Last December, transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, 17, died by suicide on Interstate 71 right outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. Now, nearly a year after her death, Chris Fortin, a 33-year-old gay man and trans ally, has named the stretch of Interstate 71 where Alcorn died the Leelah Alcorn Memorial Highway. Touched by her story of alienation from her family and her experiences with "conversion therapy," Fortin wanted to ensure the citizens of Cincinnati and the entire world did not forget her story. He filed some paperwork to adopt that section of highway, and the rest was history.
Once you learn about Alcorn's tragic death and its relation to the obstacles transgender people face in the United States, it's clear why we need to remember it. According to the message Alcorn left on her Tumblr, she came out to her parents at age 14. She wrote that they did not accept her gender identity, took away her laptop and phone, pulled her out of public school, and sent her to Christian conversion therapists who faulted her for her identity. In a statement after Alcorn's death, her mother told CNN, "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." As many have pointed out, this statement misgenders Alcorn.
Alcorn herself wrote on Tumblr, "I’m never going to transition successfully... I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound... Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself." She also called on readers to make something of her death:
The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. 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 addition to sharing Alcorn's drive to make life easier for LGBT people, Chris Fortin has a personal connection to her: He went to the same high school as Alcorn, though years earlier; his sister knew her; and he thought about her whenever he saw a handmade memorial along the highway on which she died. "I drive that stretch of roadway on a regular basis, and it's hard not to think about it when you go by," he tells Bustle over the phone. "After it happened, there was a sign put up. It was really nicely done, a rickety sign, and as the wind hit it, it was halfway down and then it was all the way down, and seeing that every day was like memories fading. We've moved on and that's not right." He wanted something there instead that was legally sanctioned and permanent. Naming the stretch of highway and getting a sign there didn't cost anything; he just had to pledge to clean it as part of the state's Adopt-A-Highway Program. "I feel like it's disgracing someone's death to not honor [their] wishes," Fortin says — so he's trying to honor Alcorn's.
Fortin will hold the first highway cleanup in January in conjunction with an educational talk about trans issues. People interested in participating can receive updates about the event through the Leelah Alcorn Memorial Highway's Facebook page. "If we can use this to educate the community about trans issues and prevent suicide," Fortin said, "that's why I think it's important."
As Alcorn mentioned on her Tumblr, her name is one in a long list of transgender teens who have died by suicide in recent years. According to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, over half of transgender teens have made at least one attempt before their 20th birthday. From Taylor Alesana to Zander Mahaffey and many, many others, the transgender lives lost to society's intolerance indicate that we are failing the transgender population. As Laverne Cox has pointed out, we need to do more to provide resources and welcoming communities to trans people. As one step in that direction, the Obama Administration has spoken in support of Leelah's Law, named after Alcorn, which would ban conversion therapy.
"I feel like we move on pretty quickly as a society," Fortin cautions, "with the cycle of one thing one day and one thing the next. So I felt like this needed back in the news again." Though the suicides of LGBT people may seem like old news by now, we need to keep talking about them and work to end them, and hopefully, Leelah Alcorn's memorial will remind us of that.
Images: Leelah Alcorn Memorial Highway/Facebook