A Gay Dad’s Requiem for Leelah, the Matthew Shepard of Our Time

Leelah Requiem

I will never forget the stunning image of Matthew Shepard’s hate crime. A young beautiful human was beaten, tortured and left for dead in an unthinkable violation. It shocked me when I saw the images, and I was not alone. Matthew’s fate left and indelible impression that has become part of our collective culture to this day.

This week, another tragedy, another life destroyed, left a similar impression — the death of Leelah Alcorn.

One of the publishers I work with sent me a quick message on New Years Eve. “You might want to write one of your ‘Gay Dad’ letters to the parents of this teen.” It was Leelah’s story. She was known to her family as “Joshua,” and she had killed herself. A pre-published letter appeared online. In the letter she eloquently explained why she was going to end her life in more emotional detail. While certainly many other young people had ended their lives before her, Leelah’s account of what she had endured was unprecedented.

In doing so, Leelah transformed from the latest tragedy to one that emblazed into the consciousness of a mass audience. Her plead to “make her death matter” resonated.

Many progressive bloggers felt moved to write about her including John Pavlovitz, Kathy Baldock, Jillian Page and Susan Cottrell. The evangelical Christian world was starkly quiet, issuing no statements of condolence, responsibility or regret for the environment it inspired. The Christian Post offered no mention of Leelah’s death at all even though it had been broadcast across all major media outlets in the country. Charisma News offered a single article by Michael Brown that called the situation “tragic” but instead of addressing a situation exacerbated by shortsighted Christian dogma, called for “time and energy into looking for the root causes of transgenderism.”

Without a stark image of a cross like fence on a cold crystal Wyoming plain, Leelah made an impression comparable to the crucified Matthew Shepard. She had become the image of the victim of transphobia as he had the victim of homophobic hate. In this case, her own testimony was the cross, and instead of a mother who would become the forward bearer of the message, her mother was cast as the villain.

Her story, as transgender activist Miriam Nadler tweeted, is tragically shared by many. “Cis people: please understand that the death of #LeelahAlcorn is not a statistical outlier. This story is common, cruel, and preventable.”

Susan Cottrell observed, “Yet another destroyed life over people’s ignorance and cruelty.There are no words to express the collective grief over this poor girl’s death, and anger at her parents’ misguided actions that drove her to it. Leelah’s parents made several mistakes and didn’t know it – or didn’t care.”

Author Dan Savage was even more direct, “We know that parental hostility & rejection doubles a queer kid’s already quadrupled risk of suicide—rejecting your queer kid is abuse, Leelah Alcorn’s parents threw her in front of that truck. They should be ashamed—but 1st they need to be shamed.”

Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey disagreed stating, “If you think the best, most effective possible action you can take to advance transgender rights is to harass the grieving mother of a recently deceased child, you lack imagination, humanity, any experience with grief, or some combination of the three.”

For her part, Leelah’s mother, Carla Alcorn, claimed to be ignorant of her child’s struggles. She told CNN that the transgender challenge was in a single conversation and it was not until after her child had died that she had even heard the name “Leelah.” “We don’t support that, religiously “But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy,” she added.

Leelah’s father Doug Alcorn wrote, “We love our son, Joshua, very much and are devastated by his death. We have no desire to enter into a political storm or debate with people who did not know him. We wish to grieve in private. We harbor no ill will towards anyone. … I simply do not wish our words to be used against us.”

Doug and Carla Alcorn plan to say goodbye to someone named Joshua. The rest of the world is mourning a vibrant young woman named Leelah.

For me, as a gay dad, I have complex feelings around this horror. Front of mind for me is that Leelah’s death, in all its devastation, not be held as an event to be emulated by other transgender teens in similar situations. We must collectively strive to shut down the bloodshed on all fronts. Second, I have written to, and about, worse parents. There are parents who have wished their children dead, violently attacked and killed them. The Alcorns are not one of those. As a dad, I cannot fathom the pain they must feel. I do not know how I could possibly survive the death of one of my children. It is a strength I don’t believe I possess.

The philosophy that Doug and Carla Alcorn labored under is culpable however. As my sons have approached their adolescence, guesswork on where their inner compasses are leading them has commenced. I strive to be there to support their emotional health as they find themselves through hormonal and social growth. I cannot imagine ignoring a deep-seated plea on their part due to my own allegiance to some set of dogmatic rules. Carla Alcorn did that, and still appears to be doing so.

A wave of concern has emerged over how Leelah will be buried, and what name and the gender will be used. Her family seems to be avoiding a memorial all together to avoid the inevitable protests of their actions.

From my perspective, the death of Leelah is bigger than a funeral. Her death is bigger than failed parenting. It is the result of both a religion-based culture that ignores science and a largely apathetic public on the issue of transgender dignity. She is the mark in the sand of our collective societal consciousness. Her death asks the question on human rights — at what point have we reached the breaking point in tolerating transphobic behavior that ruins young lives. Matthew Shepard’s death asked the same question about thousands of hate crimes that had preceded him.

The religious right has framed the conversation as one of “Religious Freedom”. Fear of infringing against their rhetoric, basic human rights violations have been quieted. We have reached the point where we have to ask whether some supposed adherence to these “religious freedoms” that allow for abuse needs to be compromised in order to achieve common human rights and respect for all.

Here is my requiem for Leelah:

To the lovely Leelah, and all the Leelahs in the shadows,

You feared that you could never be loved, and yet here we are. Your absence has broken our hearts. The love for you was in the world all along. It sat quiet, waiting.

In that regard, it failed you. You needed to know it was there, that it was possible. You needed to know that it was your legacy, and it was possible for it to come not from a million strangers mourning your loss, but right back in the gaze of a man, and loving friends who saw you as you were, and met the vision of you with adoration.

I know that was there for you. But you didn’t know it.

It was a love that said, Leelah, we are waiting for you to be you, your authentic self. Whether that self “passed” as a person who was born resembling a woman to your family, or as one who transitioned physically into one— it makes no difference. Beauty is not about cis-gendering, it is not about passing as someone else, it is about being the real person. You were that real person.

I have two 12 year old sons. I thrill as each becomes more and more who he is, every day. Should I falter in being there for them, if I screwed up my parenting and tried to shove them in some role or characterization, I would want the world to step in and correct me and make me allow them to be themselves. I wish someone had done so for your parents.

I am sad that we did not make you feel welcome. I am sad that we did not give you the hope to know your life could be wonderful. I am angry that we allowed the trepidation over infringing on someone’s dogmatic belief system kept us from reaching you and protecting the very basic human rights you demanded and deserved.

As you said goodbye to us, you let us know you had a voice. It was an important voice, and still is. It may have been the most important voice some of us had ever heard, and now, it is silenced.

You are right. Saying “it gets better” is not enough. We all need to be dedicated to making it better — now, and to cry that out. It will be better because we are insisting that changes be made. We cannot thrust our precious transgender brothers and sisters into the mercy of fate and a growing understanding. We need to bring that understanding to fruition as immediately as possible. We lost you while we warmed with the idea that equality was dawning, seemingly ignorant to the fact that pockets of hell still flourished in our patience.

You wanted your death to mean something. You wanted your death to be counted among the numbers of transgender casualties that are all too common.

I would deny you nothing, beautiful Leelah, except for these two requests. I cannot honor your death. It is an event that I wish with all my soul had not happened. I will not fold you into a horrific number that I want to see reduced, not increased.

It is your life that I will honor. It is your uniqueness and the uniqueness of all the others who today suffer as you did. I will fight that all those lives come out of the shadows and live and become powerful. You were not a number. They are not a number. You, they, are incredible and important human lives and I want to feel and experience your impact.

If another Leelah is reading these words, please know that I already respect you as one of the bravest on earth. I am in awe of the discovery you have made about yourself and offer my commitment to hold your hand as people understand who you are.

I am here to fight the hard fight—to make this world safe for you, worthwhile for you, available to you. I will not relinquish.

I will fight like hell. I need you, all the hidden Leelah’s to fight like hell too. We must end the option of transgender suicide. Get mad. Get vocal. Even get militant.

Don’t leave us. Your death stunned us. I can only imagine what your life would have done.


If you are a transgender person thinking about suicide, or if someone you know is, find worldwide resources at http://www.stop-homophobia.com/suicideprevention.htm . You can also reach the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. LGBT youth thinking about suicide can also reach out to the Trevor Project Lifeline (ages 24 or younger) at 866-488-7386.

Thanks to Leap Audio for a reading of this piece.  Amazing job.            http://leapaudio.org/a-special-presentation/

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Follow us on Twitter @ JandJDad

About robw77

A single gay dad who cares. His story can be read here: http://www.imagaysingleparent.com/2013/02/02/rob/ and here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/31/rob-watson-gay-family_n_4689661.html
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29 Responses to A Gay Dad’s Requiem for Leelah, the Matthew Shepard of Our Time

  1. Pingback: A Gay Dad Sounds Off on Donald Trump and Transgender Student Segregation | evoL =

  2. zman says:

    What a tragic situation that this child felt there was no other way than to take their own life. I have just a few things to say about some of the facts in the article and regarding some of the assertions. First, I believe it is terrible to shame these parents for what happened as many are doing and calling for. They are grieving. There was shame associated in this death and adding more shame into the situation is not productive. It is like trying to address hate with more hate. Shame and hate both can kill as we see here.

    Also, regarding Matthew Shepherd; if one has been following the case over the years and not just what was said in the courtroom, there is much more to what happened. ABC and many other journalists and organizations have investigated the Shepherd death and the majority who objectively investigated the case, even the police, have determined it was a drug deal gone bad. http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=277685 Start on page 4 and read page 5. That doesn’t fit with the gay rights narrative but it also doesn’t take away from the merits of their agenda if it was not a hate crime. Stephen Jimenez who is a gay activist and journalist (also gay himself) has well documented the case in an effort to get to the truth. It doesn’t take away from the tragedy of Shepherd’s death if it isn’t a hate crime.

    The author gives his judgment on how the Christian bloggers have or have not covered the case. Although tragic, this case is not that renowned. It is renowned in the gay and trans community for sure but not in society as a whole for sure. Just because these bloggers don’t cover it as the author wants them to, does not mean they are wrong. Speaking of right and wrong. The author, and most of the progressive community come from a moral relativist platform: whatever is true for you is true, be true to yourself, live and let live, truth is what you make of it, etc. Progressives don’t want any judgment over personal lifestyle choices because “truth is whatever it is for you”… you define it. Since there is no “science” that being gay or trans is genetic then it is whatever one feels they are. Gender identity is based off of how one views themselves based on how they feel. Whatever one feels they are is true for them and who is anyone else to say different? So if one embraces this moral relativist platform, then who are they to criticize anyone… for anything? How are these parent’s beliefs wrong if what is true for them is true. If their child had not killed them self then would their beliefs be any less or more wrong/right? What is you measure of truth? If you believe truth is fluid in society to whatever is best for the maximization of society’s flourishing, then who decides what the maximizing principles are? What if I disagree? Who decides what flourishing is? What if I feel it is different? Is morality/truth what the majority says is best? Well then many atrocities throughout history condoned by the majority are apparently ok. Yes, that is stupid. So then who decides truth, wrong, and right? You? Why? Because you feel that way? The progressives have answered that question with “whatever is right for you is right”. Well then if someone else has a different sense of right then you can’t criticize it because truth is whatever is true for them. That is the logical hole you have dug. How can you say someone is wrong or “misguided” if there is no true right and wrong, only what you feel is right/wrong? You have no authority to pass any judgment about anything ever with that platform. Just wanted to point that out. Again, a terrible situation and so sad.

    • robw77 says:

      Thank you very much for your comments zman. I appreciate the discussion. I think you are misguided in quite a few of your points.

      First, your comments about Matthew Shephard are not supported by the article you provided. You seem to want to read in what you want to, not what is actually presented. The article covers indications that the situation occurred in a “drug scene” environment and the men were high when they killed Matthew, and that they had seen him before. Those in the article who were there, and people I know as well who were there, have verified that it was a highly homophobic and hate filled scene. The addition of drugs just added to it. From the article YOU linked to: “Laramie police Cmdr. Dave O’Malley got a call from a friend of Shepard suggesting that. Nevertheless, O’Malley doesn’t believe drug use motivated the attackers.”I really don’t think he was in a methamphetamine-induced rage when this happened. I don’t buy it at all,” O’Malley said. “I feel comfortable in my own heart that they did what they did to Matt because they [had] hatred toward him for being gay,” he said.”

      Your attempt to re-characterize this underscores the similarity of the two– both had detractors wanting no one to go to the larger principles involved because in some minds each had somehow done something implying they “deserved it”.

      Second, you are wrong that this is a sideline story and that the Christian world and its pundits just did not know about it. It has been widely covered by the major news organizations and worldwide main stream media. The only way Christian media could not be aware is willful ignorance.

      Third, you seem fond of generalizing about “progressives” and wanting an anti-gay position tolerated under the guise that it falls under “truth is whatever it is for you”. You miss the point that it is about respecting people and honoring their PERSONAL truth about THEMSELVES. You want to be respected for your judgement about SOMEONE ELSE. I am a Christian, and my Bible says in the book of Hebrews that the former is completely appropriate under the “new covenant” of Christ, and the latter is forbidden in numerous places. It is very strange that you seem to be fighting so hard for the permission to judge how someone else lives their own life and loves where their personal choices affect no one but themselves.

      Last– yes, when parents neglect a real need their child has and the child dies as a result it is complex. While those parents are deeply hurt, they are also not blameless. Your position to ignore their mistakes is equal in myopic thinking as the position to ignore that they have grief at all and only focus on their tragic errors.

      I do appreciate your dialogue. Thanks for sharing your position.

      • Ben in oakland says:

        Thank you, rob. I was going to answer this, but didn’t have the patience. That meme of the shepherd murder being a hoax and a drug deal gone bad has been around for a while. If I recall, it was put forth by a guy who basically wanted to sell his book on the subject, a book which ignored the findings of the court and the statements of those familiar with the case.

        If Zman’s thesis were actually true, and the police knew about it, why wasn’t it presented in court? where was the evidence?

      • zman says:

        I suppose that my conclusion would be that when there is objective truth, as you have conceded there is by asserting there is a right and wrong which we are all to abide by, then some judgements and boundaries are appropriate. If truth is good and for truth to manifest, then judgements and boundaries have to be implemented for that implementation of truth. Take the child molester and the racist for example. Also, if objective truth exists then it exists in “personal truths” ie who one is as well. If there is objective truth in who we are then it is appropriate to hold each other accountable. This can occur in healthy and unhealthy ways, but it reasons that judgements and boundaries are good if there is truth and truth is good. I think it a given that truth is good otherwise you wouldn’t be writing a blog.

  3. key521 says:

    Eloquently put. This tragedy should never happen. If Christians followed the teachings of the Bible, they would know that we are all God’s children and we all deserve judgment free love.

  4. You express a good many helpful things, but quoting Dan Savage is not one of them. The child’s parents a grieving a great loss. Thrusting accusations at them about throwing “her in front of that truck” is beyond the pale at this time. How does expressing that cruelty rise morally above what mistakes they may have made?

    • robw77 says:

      You may want to read the paragraph following the one quoting Dan. His quote was provided not to be “helpful” but to show the range of thought and emotions that have been expressed, as was the one that took the opposing view that followed his. You may want to contact him directly with your concerns.

  5. Reblogged this on Live Like We're Still Alive and commented:
    What a beautifully written requiem for a young woman who did not see the best times of her life. Every time I imagine the pain she might have suffered my heart shatters.

  6. A.L. Mabry says:

    This is so very heartbreaking. I am so sad for this child who felt so alone and rejected in this world. Stories like this solidify my decisions to parent the way I do, to open doors to knowledge and let my children find their own truths. I could not imagine repressing my child’s sense of self based on some beliefs that may or may not be true. I love how beautifully you capture the essence of what should be a well known truth.

  7. Tam says:

    It would be great to start a twitter campaign using hash tag #makeitbetter

  8. Thank you, Rob. In my opinion, you capture the feelings of so many of us. We all need to work together to truly help kids like Leelah.

  9. Mark Bruzee says:

    Hey Rob, Mark from Leap Audio again.
    Please may I have permission to turn Lelah’s Requium into an audio to be made available (free of course as always) to our listeners? THIS is what LEAP is about…Protecting and Supporting our siblings in the GLTBQIA community.
    Thank you

  10. Thank you! Your kids are very lucky to have such a great dad. I hope some parents see themselves in this and learn before it’s too late and they lose their children.

  11. Thank you, Rob. I pray this will help untold numbers of young people struggling with who they are!

  12. Reblogged this on ADignorantium and commented:
    I am utterly gutted by the needless death of an innocent. I’ve been trying to come up with appropriate words for how I feel. The hateful comments left by “good Christians” on various sites have been appalling. I cannot believe how evil people are. — “A Gay Dad’s Requiem for Leelah” comes close to a perfect response, so I’m sharing it.

    • Those ‘Good Christians” aren’t Christians. No where in the Bible does it teach hatred and to judge others.

    • Ben in oakland says:

      I posted this elsewhere in response to a couple of these types of comments.

      “Effin’ unbelievable. Words fail me–almost. So this is what Christian love, compassion, concern, and intelligence produce. Well, not Christian, but a certain type of so-called Christian, whose wholly imaginary superiority gets called forth whenever anything LGBT comes up.

      Not an ounce of sympathy or care, just moralizing, judgment, and despite. Comments like yours are everywhere on the internet where Leelah’s story is being told. It’s sickening.

      So much hate and ignorance, bile and despite, in just THREE sentences. If you are told you are damaged, worthless, and an affront to God every day of your childhood, it’s psychological torture of the worst sort. I was subjected to that when I was a child because I was also different. My gay brother was also subjected to that. He’s now my dead gay brother, dead by murder or suicide or both in a Mexican desert. Told by quack therapists that all he needed was to do some pushups or something, have sex with some girl, anything but being told to learn to love himself.


      When that is coming form your own parents, your bio-mom and bio-dad that so many so-called Christians insist is a must for every child– despite the evidence– it’s even worse. Being dismissed and rejected by your own parents is also psychological torture.

      Here’s a fact for you. Some people– the lucky ones like me– can stand up to it. Some, like my brother, cannot. Suicide was Leelah’s choice, absolutely. That which led to her suicide was not Leelah’s choice, but the choices of her uncompromising parents, her uneducated trash church, and “therapeutic” quacks who prefer their ideology to actual therapy, and who ought to be prosecuted for malpractice.

      Unconditional love in emphatically not love that comes with conditions. Leelah’s parents may have loved their son Joshua, and probably miss him. But I suspect that they really didn’t care at all for Leelah, and are glad she is gone.

      I have no idea if that’s the case. What I do know is that people whose despite of gay and transgendered children exceeds both their intellectual and compassionate abilities should not be allowed anywhere near such children.

  13. Pingback: Reblog: A Requiem for Leelah | Epenthesis

  14. Thank you for this, Rob. You grab the heart of the issue so beautifully. Always. ❤

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