Useful Martyrs and Invisible Deaths: On Leelah Alcorn and the Erasure of Trans Women of Color
Asam Ahmad discusses the role of innocence, sentimentality and racism in cases of trans suicide and death.
By Asam Ahmad
On June 3, 2014, the lifeless body of Kandy Hall, a 40-year-old Black trans woman, was found slumped in a field near a school and playground in Baltimore, MD. Exactly ten days later, the body of 28-year-old Zoraida ‘Ale” Reyes, a trans Latina woman, was found dumped in a Dairy Queen parking lot in Anaheim, California. She had been choked to death. One week later, the burned and shot body of Yaz’min Shancez, another Black trans woman, was found behind a dumpster in an alleyway in Fort Myers, Florida. A couple days later, the body of 28-year-old Black trans woman Tiffany Edwards, was found shot and lying in the street by a sanitation worker.
All of these deaths occurred in a single month in 2014. On December 16, 2014, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported the death of Keymori Shatoya Johnson, the 12th trans woman of color to be murdered in 2014. After Tiffany Edwards’ murder in June, the NCAVP released an urgent press statement:
“We are alarmed by this crisis of violence. This is the fourth suspicious death or homicide of a transgender woman of color in the United States this month alone,” said Osman Ahmed, NCAVP’s Research and Education Coordinator at the New York City Anti-Violence Project. “For many transgender women of color, who are disproportionally affected by violence, the motive for homicides is never determined and the investigations are rarely completed.”
On December 28th, 2014, Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old white trans woman in Ohio, walked into oncoming traffic on a highway. Her heartbreaking suicide note, published on her Tumblr later that day, details the spiritual abuse she faced from her parents and religious community, and it is absolutely heartbreaking to read. Her parents’ incessant refrain of loving their daughter “unconditionally” while continuing to refuse to correctly gender her, even in death, underscores their complete inability to understand what “unconditionally” implies. It is absolutely horrifying to witness the “he” coming out of their mouths.
But, unlike the national silence that greeted the deaths of almost all trans women of color murdered in 2014, Leelah Alcorn’s name has become a hashtag and over 300,000 people have already signed a petition to enact “Leelah’s Law.” The same media outlets who couldn’t be bothered to utter the names of the many trans women of color that were violently murdered in 2014 are absolutely stunned by Leelah’s suicide, as if there is something unique or uniquely tragic about her death.
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.
It is almost impossible to deny that Leelah Alcorn’s whiteness – as much as her story – is fuelling the viral campaign in her name. What else can explain the astonishing outpouring of support, amplification, and art already being made of and for Leelah? Where was this outpouring when Islan Nettles, for instance, a young Black trans woman, was violently murdered in New York City in 2013 after being catcalled by a cis man who was then so embarrassed at being attracted to her that the only way he could live with himself is by beating her to death? Where was this outrage when Islan’s murderer was set free and all charges against him dismissed, even though multiple eyewitnesses testified against him?
Leelah’s face telegraphs the kind of painful innocence, inseparable from both her whiteness and her youth, that is necessary for an appropriate martyr the LGBTQ community can rally behind. Whiteness has always functioned as a marker of both universality and innocence, in the very same way that Blackness is automatically associated with criminality and guilt. Unfortunately, innocence itself, as a marker of who is and isn’t worthy of a movement, is a guaranteed way to make sure not only that the movement will fail those who cannot lay claim to the same kinds of innocence – whether through actually committing crimes or just by being associated with a pigment that is racialized as criminal – but also anyone who lives at the margins of the already marginalized.
This is why it is important to situate Leelah’s suicide in the context of an ongoing and relentless epidemic of trans death in America. Many people have called Leelah’s suicide a tragedy, but Leelah’s death is only tragic if we insist on pretending that violence and suicide isn’t the norm when it comes to the lives of trans women, especially trans women of color. If anything can be called tragic, it is a society that has normalized such disproportionate levels of violence against trans women that self-harm is the only answer many can find. This normalized violence impacts every single aspects of trans women’s lives – from using public bathrooms to accessing healthcare to interacting with law enforcement. According to the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the National Centre for Transgender Equality’s Report of the Transgender Discrimination Survey, the largest survey of its kind, ‘a staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population,’ and while ‘discrimination was pervasive throughout the entire sample, the combination of anti-transgender bias and persistent, structural racism was especially devastating.’ According to the Trans Violence Tracking Portal, every 32 hours a trans woman is reported murdered, and some estimates put the average life expectancy of Black trans women at 35 years old – less than half the national average. The Report of the Transgender Discrimination Survey, aptly titled Injustice at Every Turn, concludes that it “is part of social and legal convention in the United States to discriminate against, ridicule, and abuse transgender and gender nonconforming people within foundational institutions such as the family, schools, the workplace and health care settings, every day. Instead of recognizing that the moral failure lies in society’s unwillingness to embrace different gender identities and expressions, society blames transgender and gender nonconforming people for bringing the discrimination and violence on themselves.”
In such a context, calling Leelah’s suicide a tragedy is a misnomer that elides the ongoing violence against trans women that forms the backdrop to her death. More importantly, at a time when Black and racialized trans women are most at risk of dying from transphobic violence in America, turning a young white trans woman into the face of trans death in this country is a particularly insidious form of “unintentional” racism if it means ignoring and continuing to erase the violence that trans women of color face. In an interview titled “What’s Wrong With ‘All Lives Matter’?,” published in the New York Times this month, Judith Butler noted that “there must be a collective reflection on, and opposition to, the way whiteness takes hold of our ideas about whose lives matter. The norm of whiteness that supports both violence and inequality insinuates itself into the normal and the obvious. Understood as the sometimes tacit and sometimes explicit power to define the boundaries of kinship, community and nation, whiteness inflects all those frameworks within which certain lives are made to matter less than others.”
Undoubtedly, Leelah’s death needs to be named and mourned publicly, because trans lives have remained ungrievable since European colonialists first set foot on this continent. And it is precisely because we can now publicly mourn Leelah’s death that we need to ask whose lives remain invisible and whose deaths are still ungrievable. In the face of the relentless and unending howls of grief that remain unheard all around us, it may be ethically impossible to do justice to any single loss of life when so much structural and systemic violence continues unabated. But when we mourn Leelah’s death, are we mourning the death of one white trans woman or is this mourning meant to expiate our guilt at having failed so many other invisible trans deaths? In other words, is our grief for Leelah precluding our ability to mourn for the ongoing deaths of other, non-white trans women, and our own complicity in these deaths?
Whiteness has always been constructed as universal while simultaneously remaining unmarked and “invisible”: it is always presented as an unmarked and abstract identity that somehow everyone is supposed to be able to relate with. Whiteness is so universal for most people that it can “stand in” for pretty much any story we wish to tell: the plight of upper and middle class white women is supposed to “stand in” for the plight of all women, rich gay white men somehow “stand in” for all people who have same sex desires. This is why so many people have no issue with whitewashing history or even casting white people in roles that originated with racialized characters – but will forever complain if Black or racialized people are cast in “white” roles .
But the stories whiteness tells under the cloak of universality are just as specific as any other story. Just because whiteness isn’t explicitly mentioned in most popular culture, just because it remains invisible by being the norm, just because whiteness is presumed as default (much like male is presumed as default unless stated otherwise), doesn’t make it any less of a specific kind of story, one whose alleged universal applicability is the kind of false narrative that continues to erase and marginalize the stories and lives of racialized peoples. This is why it is a mistake to presume that violence against all trans women will end without naming the particularly insidious combination of structural racism and systemic transmisogyny that disproportionately impacts the lives of trans women of color. Lourdes Ashley Hunter, the co-founder and executive director of the Trans Women of Color Collective, wrote via email:
“for our collective liberation, it is imperative that we acknowledge how structural oppression manifests in all our lives. The same year that our nation celebrates the 45th anniversary of The Stonewall Rebellion, 12 trans women of color were brutally murdered in 6 months (countless other globally) in this country with no national outrage. In order to begin to heal and work in tandem to dismantle structural oppression, we must name and affirm these truths.”
One of these truths is acknowledging that LGBTQ people of color face particular kinds of violence that cannot be addressed without explicitly tackling racism. Black and racialized trans women continue to face disproportionately higher levels of violence than any other marginalized group in America. This violence cannot be addressed without acknowledging that, since transphobia does not originate from communities of color but from European medical discourses, of the 18th and 19th century it is logically impossible to dismantle transphobia at its root without disrupting white supremacy at the same time. Transphobia is founded through colonialist doctrines in aid of white supremacy: the first thing many colonialists did when arriving on this continent was make a spectacle of killing two spirit and gender non-conforming individuals because they posed such incomprehensible threats to Western binary conceptions of gender. Acknowledging this crucial fact would require all LGBTQ people who are invested in ending transphobia to recognize that transphobia and racism are foundationally linked in a culture that still privileges whiteness above all else.
Unfortunately, the mainstream media loves to distill complicated, overlapping issues into single-issue politics: for most of these outlets, Black Lives Matters usually only refers to Black cis men, and LGBTQ almost always means white. Where, possibly, does this leave Black and racialized trans women? They remain invisible, of course, even as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock become tokenized as symbols of progress. If you ask the average consumer of mainstream media what a queer person looks like, they will most likely say a rich, white gay man, despite the fact that there has been a spate of recent studies showing that more people of color in the US, especially Black people, identify as queer than white people. Ignoring race as a factor when it comes to transphobia and trasnmisogyny means neatly packaging oppression in different boxes that never overlap. It also means, inevitably, intentionally or not, leaving trans women of color behind.
From the whitewashing of LGBTQ history in this country, we already know this strategy, or, more accurately, intellectual laziness facilitated via white supremacy, doesn’t work. Trickle-down politics – the idea that benefits and civil rights will eventually, over time, “trickle down” to the most marginalized – is as mythical an idea as trickle-down economics. This is the same assimilationist logic that forgets that trans women of color started the riot that gave LGBTQ people most of their civil rights, the same logic that ignores the needs of poor, homeless and racialized queers while fighting for the right to marry and murder in the name of the state, the same logic that continues to celebrate the gains queer people have made while erasing the fact that these gains have been made on the backs of trans women of color who continue to face disproportionate levels of violence in this country. It is the same logic that uses the deaths of trans women of color as statistics to represent the violence all LGBTQ people face, as if there is no difference in safety between a rich white gay man and a homeless trans woman of color when it comes to oppression. And it is the same logic that allows rich, predominantly white and cis-led organizations to continue to get more funding and charitable support while erasing their own complicity in the violence that trans women face.
Unless our movements make connections between the deaths of trans people and the pervasive racism that continues to be a foundational cornerstone of America, we will always be failing those who occupy more than one marginalized identity. The truth is that cis people have already failed trans women of color, and yet they somehow continue to survive and even thrive. What would a movement look like that centres the leadership of Black, Indigenous and racialized trans women? What would it mean to create a space to actually listen and learn from those who have had to innovate the most resilient and remarkable strategies for their very survival because they had no other choice? What would it mean to centre our movements on the women who weren’t supposed to be here and yet still continue to be here through sheer magic alone? All of our movements, all of our ideas of what a leader looks like, would be completely turned on their heads.
While mourning Leelah’s untimely death, let’s remember that thinking of oppression and violence through a single-issue lens means forgetting those who are impacted by multiple forms of structural violence. Who our movements are centred upon, in whose names we organize, is more than just symbolic – it articulate the kinds of change we are hoping for and the kinds of bodies we cherish the most. It’s impossible to imagine the pain that Leelah Alcorn went through, but if we only remember her name and not the names of Aniya Parker, Islan Nettles, Tiffany Edwards, Zoraida Reyes, Kandy Hall, Yaz'min Shancez, Deshawnda Sanchez, or the many, many, many other Black and racialized trans women who were killed in 2014 and the years before, we are failing all trans women – including the Leelahs in this world who are still alive.
If you are financially able to, please donate to the Trans Women of Color Collective here.