Nearly four years after Leelah Alcorn of King Mills, Ohio died by suicide, the transgender teen’s legacy lives on. The 17-year-old’s death on Dec. 27, 2014 sparked international attention after she left a note on Tumblr that cited a lack of support for trans people and the discrimination they face. In her note, she left readers with a request: "Fix society. Please."
Chris Fortin — who grew up and lives in the same town that Alcorn did — recalls passing a memorial on the side of I-71 everyday on his way to work. But the sign eventually fell down. He wanted to create something with more permanence. In 2015, he started a highway clean-up project, which adopted a highway in Alcorn's name. And this August, a 24-minute documentary premiered at the inaugural Cindependent Film Festival — dubbed Leelah’s Highway — where it was nominated for best documentary short.
In Alcorn's note, she also wrote that her death needs to “be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year.” In short, she wanted her death to make a larger impact.
“People always say, ‘Why did you do this?’ Well, on its face, she asked us to...I felt like going to work every day passing that spot — someone had put a memorial up; it was great, but it was a garage sale sign that blew over in a few days,” Fortin says. “I said, ‘This is so easy to apply (to designate the strip as a memorial highway); let’s do it.’ It was that easy to respect her wishes.”
Canadian filmmaker Elizabeth Littlejohn stepped in to act as the film's producer, director and videographer; Zach Ruiter was the associate director, and Dennis Day served as editor.
Now, Leelah’s Highway will be shown at another local film festival, OutReels, which showcases films that explore LGBTQ issues. Unfolding at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater Friday through Sunday (Nov. 9-11), the three-day fest includes screenings like Friday's The Long Road to Freedom, a feature-length film narrated by Laverne Cox that focuses on historic moments in LGBTQ history — Stonewall, the sexual revolution of the ‘70s, the AIDS crisis, marriage equality, the trans movement — with interviews and footage from those who lived it.
Starting at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, several short films will be screened that range in topics from LGBTQ individuals finding love and romance, teens coming out to their parents and a single dad navigating his newfound life living out as a gay man. Leelah's Highway will screen at 2:45 p.m. Saturday. On Sunday, several films, like Sunken Plum and Evening Shadows, explore LGBTQ issues and movements in other cultures and countries starting at 2 p.m.
In total, six feature films and 16 shorts will be presented. Tickets cost $10 per time block and $50 for a weekend pass. The Warsaw Federal Incline Theater is located at 801 Matson Place, Price Hill. For more info and tickets, click here.
Leelah’s Highway — which looks at the lives of trans youth and their experiences with conversion therapy; following the teen’s death, Leelah’s Law was created and conversion therapy was banned in 12 states — will be screened in a two-film block at 2:45 p.m., accompanied by Trans Youth, a feature-length documentary that follows multiple trans Austinites in their day-to-day life and struggles.
Moving forward — and past the festival circuit — Fortin says the team is looking to use the film as an educational tool to get the message out about suicide prevention. The notion is one that has been there since its founding when Fortin used three hashtags to promote their message: #Outreach, #education, #remembrance.
They also hope to show it at PRIDE festivals and eventually get the film shown outside of Ohio. On Dec. 28 — the day after Alcorn died — Fortin is working to organize a night of remembrance with music, food and celebration that will culminate with a screening of Leelah’s Highway and a panel discussion at Urban Artifact Brewery, starting at 6 p.m. All proceeds will go toward Trans Lifeline, a national suicide hotline.