Rebekah Devorak | Student Columnist
Everyone’s probably heard the old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” at least once in their lives. Typically, it takes the form of advice administered by a parent, sibling or friend as a means to combat teasing and bullying during childhood.
In most scenarios it’s probably sound advice, teaching children to brush off statements and opinions that don’t really matter. It’s harmless, right?
But in some cases, like for Leelah Alcorn, words and opinions were the deciding factor between life and death.
The 17-year-old transgender teen from Kings Mills, Ohio, took her own life early in the morning on Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, by stepping in front of a tractor trailer while walking on Interstate 71.
Alcorn posted a suicide note on Tumblr that explained the various reasons as to why she decided to end her life.
Of those reasons, which Alcorn includes depression, fear, anxiety and the “cruelty of loneliness,” perhaps the most jarring is her parents’ disappointment and refusal to accept her.
In her note, Alcorn said that she felt like “a girl trapped in a boy’s body,” since the age of four, but wasn’t quite sure what the feeling meant until she discovered the term transgender at age 14. Merriam-Webster defines transgender as “being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person’s sex at birth.” She also noted that it’s time to “fix” the transgender issue in our country.
Alcorn’s note said that she immediately informed her Christian mother that she was transgender. Her mother, Carla Alcorn, reacted “extremely negatively” to the news, according to the note. Despite the disapproval from her parents, Alcorn decided to tell her friends and coworkers that she was transgender and was met with general support.
However, what Alcorn needed was not admiration from her friends nor backing from her colleagues; what Alcorn really needed in that moment were words of love and kindness from her parents.
But instead, her parents took Alcorn to therapists, prescribed her medication, removed her from public school and isolated her by banning all social media.
That combination would likely equate to the apocalypse for any teenager, but it was even more detrimental to Alcorn because it enhanced her loneliness and depression, which eventually led to her decision to take her own life.
And while severe, Alcorn’s parents tried to help their child in the way that they thought was best. It seems easy to point fingers at the parents and blanket them with guilt or shame for how they handled the situation. But, Alcorn’s parents did not realize the impact of their words and decisions until it was much too late. They had no idea that the situation would end with the death of their child, and if they did, their choices would’ve been drastically different.
Unfortunately though, what someone feels is best in their heart doesn’t always match up with what is really needed. This situation is an example of that. Rather than avoiding the issue by stifling it with doctor’s appointments and a slew of medications, the best thing the parents could’ve done is also the simplest. At that moment when they first learned that Alcorn was transgender, and in all of the following moments, they just needed to confirm their love for her, tell her not to be scared and assure her that they will work through everything together.
It’s terrifying to go through life lost and confused about oneself in any situation. Whether it is surviving high school with limited friends and an “unpopular” reputation or navigating freshman year with an undecided major and no clue what to do, it’s a daunting task to try to look ahead in life to when it gets clearer. But it’s all the more petrifying when one finally determines who they are, only to learn that they won’t be accepted anymore by family or friends.
It is somewhat understandable for Alcorn’s parents to anchor themselves in their religious beliefs, especially in such a time of change and uncertainty. It’s a rock that remains untouched while a major part of their lives is up in the air. However, there is a way to stand by those beliefs while still making their child (or any child) feel safe, secure and loved.
Alcorn agreed in her note stating, “Even if you are a Christian or are against transgender people, don’t ever say [you are wrong] to your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self [sic]. That’s exactly what it did to me.”
Even if Alcorn’s parents did not believe in being transgender, did not understand what their child was experiencing and were ultimately disappointed in their child, they were still responsible for her well-being and protection. That is true in any circumstance. They had a responsibility to tell their child that she was loved and could feel safe and supported at home.
A simple attempt to show support makes all the difference. In a 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 41 percent of 6,450 respondents attempted suicide, compared to an average 4.6 percent of the overall US population. Fifty-one percent of those attempting suicide belonged to a family that refused to speak or interact with them. Imagine how the statistics would look if parents, friends, colleagues, etc. met the news of someone being transgender differently.
Feeling isolated and forcibly detached from one’s family is a major cause for suicide. In an American Psychological Association article from the June 2009 issue of the Psychological Science Agenda, Thomas Joiner, Ph.D., stated, “Of all the risk factors for suicidal behavior, ranging from the molecular to the cultural levels, the strongest and most uniform has…related to social isolation.” Having an inner struggle of being transgender is only going to amplify those feelings.
The vital lesson to learn from this instance is that words have an undeniable, monumental impact on anyone’s life. It’s even truer if they come from a person held in high esteem. Alcorn had support from her friends and coworkers, but it wasn’t what she needed. She needed her parents – the most important people in her eyes – to offer words of courage, understanding and acceptance. In today’s society of social media and instant gratification, a seemingly harmless tweet or Facebook status could be the difference between life or death.
While the story of Alcorn’s death posed as an attempt to spark revolution for the transgender community (the hashtag #LeelahAlcorn trended on Twitter shortly after the news went viral), suicide is never the solution to any problem. The struggle is never over because everyone else left behind is forced to cope with the burden of great unexpected loss. Life is beautiful, even in its ugliest or loneliest stages. Even when a situation appears as if it will be dismal and hopeless forever, it won’t be. Nothing stays the same forever.
However, it’s difficult to look past dark times without someone there to be a voice of hope for things to come. Alcorn, who said “I’m never going to be happy…There’s no winning. There’s no way out,” didn’t have that cheerleading voice in her life, and now she is dead. This is why words are so important. Know that the wrong choice of words could tarnish life for someone forever. But also know that the right ones, which more often than not are the simplest ones, can shine it up brighter than the sun.
If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, 24/7 help is available immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-(800)-273-8255.