Here’s a column I wrote for the New York Times, published January 7, 2014.
THEY placed an unlit candle in my hands. Hundreds of people sat quietly in chairs. This was at the L.G.B.T. Community Center in Greenwich Village in November, at an event called the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
It happens every year, people coming together to mourn trans individuals lost to murder or suicide. As a trans woman, I wish that the one day on the calendar that recognizes transgender experience was about celebrating the successes of our diverse community, rather than counting the lives we’ve lost. But the losses go on, year after year. And so I lit that candle.
The weekend after Christmas, 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn left her house in Kings Mills, Ohio, in the middle of the night. She made her way to Interstate 71, where she stepped in front of a tractor-trailer. A note she left behind on Tumblr read, in part, “Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living … because I’m transgender.”
Leelah’s conservative Christian parents were not supportive of her urgent pleas to live her life openly. “I told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids.” She added: “That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.”
Leelah was no mistake. The world abounds with all sorts of ways of being human, one of which is being trans. It is a tragedy that Leelah was never given the chance to be proud of who she was, and that she thought the only way to change the world was through her death.
Suicide is a constant among transgender people; we are one of the most at-risk groups in the country. One study suggests that over 40 percent of us attempt it during the course of our lives.
I was among that number. In 1986 I stood at the edge of a cliff in Nova Scotia, looking down at the Atlantic, considering the plunge into the sea below.
Then I turned back. Somehow, here I am.
Early transition is usually best for trans people. But for many of us it’s impossible, because of unsupportive families, because of a lack of resources, because we do not yet have the courage to embark upon what seems like a frightening path. In that scenario, the best strategy may simply be having faith in the future, and finding a way to survive until you’re able to control your own destiny. I don’t know if the things that helped me are of any use to someone born, as Leelah was, in 1997. But the last week has given me occasion to think back on how it was I got this far.
My own life was saved in part by books. When I found Jan Morris’s 1974 memoir, “Conundrum,” it was as if I’d found a wormhole to another universe, a galaxy where people like me could thrive. I wish I could have also given Leelah two more recent works: Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness” and Kate Bornstein’s “Hello Cruel World.” They might have made a difference.
If reading provided me with solace, so did writing. Keeping a journal, telling stories, inventing worlds gave me comfort until the time came when I had the agency to make my own choices. Narrative helped me find a through-line in the chaos of my life.
There were other times, quite frankly, when simply making a lot of noise saved me, too. I pounded my family’s piano until the strings broke; I played in a band that played two songs, one of which was “Turn on Your Love Light,” and one of which was not. Making noise helped me know I existed, helped me in some inarticulate way express the pain I felt inside. There were winter nights when I shouted at the sky. Sometimes my own voice echoed back at me.
Read, Write, Scream is not exactly “Eat, Pray, Love,” but it worked for me. And there are lots of other resources available now that I did not have in the 1970s, including the hashtag #RealLiveTransAdult that leads to many stories of people who survived and thrived.
It may still be possible to fulfill at least one of Leelah’s wishes. In her note, she wrote: “My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say, ‘that’s [expletive] up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of “Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders.”