When transgender teenaged girl Leelah Alcorn took her own life last December, the news spread Internet-swift and the impact on the trans community ran wide and deep. The very public nature of her Tumblr suicide note gave her death a heart-wrenching visibility that contrasted with her isolated life—which was precisely her intention. A lot of digital ink has been spilt in grief and support for her, and in service to her plea that her death spark the necessary awareness to “fix society.” But I want to look at what Leelah’s suicide tells us about the body image of trans people and especially trans women, and about the toxic messages we soak up every second of our lives.
Leelah’s farewell message included the following lament:
“When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart. The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn’t receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep.”
When I read those words, my reaction was similar to that of many trans women: Leelah was beautiful. I couldn’t believe she couldn’t see it. A mirror selfie she snapped while wearing a white-and-black dress has gained iconic status, and every time I look at her brazen, hip-cocked posture, delicately downcast eyes, and knowing smile, I’m shocked to hear that Leelah looked at that image and saw anything but beauty, grace, and hope.
Except that I know all too well with what eyes Leelah Alcorn was appraising her reflection. Rarely does a day go by without me noticing “hopelessly masculine” features and feeling convinced I’ll never look the woman I feel. I often tell myself that I started my transition too late in life, that my middle-aged flesh is too resistant to the magic of hormone replacement therapy, but Leelah represents a heartbreaking reminder that no, this is a dark shadow that all trans people, and especially trans women, live with to varying degrees. No matter how “feminine” or “masculine” our features, no matter how striking the changes brought on by HRT and surgery, no matter how well our loved ones see us, seeing ourselves is a concerted effort, grueling on most days and impossible on others.
The trans woman’s self-judging gaze, cataloging every detail of bone structure, jawline, facial and body hair, fat distribution, and facial features as “evidence” of masculinity, doesn’t arise spontaneously from nothingness. It grows in our bellies, out of all the poison we’re fed by the dominant culture. Every time a man in a dress is played for laughs in popular entertainment, every time a (presumably cis) woman is mocked for “mannish” features, every time someone reflexively equates being a woman with a certain configuration of reproductive features, every time a trans woman’s murder at the hands of an intimate partner is excused because of the “shock” the partner felt at discovering her trans status—a trans woman witnessing all this internalizes her not-good-enough status a little more till often an unshakeable belief takes hold that she will never attain the “true” beauty of womanhood.
A large part of the problem is the cis-centric beauty standard we apply to trans people in the first place. Trans people are expected to conform to nebulous ideas of what their gender should look like, to the point of being indistinguishable from a cis person of their gender; this standard is often referred to as “passing.” Transgender activist and YouTube vlogger Zinnia Jones, in a recent installment of her video series Gender Analysis titled Some Advice on ‘Passing’ explained:
“I’ve heard from so many people who were worried it was ‘too late’ for them to transition, because they felt that at their age, they would never be able to pass. Some of these people were in their 30s or 40s. Some of them were teenagers. But all of them were under the impression that there was no point to transitioning if they didn’t end up looking just like a cis person of their gender. They didn’t take into account every other possible benefit of transitioning, like how much this can relieve our dysphoria and improve our mental well-being and physical appearance regardless of whether we pass or not. But when this is treated as all-or-nothing, so many people will feel like their only choice is nothing, when they could have had so much more. It’s never too late for that.”
Zinnia’s clear-eyed statement brings to mind a razor’s edge we walk in affirming each other’s beauty as trans women. If we praise each other’s “feminine” (read: cis-woman-passing) features, we certainly bolster self-image, but we also promote the very toxic standard that creates our warped self-image in the first place. If we offer no such encouragement, we leave our most vulnerable sisters with no hope to cling to. Either way, if “passing” is the standard for being a “successful” trans woman, it is a standard many of us cannot live up to, especially those without access to HRT, hair removal treatments, and other important trans medical treatments. And while passing is often vital for survival in some circumstances, passing is no magic cure for the body paranoia that the toxic standard induces in our daily lives—constantly on edge that we might stand out, might slip up, might give ourselves away.
To be sure, Leelah Alcorn had more than depersonalized cultural messages to contend with. Her parents abused and isolated her, subjecting her to “conversion therapy” in an attempt to “cure” her transgender status, which no doubt exacerbated any feelings of dissonance she may have had with the feminine body she desired. On top of an already toxic cultural backdrop, Leelah had to live with a private terror campaign of concentrated, deliberate, and violent invalidation.
This is the darkness Leelah faced, and she faced it without support. This is unacceptable for her parents, for society, and for the trans community. No one should have to go through such an ordeal alone, and yet so many do. With so many voices telling us how hideous we are, how laughable, how shameful, how fundamentally wrong, we need ten times as much support and affirmation to have any hope of truly seeing ourselves.
Leelah had next to none.
This is body terrorism. This is what life looks like in a society where, as of this writing, at least six trans women have been murdered this year alone. These women, most of them trans women of color, have suffered the ultimate expression of this terrorism, which forbids a woman, especially a woman who is coded as “other” by intersecting marginalizations, to inhabit a body, to take up space with that body, and to define her own experience of that body. To say that society will police such a woman is an almost caricaturish understatement. In the case of Bri Golec, Lamia Beard, Taja DeJeus, Penny Proud, Ty Underwood, and Yazmin Vash Payne, society will straight up kill her.
Trans suicides exist on the same continuum as trans murders, in many ways. Trans suicide rates are not high because trans people are weak or fragile or mopey without cause. Trans suicide (and suicide attempt) rates are high because rejection, isolation, hate, and violence compound to drive us to drastic solutions. Leelah Alcorn’s parents may not have murdered her in a legal or judiciary sense, but they palpably, demonstrably contributed to her death by shaming her and cutting her off from support.
In truth, she did find that support online via various Reddit subforums, but it was insufficient to facilitate her emancipation. The “trans community” did have contact with Leelah, but “we” didn’t save her. I never knew she existed until it was too late. There’s a discomfort in writing about the death of a girl I didn’t know. Am I really working for change or am I merely exploiting tragedy for the sake of emotional posturing?
I don’t know how to reconcile these feelings, except to remember that I’m not just writing for myself or even for Leelah. I’m writing for all of us, because Leelah Alcorn is but one name of many in a string of deaths that do not stop. While I was working on this article, a teenage boy named Zander Mahaffey took his own life, also citing horrific family bullying and violence. We need this to stop. We need to treat trans suicide and murder as the epidemic it is. We need to do more than wring our hands and hold vigil with hashtags. We need to reach our net far and wide, to place vital resources such as the Trans Lifeline in the reach of those who need it. We need to demolish the passing standard and the hopelessness of the unattainable. Those of us who can do so safely need to live the beauty of being visibly trans, and all of us need to need to love more fiercely, affirm more loudly. “Fixing society” must happen on multiple levels, but one basic level is what we see in the mirror—because it’s not just ourselves doing the reflecting.[Headline image: The image shows a blue, pink, and white transgender pride flag on a flagpole, flying against a white background.]