transgender people in media and pop culture. Even as women like writer and activist Janet Mock react to Alcorn’s suicide, expressing frustrations the transgender community has been living with for years, and even as the media temporarily picks up the story, it’s time to move beyond sorrow and outrage and on to a concrete plan for ensuring that no trans teen commits suicide ever again.
That plan has a number of interlocking elements, but educating youth about gender is definitely one of the key components. Without an understanding of gender identity, trans youth can’t contextualize who they are, and the people around them can’t understand them. If that had been the case for Alcorn, perhaps she’d be posting on Tumblr right now, instead of lying on a slab.
Let’s hope that Leelah Alcorn’s death accomplished what so many before hers has not: Let’s hope it means something.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated for clarity.
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.