Calvin Neufeld at Leelah Alcorn Vigil
February 6, 2015
It’s such a difficult thing to talk about and to face, the reality of why we’re here. It’s sad. It’s a sad day, a sad reason for us to be meeting. And I hope that we never ever have to meet like this again.
So yes, I am a trans person. And trans people do have a rough go of things in life. It is not an easy road to go. People don’t get it, people don’t understand, and people do treat you differently, especially if you look different. Someone like me, I don’t look so different, so I don’t experience a whole lot of problems related to being trans. The more different you look, the more problems you experience, and those are the most vulnerable people among us. There are very few people who are more vulnerable than trans people.
The suicide rate of trans people, they say, is as high as one in five. Very, very high. I go around, I talk to schools, I do education around sexual and gender diversity, and there are just very few populations that we know of that have such high rates of suicides, such high rates of depression, rejection, discrimination. So this is a community that we need to protect – as an entire community, we have to protect this community of people among us. And Leelah wasn’t a part of our community, I didn’t know her, I don’t know if anybody here actually knew her personally. But obviously we’ve all been affected by her suicide. It’s just such a loss, such a tragedy.
Coming to speak here about this tonight, I feel very very conflicted because with suicide is conflict, it comes with conflict. There is the loss, the tragedy, the grief – and then with the grief is the anger too. We can’t just have the pure grief, there is also the anger, because then the people who are left behind are left to pick up the pieces, left to go on, left with a little more despair – which we don’t need. We don’t need more despair.
I gave a talk in town last summer On Suicide, and my mother told a story – you know, thinking about suicide and the reality of suicide – so, it’s like, if somebody is going to drive themselves off of a cliff, and she said, if you picture yourself driving off of that cliff, and then all of a sudden if your family were standing in the way, would you just plough right through them on your way off of the cliff? Or would you stop?
Because that’s the reality of what suicide does, is that you transfer all of your pain. You are running over all of those people in your life, all of your family, and you’re transferring your pain and your woundedness onto the people that you love.
Leelah was just such a beautiful person. Just beautiful. I know her just by her pictures and little bits of stories, snippets here and there. What a beautiful person. Just gorgeous, gorgeous! And then with that is the conflict again of this beautiful person, and how much more beautiful she'll never become.
And there’s her message, her final message: fix society. A good message, a strong message. And that message is mixed with her final message, which is giving up. So we think that the last message we send maybe is what we write in our note and send to the world, that’s our last message, but the suicide is the last message, the giving up is the last message. And that’s the message that people remember. So I feel very conflicted around suicide, generally.
I’ve been to many funerals, and most of the time where there is a natural death of some kind, a funeral is a celebration of that person’s life. And Leelah deserves no less, no less. She was beautiful, we must celebrate her, we must celebrate also all of the unknowns. She was one of the – I won’t use the word “lucky” few – but one of the very few that actually becomes known, spreads, and becomes an agent of change, like this group is doing with this story. That’s the few. The majority are forgotten, the majority are unknown. So it’s important to remember, it’s important to honour, and it’s important to do something good, to make something good out of this that has happened.
In my talk on suicide, I say that out of suicide nothing good grows. And I do believe that. But then again there’s that conflict, because we can still do something. But what Leelah did was she transferred her pain and her woundedness, for the rest of us now to carry, for the rest of us now to try to do something good out of this, to try to fix society.
So as I think about what it takes to fix society… I don’t think we can. I think it’s impossible.
But let me pause that thought, and I’ll come back to that.
But, in addition to the conflict and in addition to the honouring her, there is also fear. I’m afraid of what can come out of this. Suicide can be very contagious. So when somebody commits suicide, I’m afraid.
I was just talking earlier in the day with my mother about this talk, and she mentioned that “Well this is nothing new, the contagion of suicide is nothing new.” She went back to Goethe, one of the most famous literary figures in all of history. One of his earliest books was called The Sorrows of Young Werther. It was the story of a man who fell in love, and the love just wouldn't, couldn’t happen, and he commits suicide. He published the book and instantly it gained international fame. And with that came a spread of suicides of young lovers. And he regretted that book for the rest of his life, he wished it undone. But you can’t undo it. So this is nothing new, this was in the 1700s. You publish a book about a suicide and then there are these suicides, similar method.
In fact I was reading about it earlier this morning, and reading about what they call “copycat suicide” (I don’t like that term, I think that that diminishes), but that phenomenon of suicides that follow a suicide is actually known as the Werther effect, based on that book. And they say that when there’s a highly publicized suicide, that the people who are most similar to the person and circumstances of the suicide that’s being publicized, that those people, that age, that demographic, are at a higher risk of death by suicide. And when I think of the young trans people – how much more vulnerable can you get? And to have something like this, that puts you at an even greater risk of suicide… I’m afraid.
So I want to speak very frankly about this. Because I don’t want the message to go out that if people feel that they’re so insignificant that the only way to be noticed is to commit suicide, or the only way to be seen – for your pain to be seen, for you to be seen – is to commit suicide, or that you feel so disempowered that the only way you can make change happen is to do that…
Leelah’s story is making change happen. And that’s good. But the conflict with that is that that doesn’t mean that if you do it too, that your death will make the change. Out of suicide nothing good grows. So we need to stick around. The change has to happen by sticking around and doing it.
I grieve for her. I grieve for her mother – regardless of the circumstances that led to her suicide. It’s loss and it’s tragedy. And then there’s her final message. Fixing society. And what does it take to fix society?
I don’t think that we can. I think that that’s too tall of an order for any person. But the only thing that any of us can do is to fix ourselves. And what does that take?
As I say in my talks over and over and over again, what does it take to make life better? It takes truth, it takes love, and it takes happiness.
So truth. That means truth even when nobody believes you, or when they mock the truth about you. Stick to it. Don’t. Give. Up.
Love. Even when you feel unloved or unlovable. You’ve got to love. You’ve got to stick to that if you want life to be better.
And happiness. I say in my talks that we make happiness our priority, fight for it, defend it, preserve it, because your happy self is your best self. Making happiness your priority is not a selfish thing. It’s the most altruistic thing you can do. It makes life better. Giving your happy self to people is the best gift you can give to anybody. We have to make happiness a priority because without it we don’t want to be alive! I can’t think of anything more important.
So we have to make truth, love and happiness the most important things in our lives. That’s the key to making life better, that’s the key to being well, that’s the key to fixing ourselves, and that’s the key to fixing society.
(See also Calvin Neufeld On Suicide.)