Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Lives and Afterlives of Leelah (Josh) Alcorn: Remaking Meaning from Transgender Suicide

"#LeelahAlcorn was buried in a suit with the wrong name. Please remember her as a beautiful young woman."

Bullying Stops Here


"No Winning, No Way Out"

In Canto XIII of Dante's Divine Comedy, the poet imagines the Wood of Suicides, where the damned find themselves denied the dignity of their lived form after death. When suicides arrive in Dante's Hell, they are cast to the second ring of the seventh circle by Minos, where they plunge into the ground like seeds and grow into the form of trees. If this is not enough, they are continually torn to pieces by Harpies. Even after the time of the resurrection, when all souls return to their bodies, the suicides will be denied this honor:  "Come l'altre verrem per nostre spoglie, / ma non però ch'alcuna sen rivesta, / ché non è giusto aver ciò ch'om si toglie" ("We will come to claim our cast-off bodies / like the others. But it would not be just if we again / put on the flesh we robbed from our own souls." Dante, Inferno.XIII.103-105). Punishment by the refusal of embodiment is a consistent theme throughout the Divine Comedy, repeated again in the shifting forms of the cheats and liars. Changing the form determined for one's substance by Dante's God is tantamount to a rebellion against Natural and Divine Law, a privilege of shape which is then revoked. 

While the Inferno imagines the enforcement of such prescribed genres of embodiment in an epic fantasy, we witness the same logic of punishment active today against those who break from the confinement of unlivable shapes of gender. I've written previously, asking the question "What Name Will You Put on My Gravestone?" calling out the responsibility we have to fight the battles of the Trans lives after their death. Every trans person experiences vulnerability and the need for community support, but when that fight claims the life of another, the dead become even more dependent on others to re-make the meaning that has oppressively structured their lives. Between 50-60% of trans persons attempt suicide by the age of 20 and all too often the same forces that pressured the trans person into annihilation, continues to erase their existence by refusing them the dignity in death of keeping the form of gender they fought (and died) to preserve in life. Burying trans women in suits and ties and marking the graves of trans men in their birth names perpetrates the same violence of the imagination and memory that Dante's Inferno enforces on his damned souls in the Wood of Suicides.



"Transgender Queen of Hell"

In the last days of 2014, we have been reminded again of the battle for the lives and after-lives of Leelah (Josh) Alcorn, age 17. On a late December day, Leelah posted a note on her tumblr page entitled  "Suicide Note" and proceeded to end her life by walking in front of a trailer tractor truck on Interstate 71. In the note, she admits to feeling that despite repeated attempts to make a livable life for herself through gender transition, she faced seemingly impenetrable barriers put forth by her parents and her community. Thus, while it was her legs that cast her into the way of death, she was clearly pushed by a society that wished to deny Leelah a dignified existence. "There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already," writes Alcorn. "I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say “it gets better” but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse" (LazerPrincess). While contemporary secular doctors might describe Alcorn as mentally ill, as we see in the case of medieval stories of sin and transgender suicide, the illness is more accurately a social disease rather than a personal one. In fact, the resonance between Alcorn's online confession and John Gower's description of the death of a trans feminine Narcissus in the Confessio Amantis's description of the deadly sin of Pride is striking: a life is isolated from community, where the expectations to be a "perfect little straight Christian boy" causes an unsustainable division within the self, that because of a lack of support, resolves itself in death.

Yet death is never the end, as the battle over the life of trans persons turns into a war over their afterlives. Conscious that her story existed as part of a genre of transgender lives (often ending the same way), Alcorn reached out to an online community and called on them to guard her memory. "My death needs to mean something," writes Alcorn. "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 fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please." (LazerPrincess). An articulate young woman, Alcorn's note does what Gower's Tale of Narcissus and Dante's Wood of Suicides does: take a story of isolation and connect it with an imagined community of lives and texts. This imprisonment in an unlivable form of embodiment and sense of isolation bred out of being cut off from contact with a community of support constitutes what CS Lewis has defined as Hell itself. In the Great Divorce, Lewis describes Heaven as a single expansive multiplicity but also that there are as many hells as there are those who would reject or be rejected by everything else: "For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself." In this way, Alcorn was damned by her family and society to become how she describes herself in the tagline to her blog: a "transgender queen of hell" (LazerPrincess). 

"Death Needs to Mean Something"

Trans activism and scholarship has been characterized not merely as either encompassed by the constructions nor the destructions of body and narrative, but by a continual re-construction. In 1991, Sandy Stone wrote her seminal trans theory essay, a "Post-Transsexual Manifesto" in which she called for a transformation of how we approach our personal and collective histories: “To begin to write oneself into the discourses by which one has been written.” This act of asserting change does not deny the work nor the violence of social forces, but seeks to assert agency over the technologies by which their lives and afterlives are made and unmade. “Transsexuals must take responsibility for all of their history,” writes Stone, “to begin to articulate their lives not as a series of erasures… but as a political action begun by reappropriating difference and reclaiming the power of the reconfigured and reinscribed body.” This battle over the reins of discourse seeks to wrestle matter and meaning away from the eternal fixity of supposed Natural and Divine Law as well as from the eternal nihilism of a denied existence. This occurs not by denying scripts and erasures, but by giving new meanings to life and death.

This is the vein that frames Alcorns plea, "My death needs to mean something" (LazerPrincess). In her final days, Alcorn was overwhelmed by the solitude and nihilism of a personal hell, and looked for "something" rather than nothing. The force of her words and death has sparked a viral response with numerous artists, activists and scholars adding the force to re-inscribe the history that others have set for Alcorn: burying her in a suit and under her birth name. Rather than letting this grave have the final word, photos taken by Alcorn herself have been circulated and paintings of her have been made. On Facebook, Robert McRuer writes, "RIP Leelah Alcorn. That pressure to be a "perfect little straight Christian boy" is real and I hope we honor your memory by refusing and negating that pressure in whatever way possible." On Twitter we hear voices reacting to the societies that made and unmade Leelah. Tara Jayn (@TaraJayn)writes "Guess the parents overlooked the fact that maybe God gave them  #LeelahAlcorn  as their chance to learn unconditional love. #TransLivesMatter," while Sophia Banks (@SophiaPhotos) writes, "I am not religious but nor will I blame religion for the suicide of #LeelahAlcorn lots of transphobia from atheists too." Whether or not one believes in Dante's hell of torment, Lewis's hell of isolation, or Alcorn's parents' hell of cisgender expectations, Leelah's death need not be the final everlasting word for her afterlife in the wider community.

We failed to save Leelah's life, but how can we honor it and give her a better afterlife on this world? Re-inscribing her image and story are great starts. As Alcorn writes in her sign off, "Goodbye,(Leelah) Josh Alcorn" the specter of past lives remain with us and we have the power to transform them. Yet we need to also liberate Leelah in ways that she could not do alone. We need to free "(Leelah)" from the confines of being stated parenthetically, separated off as an isolated life or failed potential. Alcorn points us in the direction of how to do this: "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 fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please." In life she was made to be too alone, in death she has the potential to join a community. We need to connect her story to those that have come before (like Dante, Gower, Lewis) and give her afterlife a place among us. This is not merely a plea to "Save Leelah" but an affirmation that we never will totally lose her and she may yet save us.


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