A Journey for Acceptance:

Transgender Lives in the Miami Valley

Pastor Joy Simpson of Eternal Joy Metropolitan Community Church holds the rainbow colored stole she wears during service. Her partner, Stacy Sandberg, stands behind. Simpson identifies as bisexual, while Sandberg identifies as trans*.

By Jeremy Wiedle

June 2, 2015

Before Leelah Alcorn stepped into U.S. Interstate 71 on the early morning of December 28, 2014 and ended her life, she wrote a blog post and scheduled its release for later that evening. It was her suicide note to the world. The world where legally and biologically she was considered a boy, but in fact, knew she was a girl.

The Ohio State Highway Patrol concluded its investigation into Alcorn’s death at the end of April 2015. At 2:20 on that December morning, she walked directly into oncoming traffic and fueled an already growing discussion on transgender rights.

Referring to Alcorn as “Mr. Alcorn” in their report, investigators legally ruled the death a suicide. The report included Alcorn’s “Suicide Note” blog post, explaining how she felt trapped by the lack of acceptance from both her parents and peers.

A candle is held during the vigil for Leelah Alcorn at Eternal Joy Metropolitan Community Church in January.

Alcorn wrote, “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. There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already. I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say ‘it gets better’ but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.”

Unfortunately, she is one of many.

What is transgender?

Alcorn identified as transgender; meaning her gender, or inward identity, did not match her biological sexuality. Born male, and given the name Joshua Alcorn, she was not who people thought she was—or should be.

Immediately after her death, vigils in her honor were held around the world. In Dayton, Eternal Joy Metropolitan Community Church hosted an area vigil that attracted over 100 people from throughout the Miami Valley. Six area school districts saw representation at the remembrance ceremony. Young people—some transgender, others allies—who did not know Alcorn personally, but could relate to her pain and trouble finding acceptance, gathered in solidarity.

Their stories all shared commonalities. Namely, how religion and tradition were used to discredit and discriminate against their non-conforming identities.

In interviews after her death, Alcorn’s parents continued to identify her as their son. Carla and Doug Alcorn cited religious conviction for disregarding their daughter’s transgender identity—telling CNN in an interview shortly after her suicide, “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.”

Some transgender activists were quick to express outrage at Carla and Doug Alcorn. Others argued the Alcorns loved their child, and their misunderstanding of her identity is one shared by others.

Pastor Joy Simpson leads Eternal Joy MCC in Dayton where the January vigil for Alcorn was held.

Pastor Joy Simpson of Eternal Joy MCC, and her partner Stacy Sandburg, discuss their relationship and experience in the Dayton community.

“In addition to this binary-gender trap, we’re also—I’m particularly aware of this in religion—we’re trapped by this idea that the body and the spirit are separate, when actually they interact and influence each other,” Pastor Simpson says.

“So we can’t judge another person’s spirit, they are the ones who know—they and God know who that person is inside. And if they express that inner self on the outside, that is the unity, the cohesiveness, that everybody wants.”

Pastor Simpson identifies as bisexual and her partner, Stacy Sandberg, identifies as transgender—or gender non-conforming, since she expresses both the male and female gender in what she describes as “dual-gender.”

Sandberg explained how she felt knowing she was transgender without openly expressing it.

“Every day, you are forced to see right in front of you, what you would like to do and be, but you can’t. And to understand the pain that you could feel—every day. To see the statistics about attempted suicide and successful suicide within the queer community and the transgender community in particular.

“If you look at it that way, that it is an accumulation of hurt and pain, all the time, that [suicide] … sometimes has to be the only option a person can see to stop it,” Sandberg says.

The trouble with transgender

A 2011 study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the National Center for Transgender Equality found 41 percent of the 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming respondents had attempted suicide.

Forty-one percent, in a sample that small, towers the 1.6 percent of the general population that attempts suicide.

The percentage of attempts among the study’s sample grew from 41 percent to 55 percent for those who lost a job because of their identity. Sixty-four percent admitted to attempting suicide after sexual assault.

That growing number dispels a widely held belief regarding the reasons transgender people attempt suicide. Individuals who identify as transgender face insurmountable discrimination in employment, housing, healthcare and education.

An LGBT themed paper fan rests in the back of an empty pew at Eternal Joy Metropolitan Community Church. Stacy Sandberg, who identifies as transgender, stands behind with a handful of papers.

Alcorn, like many of the study respondents who reported attempting suicide, did not do so because of her gender, but because her identity was not accepted. In her online note, Alcorn suggests the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation needs to be explained through education.

“Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better,” she wrote. “My death needs to mean something.”

In April, President Barack Obama publicly responded to a petition on the White House website calling for “Leelah’s Law.” The law, named in honor of Alcorn who forcefully underwent conversion therapy, seeks to ban its practice in the United States altogether. Proponents argue therapy can be successful in changing gender identity. Numerous U.S. health organizations warn against the use of “conversion” therapy, including the American Medical Association.

Speaking for the Obama Administration, Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett wrote regarding the petition, “As part of our dedication to protecting America’s youth, this administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors.”

Further progress came at the beginning of last month in the form of a Supreme Court decision. Justices decided to uphold a New Jersey ban on practicing “reparative therapy” on minors. Governor Chris Christie signed the ban in 2013, and made New Jersey the second state, behind California, to implement such a law.

Ohio State Representative Nickie Antonio is working to protect LGBT individuals through state law.

From Ohio’s 13th district, she is the first openly gay member of the Ohio Legislature, and in 2013 introduced House Bill 300, seeking to extend Ohio’s Ethnic Intimidation law to include sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

She explains the importance of the legal protection.

“It is against the law to commit this kind of a crime,” Antonio says. “To commit a hateful crime on someone because of who they are and how they present themselves.”

While the bill did not pass, Representative Antonio said a redrafting of the law is underway, as is a state-level conversation on the use of conversion therapy.

Acceptance in the Miami Valley

In January, Advocate Magazine, a national LGBT-focused publication, ranked Dayton, Ohio the “Queerest City in America.” Editors left out strongholds like San Francisco and New York, but Dayton still outranked large metro areas including Atlanta, Georgia; West Palm Beach, Florida and Washington D.C.

The parameters by which Advocate Magazine ranked the "queerest cities" in America. The publication cited trans-inclusiveness, LGBT-friendly synagogues, and Tours of Broadway shows for awarding Dayton the top spot. From Advocate Magazine.

The magazine cited trans-inclusiveness, a robust theater culture and the significant number of places of worship that welcome LGBT people. In fact, there are 10 such places listed on the Greater Dayton LGBT Center’s website.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, in 2012, Dayton was one of only 11 cities in the state that, “fully protect[ed] individuals from discrimination in employment and housing based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Earlier this year, the group urged Governor John Kasich to reconsider his recent decision to drop gender identity and expression from an executive order prohibiting discrimination against state employees. The new revised order only covers discrimination based on sexual orientation. Former Governor Ted Strickland’s order barred discrimination of public employees based on both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Stacy Sandberg said Dayton's designation as the queerest city is impressive, but facts like this on the state level show the ranking doesn’t equate to an entirely accepting community.

“Just because it’s the queerest city, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily friendly to everybody,” Sandberg says. “There’s a long way to go in every community to being accepting of marginalized people.”

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey provides a telling glimpse into how difficult life can be for transgender individuals.

Employment discrimination held some of the most shocking numbers outside of the suicide statistics. Like suicide, it is an unfortunate truth for transgender people in the Miami Valley.

According to the national survey, 90 percent of the 6,450 respondents reported harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job or took actions like hiding who they are to avoid it. Forty-seven percent admitted to being fired, not hired or denied a promotion because of being transgender or gender non-conforming.

Holly Suzanne, who lives in Dayton and identifies as transgender, was a federal sector employee who has faced discrimination in the Miami Valley.

“Dare I even go (back) into the federal sector?” Suzanne muses. “No promotions, I was not permitted to use either the men or women’s restroom. If they had multiple stalls, I was only permitted to use single stalls that locked from the hall ways.”

While on the job she faced multiple “write-ups” related to expressing her gender identity. “I was [written] up for “pants too tight in the seat,” for “possibly wearing a brasserie” and “failing to wear a slip under my skirt,” Suzanne remembers.

Jarejé Spencer is famous in her own right among Dayton's LGBT community. A regular headliner at Club Masque, Spencer identifies as transgender, and began fully transitioning to her true, female self in her late teens.

Originally from Cincinnati, Jarejé Spencer has worked and lived in Dayton since the early 1990s. Famous in her own right among Dayton’s LGBT community, she has performed throughout the Miami Valley and is a regular headliner at Masque.

Spencer is a woman who identifies as transgender. She remembers a friend who moved from the area due to discrimination she faced while transitioning.

“Someone once told me they moved from the tri-state area because they felt like—and they were just starting to transition—she said, ‘Ohio has made you the blueprint of what they believe a transgender woman is supposed to be. And if you’re not fitting that mold, then they think you’re not doing a good job.’ And I’m not the person to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’.”

Transitioning describes the process by which one changes his or her sexuality to match his or her gender. Those who transition describe it as a rewarding yet difficult and long journey.

“My mother loved me unconditionally,” Spencer says. “The only advice my mother told me was, ‘If you’re going to do this, please take care of your skin.’

“And that was it. And she asked me, ‘What about our neighbors? What about your friends? What about the rest of our family?’ And I said, ‘As long as you’re O.K., I couldn’t give a damn about the rest of … anybody.’”