Late last year, 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn made headlines after she stepped out into oncoming traffic along Interstate 71 near her Ohio home. Her death by suicide came with a note, posted automatically to her Tumblr account in the hours after her passing. In response, Alcorn’s name made international headlines, hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions in support of her, she was mentioned during the Golden Globe Awards telecast, and she became the most talked about transgender person of the past six months.
Why did Leelah’s story, in particular, catch the world’s attention, and not any of the other trans people's lost to suicide? Why is it that in the first few weeks of 2015, we’ve watched as trans women of color have been murdered at a rate of roughly one per week, and yet the media can’t be bothered to recognize this violence for what it is—an epidemic?
I think I know the answer, and while it’s a hard truth to swallow, it’s something we must address head-on: Leelah was white, came from a middle-class family, and had media-friendly looks and skill with words. When you look at the stories of those like Islan Nettles, Zoraida Reyes, Yazmin Vash Payne, or Penny Proud, the pattern is impossible to ignore. Yes, these women were all victims of violence, either by homicide or suicide; but unlike Leelah, the other victims were women of color, and if the dearth of media attention is any indication, less valuable to society.
In a January blog post at Black Girl Dangerous, Eunbyul Lee examines the question of Who gets to be human in death? through the lens of Alcorn and the many trans women of color who have fallen.
Violence against trans POC (people of color) is buried under six feet of blatant disregard while Brandon Teena, a white trans man, had two films produced in honor of his life and death. Laws are likelier to be made in honor of white trans people. In death, humanization can be a reality for white trans people. I need us to challenge the hypervisibility of a white trans tragedy, and the subsequent invisibility of the tragic deaths of trans POC. I want people to give a shit when trans POC have our voices, our histories, our lives, and our legacies stolen from us.
Where is justice for Islan Nettles, who was beaten unconscious by her murderers across the street from a police station? What about Alejandra Leos, harassed and shot just steps outside her home? Where was widespread coverage of the murders of Tiff Edwards, Jennifer Laude, Gizzy Fowler, Zoraida Reyes, Kandy Hall, and Yaz’min Shancez? When we fail to illuminate the dimmed narratives of trans people of color while advocating for justice exclusively for white trans people, we further notions of white supremacy. When we choose whose deaths are deserving of our mourning, it appears as if we are only adopting certain attitudes (“trans lives matter”) in order to fit a specific aesthetic (“I am a trans ally.”) We become complicit in replicating the very systems of oppression that we claim to reject and we must hold ourselves accountable for these inconsistencies. We must advocate for justice for Leelah, but we mustn’t do so at the expense of trans women of color. We mustn’t erase the legacies of trans women of color.
In an article for Youngist, Asam Ahmad takes on the idea of “Useful martyrs and invisible deaths.”
While mourning Leelah’s suicide, it is urgently necessary to ask what makes the deaths of trans women of color any less meaningful, less worthy, less important to mourn than the death of Leelah Alcorn. It is significant that while researching this article, it was impossible to find even a single news report documenting the suicide of a trans women of color, despite the fact that Black trans women have the highest suicide rate in America. I am writing this as a non-trans person, and as such, some people will accuse me of utilizing Leelah’s death to make my own political point. But if anything, what I am trying to instrumentalize here is not Leelah’s suicide but the unexpected media attention that followed it. Using this media spotlight to bring attention to the violent murders of trans women of color isn’t about “bringing politics into grief” but rather recognizing that all acts of public mourning are always already political. Who gets to be mourned publicly is always a political question with very real political and material consequences. Paying attention to who gets front page coverage of their grief, whose life is counted as grievable, and whose life is even “worth” grieving publicly helps illuminate which deaths remain invisible and which lives are rendered ungrievable altogether.
None of these views suggest that we should care less about Leelah. Instead, they simply argue that we need to care more about the epidemic of trans women of color who are lost to violence. Where was the petition for “Islan’s Law?” Why did the world stand idly by as CeCe McDonald was sent to prison for defending herself? We say things like “trans lives matter” and “black lives matter,” but when will black trans lives matter to the world at large? The intersection of racism and transmisogyny places these women in a truly unenviable position in the world; it’s up to the rest of us to start paying attention, to take seriously Leelah’s plea—“fix society”—and create a safer world for all trans people, especially those most at risk of becoming victims of violent crime.
Of course, when trans women of color aren’t outright ignored by the media, they’re often degraded, misgendered, and oftentimes blamed for their own deaths. In April 2013, trans woman CeCe Acoff was found murdered outside Cleveland. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer took care to list Acoff’s criminal record (which was irrelevant to her death), call her an “oddly-dressed man,” and to suggest that she may have been engaging in sex work. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with someone taking part in sex work by choice or by circumstance, the “all trans women are sex workers” stereotype is usually just a way of saying: Well, she had it coming, right?
It’s for this reason that the world needs to start listening to what trans women of color have to say. Start reading blogs like Black Girl Dangerous or Monica Roberts’ TransGriot; pay attention to the worlds of Laverne Cox, and tune in to MSNBC’s So Popular! with Janet Mock. If there’s hope to stem the loss of life, it has to begin with a better informed public, and it must start by listening to those closest to the tragedy.