Column: Could we have saved Leelah Alcorn?

Leelah Alcorn

I recently learned something that made me stop and think. It seems that Leelah Alcorn may have called TransLifeline or another trans suicide hotline, and spoke to an operator for about two hours. A month later, Leelah stepped in front of a semi and ended her life.

Until now, I’d believed that we couldn’t save Leelah because we couldn’t reach her — that the adult trans community hadn’t done enough to make sure Leelah and others like her knew that there are other options.

Leelah did apparently know about TransLifeline or another trans-inclusive suicide hotline, though, and she’d taken the step of calling. Yet, that didn’t stop Leelah from taking her own life. It’s humbling to realize that you can’t save everyone, even when you can find them.

We’ll never know what was said on that phone call. We’ll never know exactly when Leelah called or who she spoke to. Nor should we. That’s how these things work. That’s why they work.

I’ve been an operator for TransLifeline for several weeks now. I’ve spoken with a variety of trans people calling for many different reasons. In all that time, I haven’t yet ever taken a call from someone who I felt was in imminent danger of harming themselves, but I believe, I hope, that I’m prepared for when and if that happens. Maybe that’s why I can’t help thinking about what I’d have said to Leelah Alcorn if I’d been the hotline operator who took her call.

I’d have told Leelah that despite the tired cliché it’s become to say so, it really does get better. I’d have told her that while I can’t say I know what she went through with her fundamentalist parents, I absolutely do know what it is to be a closeted teenage trans girl and to be miserable because of it.

I’d have told Leelah that in just a few short years the world would open to her as an adult and she’d be able to live her life as she chose. I’d have told her that there was a community waiting to welcome her with open arms, that no matter what her home life was like there was a place for her among us where no one would question or denigrate who she was or what she wanted out of life.

I’d have told her that making it to that day required a personal commitment from her to stay strong and keep making it through each day until she was able to seek her truth, but she didn’t have to do it alone, that there was always someone who gets it to talk to, just a phone call away.

I’d have told Leelah that if there’s anything being a trans woman teaches you, it’s that you’re actually far stronger than you ever believed you could be. You have to be, just to even contemplate living this life. I’d have told her that that same strength which would have enabled her to endure everything transition entails, physically, socially, and emotionally, would also carry her through until she was able to pursue her dreams.

Would it have made a difference? We’ll never know. It’s possible that nothing anyone could have said to Leelah Alcorn could have prevented the events of that tragic night. What we do know is that there are more Leelahs out there and we know that at least some of them will reach out. We need to be ready when they do.

TransLifeline gets most of its operating funds from personal donations of $100 or less. All of the operators are trans-identified volunteers. It’s as lean and as responsibly-run an organization as I know of. When you donate money to this organization, you know it’s going to directly help those most in need.

Here’s the number: 877-565-8860. If you’re a trans person in crisis, that’s the number to call. We’re here for you.

If you’d like to help us save some lives, please donate what you can, your time, your money, and your attention. The TransLifeline website has more information and can be found at

As a community, we need to make suicide prevention one of the priorities of our activism and funding efforts. Lives are on the line here, and it’s up to us, all of us, to do something about it.

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