Few of you will be unaware of trans teenager Leelah Alcorn who committed suicide as 2014 was coming to a close – her loss has been felt by people all over the world. A few days after her death her parents requested the deletion of her suicide note from Tumblr, and Tumblr obliged.
Her parents’ need for the note to be taken down came from the same place as the transphobia that made Leelah feel her life was unlivable. They want to control how their daughter is remembered. Yet, according to Tumblr, this was their decision to make, as blisteringly unfair as it feels to Leelah’s memory. However, after seeing the way the internet has reacted, questions of whether they had the right to do this seem a little beside the point. Her parents wanted her suicide note taken down, and taken down it was. Tumblr fulfilled their duty to two grieving parents by respecting their request. The fact that the note was taken down is a mere footnote in Leelah’s story – her trans siblings and their allies put it back up and they spread her picture around the world.
By requesting her suicide note be deleted, her parents inadvertently fuelled the fire that made their daughter’s death world news. The internet community was under no obligation, as the employees of Tumblr perhaps felt they had been, to respect Leelah’s parents’ wishes. They mourned her, and continued to mourn her for the person she knew herself to be, despite the parents who can only allow themselves to mourn a son.
There is however a more urgent reason to talk about the removal of Leelah’s suicide note. In high-profile suicides such as this, especially of young trans people, the urgent and immediate need to memorialise the person who has died is acute but it is also problematic – young LGBT+ people have some of the highest suicide rates of the entire population and media attention like this makes the likelihood of copycat suicides achingly high. In journalistic reporting there are codes to follow to protect against a suicide contagion, but on Tumblr there are no such safeguards. Yet, when something like this happens, how can we not shout about it? Is the LGBT+ suicide rate not something to shout about? Should we not be outraged?
When we share in our anger it gets things done. The Samaritans media guide for reporting suicide warns “not to promote the idea that suicide achieves results” and yet a petition to enact ‘Leelah’s Law’ which would ban so-called ‘conversion therapy’ for trans people has over 300,000 signatures. Is this what Leelah meant when she asked us to ‘fix society’?
This decision of whether or not to spread her suicide note and her story puts those who care in a no-win position. Either we say nothing and her memory slips away or we share her suicide note, the only real thing we have of her, and risk more suicides in the process. The people who put us in this dangerous position are the same people who make the daily lives of trans people often lonely and brutal places.
One example of a safe and constructive way the internet has been honoring Leelah’s memory is through the hashtag #RealLiveTransAdult that has allowed transgender adults to give messages of hope and support to teens who may be struggling to imagine a future for themselves. While methods like this will never replace the need for anger among the LGBT community, it is crucial that we find a way to deal with the burden of our suicide rate that facilitates conversation without putting ourselves at risk.