A San Francisco-based activist and trans woman has founded a crowd-funded toll-free help line for trans teens in crisis. Greta Gustava Martela hopes to avert tragedies like the suicide of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn of Kings Falls, Ohio, who took her own life on Sunday.
“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,” Alcorn wrote before throwing herself into the path of an oncoming car in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Martela said that she and her partner conceived the idea of the help line and started gathering support in September, but that Alcorn’s death has galvanized activists and non-activists alike.
A major part of the difficulty of being trans is isolation, Martela explained. Young trans people especially need to be able to communicate with other trans people in order to understand that they are not alone.
“We’re definitely trying to provide a net to catch people,” she said.
Martela said that once, years ago, she called the National Suicide Hotline looking for help. The male operator’s bafflement and discomfort when she explained that she was transgender meant that she ended up having to give a telephone seminar on transgenderism to someone who seemed unwilling or incapable of understanding.
“He just got me off the phone as quickly as he could,” she said.
“That to me was egregious. It’s not surprising, I guess, that trans people have a high suicide rate,” she continued. “But it’s kind of a microcosm of how trans people have been treated in society for a long time.”
The experience stayed in her mind and nagged at her as she thought about other trans people in need of help.
For a time, she worked a phone volunteer for a trans rights group, not as a counselor but as an outreach coordinator. It became clear after she took the job, however, that there was a need for a more crisis-oriented help line.
“I would get crisis calls from all over the country,” she said, “and I would do my best to help the people that were calling me, but it made it pretty clear that there was this huge unmet need.”
“Not just specifically for suicide prevention,” she went on, “but more generally, just a crisis line for trans people. Because a lot of the time when a trans person is coming out, they don’t know any other trans people. They’re isolated.”
Leelah Alcorn’s rigidly religious parents were able to isolate their daughter to death, Martela said, by cutting her off from school, friends and the Internet, as well as any non-religious forms of counseling for her depression and gender issues.
Martela wondered aloud whether the parents and the Christian counselors should be held criminally liable.
“They had a depressed patient and they completely failed to treat it,” she said. “And now that patient is dead. If they had withheld antibiotics or any other medical treatment, they’d be in jail right now.”
She paused, emotion making her voice waver. “Since the news broke, I’ve been talking about what happened to Leelah every day, all day, and…her parents didn’t learn anything. They didn’t learn a thing.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said, that the trans teen’s conservative Christian parents continue to call Leelah her birth name, Joshua — which Martela referred to as a trans person’s “dead name” — and mouth platitudes about their faith and deny their daughter’s trans identity.
“We don’t support that, religiously,” Leelah’s mother Carla Alcorn said to CNN Thursday. “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.”
Martela said that if Leelah’s death teaches us anything, it’s that “we have to stop pretending that people have any choice but to be themselves. We don’t get a choice. You’re either being yourself and being open about it or you’re hiding yourself, and those are the choices.”
Leelah was told by her parents, “hide who you are and pretend to be something else” because she couldn’t be herself, said Martela, and that’s unacceptable.
“I don’t think anybody can live like that,” she said. “I don’t think anybody can live hiding who they are.”
Trans Lifeline’s Facebook page says that the hotline will be staffed by all trans volunteers and that the foundation “is an organization focused of providing front line intervention for trans people in crisis.” Martela said that the foundation currently has 60 trained operators and “something like 400 applicants” who are waiting to be trained.
“We’re getting a ton of support from the community,” she said.
The number for the hotline is (877)565-8860. In Canada, the number is (877) 330-6366.