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The Daily Tar Heel

Students gather downtown to honor transgender teenager

There was a vigil at Peace and Justice Plaza on Wednesday night, Jan. 28.
There was a vigil at Peace and Justice Plaza on Wednesday night, Jan. 28.

A Chapel Hill teenager, Phaedra Ward, organized the candlelight vigil in memory of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl from Ohio who committed suicide Dec. 28.

In her suicide note, which was originally posted on her Tumblr and has been widely circulated on social media, Alcorn talked about the lack of acceptance she faced because of her gender identification, especially from her religious parents.

Ward and her mother, Stormie Kirk, wanted to raise awareness about creating safe spaces for trans people.

“When I heard about Leelah, I didn’t see anything happening really locally that I was aware of,” Ward said. “I really felt like we needed to do something here.”

Ward said transphobia is everywhere, even in Chapel Hill.

“I’ve seen some really rude things on Franklin Street, just random people yelling random things,” she said. “You see it everywhere and it’s really ingrained in our society.”

Kirk said it’s important for parents to support their children unconditionally.

“One of the things that’s great about being a parent is that it’s not all about what you have to teach your children; your children also have things to teach you,” she said. “Our children come from us but they are not us. Let them be who they are.”

Melissa Savage, a trans woman, said this cause is really personal to her.

“I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation my entire life,” she said. “I also had parents that were very strict and really can understand a lot of the struggle that Leelah Alcorn went through.”

Sarah Beth Walker, another attendee, said she hopes the event will help draw attention to the struggles trans people face.

“Leelah wanted her death to mean something,” she said. “By gathering here and calling attention to this, we are giving her death meaning.”

For some, the experience was painful.

Katya Roytburd said she came to support Kirk and show solidarity with the trans community, but being there was difficult.

“Had it not been organized by a friend, I don’t know that I would have come out because it’s so heartbreaking,” she said.

Roytburd was especially touched by the reading of Alcorn’s suicide note.

“What an articulate, communicative person who had so much to offer the world, and the world said, ‘F you,’ and she was like, ‘Alright I’m done,’” Roytburd said. “That’s sick.”

Those who attended the vigil shared the goal of fulfilling the wish Leelah described in her note.

“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,” she wrote. “Fix society. Please.”

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