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How We Talk About Leelah Matters

Posted by Annie Gonzalez Milliken // January 22nd 2015 // Issues and Trends, Stories and Voices // no comments

This blogpost was written by young adult Samantha Ames, a lifelong Unitarian Universalist and lawyer with the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). The NCLR works tirelessly to make our society safer for all LGBTQ people, especially queer youth.–Ed.


The suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn has prompted widespread media attention, including a focus on her description of how being sent to conversion therapy increased her sense of isolation and rejection. Now more than ever before, it is clear that there is an urgent need for more public discussion and education around the harms caused by conversion therapy.

But some aspects of the recent conversations have been troubling. I’ve spent the last several years working with survivors of these dangerous and discredited practices at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which has been at the forefront of this issue for two decades. Six months ago, we launched our #BornPerfect campaign to end conversion therapy for good, rooted in empowering those survivors to tell their stories in healing ways through advocacy and leadership.

In conversations with both survivors and advocates since Leelah’s death, I’ve become increasingly aware of something that isn’t easy to address but that I can’t stay silent about anymore. Of all those weighing in on this horrific tragedy, some voices – including those of conversion therapy survivors – have been notably quieter and different in tone than others, and I think we need to talk about why. While it’s impossible to deny that Leelah Alcorn’s final words have been a wake-up call to many who didn’t even know conversion therapy was still an issue, we need to make sure that the ways we talk about this aren’t risking the safety of anyone else. I’ve been thrilled to see a lot of discussions taking place over the last few weeks between individuals and organizations wanting to put an end to these ineffective and harmful practices. These conversations are long overdue. But they can also be triggering.

History tells us we should be wary of sudden calls to action that glorify victims of suicide, point fingers at simplified causes, or sensationalize details of an already gut-wrenching death. Before engaging on this issue, I’d encourage folks to check out www.reportingonsuicide.org, a great resource on ways to prevent suicide contagion – something that occurs when a suicide is reported on in a way that contributes to another suicide.

The cost of this moment is already too high. We can’t afford to let it get any higher. The best way we can honor Leelah’s memory isn’t an easy fix – as appealing as that is – but doing the hard, long-term work of making sure all #LGBT kids feel safe and supported in their communities, their families, and their homes.
Read this post about  Samantha Ames testimony before the United Nations to end Conversion Therapy.


Things You Can Do That Will Make a Difference – 

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline number is 800-273-8255.  For more about suicide warning signs and what to do, you can visit this page.
For more about the legal battles to end conversation therapy, visit NCLR‘s #BornPerfect campaign site.
For more on actively supporting the transgender community, see these tips  from GLAAD, these steps  from TransWhat? and these common misconceptions from EverydayFeminism.
Check out organizations supporting trans youth such as Trans Youth Support Network, Trans Youth Equality, or Trans Youth Family Allies which have resources for youth, parents and others. Revisit this list of LGBTQ Youth Partners and Resources on the Blue Boat.

About the Author

Annie is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and currently serves our faith as the Young Adult and Campus Ministry Associate for the Unitarian Universalist Association.
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