Dear Leelah, We Will Fight On For You: A Letter to a Dead Trans Teen
I wish I could be writing to you under better circumstances, but unfortunately those avenues have closed up. I wanted to write you to tell you how sorry I am that your parents’ unwillingness to accept who you are extinguished the bright future you so clearly had. I am sorry that you were forced to join thousands of other transgender individuals driven to suicide by a society that refuses to accommodate their existence. I am sorry that I’ll never get to know you.
On Monday night, when I first learned of the circumstances surrounding your death—that you stepped out in front of semi-trailer on Interstate 71—I cycled through a series of emotions, feeling simultaneously angry and heartbroken; I was helpless. When I read the note you left behind, detailing the three years of mistreatment you endured at the hands of your parents after coming out to them as transgender, I cried.
It’s unconscionable to think that your parents would pull you from school, and that they’d shut you off from communicating with the outside world for five months at a time. How could they do this to their own child?
In some ways, I can relate. Just a few short years ago, I sat down at my computer, and I typed out a similar goodbye letter. I’d scheduled it to post to my blog the following month, and I truly believed that this would be it for me. I’d made multiple serious suicide attempts prior to coming out as transgender, though I always managed to pull through, but I was sure this time would be different.
Rather than downing a handful of pills, I planned to take my life by opening a vein in each wrist. I tried, I told myself.
The following month came, and for lack of a better term, I chickened out. I kicked the can down the road, rescheduling that letter every few weeks, living month to month like my life was the lease on a run-down apartment. Eventually, I deleted the post altogether.
There was something cathartic about deleting this 2,500-word monster of a farewell, and resolving to live. There were certainly times when I doubted whether I’d made the right choice in continuing on, but in a more distant retrospect, I know I did.
I’m here, but you’re not, and that’s a tragedy. I suppose I have survivor’s guilt. The sad fact is that more than 41 percent of trans people admit making at least one suicide attempt in their lifetime. For a long time, I asked myself whether we’re all just ticking time-bombs.
Is there something wrong with trans people that drives us to self-harm? Over time, hearing far too many stories so very similar to yours, it occurred to me that the problem was not some inherent flaw shared as a result of being transgender, but rather, a flaw manifested within society at-large.
Your death, like the death of so many others, comes at the hands of a society so indifferent to the existence of those like you that even loved ones are complicit in driving you to destruction. It’s not your fault.
Your death is a tragic bookend to a year touted as the “transgender tipping point.” Your death is symbolic of the harsh reality facing so many of us.
Yes, trans people and trans issues are finally being acknowledged in pop culture and public policy, but even the most positive portrayals of trans characters cannot offset the treatment your parents subjected you to—treatment that very well amounts to child abuse, even if not meeting the legal definition of such.
Your letter highlights so many of the harsh realities trans people face, specifically in regard to how society rejects us.
Upon realizing that you were transgender, you write, you “immediately told [your] mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling [you] that it was a phase, that [you] would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that [you were] wrong.” What kind of mother invalidates her own daughter’s existence like this? What kind of monster engages in such destructive behavior?
Your parents—like many others—justified their mistreatment or you by claiming that they were merely following their religious beliefs. Truth is, people who claim that their bigotry is shaped by their religious beliefs are actually shaping their religious beliefs through their existing, prejudiced worldview.
In my search for answers about who I was, I pored over religious texts in search of enlightenment. My understanding was that according to most Christian beliefs, being trans or gay was a sin, cut and dry. What I found, however, was that while there were some Bible passages that could be interpreted to hint at that, there were more that came with a message of loving those unlike you, taking care of relatives, and not judging others.
1 Timothy 5:8 reads, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” How is this at all compatible with how your parents treated you?
1 Samuel 16:7 instructs people to avoid passing judgment on others, reading, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
I am so sorry that your parents did this to you, developing their own discriminatory take on your existence.
I spent time yesterday listening to the music you made, and looking at the art you created. There was so much beauty, talent, potential, and most importantly, honesty in your work. Sadly, the world will never see the realization of those skills.
I often wonder what contributions to art and innovation society would have gathered if not for how it treats trans individuals. How many engineers, inventors, scientists, lawyers, artists, and musicians has the world been deprived of because of these attitudes? How many husbands, wives, sons, and daughters have we lost to a broken system?
What hurts the most about your death is that it could have been prevented. ++The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey (PDF) reveals that trans children rejected by their families were nearly 60 percent more likely to attempt suicide than those with accepting families.
Who knows what role your parents’ unwillingness to accept you for the person you were had in your untimely death? Who knows where you’d be if instead of enlisting dangerous and ineffective reparative therapy, you’d have been able to meet with a counselor who would have guided you to embrace the person you are? There are so many factors at play, but in the end, the culmination of them resulted in your death.
I wish you were alive to read this. You have no idea how much I would have liked to be able to chat with you face to face. As that isn’t an option, I’m trying to do my best to honor your wish of letting your death mean something. I’m doing my best to make sure the treatment you were subjected to becomes unacceptable within the society you’ve asked us all to fix.
No more. No more dead bodies. No more suicide notes. No more allowing people to justify their bigotry by spouting a cherry-picked Bible verse. If we want to prevent others from your fate, we need to stop being so passive on these issues. It needs to be said: bigotry in the name of religion is still bigotry; child abuse wrapped in a Bible verse is still child abuse.
None of this is about you. None of this is about me. This is about preventing the next you, and it’s about educating the public on the dangers of denying someone their own existence. This is about no longer accepting that—as so many others have stated—a family would rather have a dead son than a living daughter.
Parents, if you’re reading this, do better. If you have a child, understand that of the many measures of what it means to be a good parent, ensuring your child’s life and wellbeing has to be the top priority. The steps Leelah’s parents took increased her likelihood of committing suicide by nearly 60 percent, and that’s unbelievably reckless.
Before you have children, it’s imperative that you ask yourself whether or not you’re able to truly love your child unconditionally. Whether your child is straight or gay, cisgender (non-trans) or transgender, you need to understand that this is not something you can change about them.
No amount of wishing, praying, or punishing can change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity; it only inflicts harm. If you conclude that you would be unable to love a trans child, it’s your responsibility to understand that you are not fit to be a parent. To be a parent is to be able to offer truly unconditional love. If you can’t do that, I suggest that you get a goldfish, instead.
Leelah, you won’t be forgotten. What you did wasn’t a sign of weakness, and again, it was not your fault. The more resources and education society becomes equipped with, the fewer stories like yours will surface. I would much rather write about a trans person flourishing and doing amazing work, than yet another lost to suicide or other violence.
To trans people reading this, whether you’re out or closeted, know that it doesn’t have to be like this. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, get help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the newly established Trans Lifeline.
Goodbye, Leelah. I’m so sorry this happened to you.