Documentary Honoring Leelah Alcorn's Story to be Screened at Urban Artifact

On June 18, "Leelah’s Highway" will screen at Northside’s Urban Artifact at 6 p.m.

Jun 14, 2019 at 12:22 pm

click to enlarge Chris Fortin and a clean-up crew beside a memorial for Leelah Alcorn - Courtesy of Zach Ruiter/Leelah's Highway
Courtesy of Zach Ruiter/Leelah's Highway
Chris Fortin and a clean-up crew beside a memorial for Leelah Alcorn
On a stretch of I-71 near South Lebanon, Ohio, an adopt-a-highway sign stands. Inscribed on the green backboard: “In memory of Leelah Alcorn.”

Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl from Kings Mills, Ohio, died by suicide Dec. 28, 2014. This year marks the fifth since her death, which drew international attention after a note she left on her Tumblr blog went viral. In the note, she explained that her parents had sent her to conversion therapy, a widely-discredited practice aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

She left us — the community at large — with a request: “Fix society. Please.”

Locally and beyond, people have pushed for policies in response. In Ohio, Lakewood (a suburb of Cleveland) became the sixth city to ban conversion therapy for minors in October 2018. Cincinnati became the first city in the U.S. to ban conversion therapy in 2015, followed by Athens, Columbus, Dayton and Toledo.

Still, there is no statewide ban in the Buckeye State. Nationally, only 18 states have banned the practice. Colorado is the most recent, banning conversion therapy on May 31 of this year.

Chris Fortin, who grew up in the same town that Alcorn did, would pass a makeshift memorial perched on the side of the aforementioned highway every day on his way to work. He never knew her, but he wanted to do something with more permanence. That came in the form of a highway clean-up project and the adopt-a-highway sign in her honor.

Canadian filmmaker Elizabeth Littlejohn would later make Alcorn’s story —and the activism work around it — into a 24-minute documentary, Leelah’s Highway.

Post-filming, Fortin came on to the team as their publicity person. In reference to seeing the film multiple times, he says it’s hard for him not to be so nuts and bolts about the issues it presents.

“I just want to not have (suicide) happen again. And that’s it. I almost come off this cold, I think, because I'm not sad,” Fortin says. “But I'll watch that film. And I'm like, ‘OK, no more.’ I mean, I'm sad for a second. But I've cried about this. No crap. No more. Nobody else dies.”

Leelah’s Highway premiered in Cincinnati at last August’s inaugural Cindependent Film Festival, where it was nominated for best documentary short. On June 18, Leelah’s Highway will screen at Northside’s Urban Artifact at 6 p.m.. A discussion with City Council Member Chris Seelbach and Jonah Yokoyama, director of local nonprofit Heartland Trans Wellness, will follow. (Both are interviewed in the documentary.) Wildfire Pizza Kitchen will provide food and counselors will be on-site for anyone with a need. For tickets, click here

A self-described human rights activist and educator, Littlejohn says she believes in the right for gender self-determination. She believes that Leelah’s story is one that needs to be told.

“Leelah Alcorn made her blog, drawings, and last note public, and asked that those who read it #FIXSOCIETY in her name,” Littlejohn wrote in a recent email. “This is an unusual documentary in that Leelah made an explicit request that her loss was to mean something for greater society; as the director, I took this to heart.”

She adds that the documentary was made to support the Trans Lifeline and Trans Wellness Center, two nonprofits that aim to better the lives of trans individuals through providing support, resources, advocacy and education. 

“This story has already been covered by international media, but the point of view of Leelah, and the community response to her loss, was important to recount as part of a longer narrative focusing on her last request,” Littlejohn says.

Looking ahead, Littlejohn says they’re working with the Annie Davis, the president of the National Association of Social Workers, to include the documentary as part of a suicide prevention educational tool within high school and university gay-straight alliance organizations.

Beyond the film festival circuit, she hopes that Leelah’s Highway can be part of a larger social movement that provides space to discuss complex issues in educational settings, bring support to trans youth and advocate for administrations to put policies in place that protect youth.

When asked why Alcorn’s story still resonates nearly five years later, Littlejohn notes that it needs to be heard now more than ever. Where she lives in Ontario, she cites recent rollbacks to the sex education curriculum to exclude LGBTQ rights and inclusion under Premier Doug Ford. In the United States, the Trump administration announced in May proposals to roll back Obama-era protections for discrimination against transgender people by healthcare providers.

“After the screening in Cincinnati at the Cindependent Film Festival, a number of youth came up to me and thanked me, so I hope that I have created it in their honor and (with their) demographic in mind,” she says.  “This was one of the greatest moments I have encountered yet with this documentary — their heartfelt appreciation for my careful telling of Leelah’s story.”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the Trans Lifeline can be reached at 877-565-8860.