What Leelah Alcorn’s Death Means to Me as a Black Man with Tourette Syndrome

When I read Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note, all I could do was sit, and shake my head, and think no one should ever have to feel like she did.  Ever.  At any age.  At any point in one’s life.  But especially not as a 17-year-old girl.  It was truly heartbreaking.  I was struck not only by what Leelah had been through, but by her call for change, and her hope that her death would mean something to the transgender rights movement.  I read about the movement.  I follow several transgender individuals on Twitter from whom I have learned a great deal.  But I haven’t myself been actively involved in the movement.  I’m too busy fighting – perhaps selfishly, as transgender, gay, and lesbian allies are consistently involved in the Black Lives Matter Movement – for my own rights as a Black man.  But I wanted to contribute something.  And I thought it would be beneficial – if not simply for personal catharsis – to share my own story as Leelah shared hers.  A story which I have never shared with anyone in it’s entirety, and won’t here, but which I, nonetheless, want to share parts of.

I grew up with Tourette Syndrome.  I was diagnosed at three years old.  I’ve grown out of it for the most part now, and that happened around the start of high school, but in elementary and middle school it was bad. One of my earliest memories with Tourette’s is from second grade.  I was seven or eight.  I was in computer class and I kept making one of my most prominent verbal tics (I can’t really describe it in words on paper).  My teacher asked angrily,  “Who keeps making that sound?”  Several of my classmates said in unison, “Brandon!”  Everybody knew who it was without having to actually have seen me do it.  I was the weird kid in the class who was always making sounds.  “Do you think that’s funny?” my teacher asked me.  “No,” I said.  “Then stop!”  I was so embarrassed, as I often was, but also angry because I knew my mother had had conversations with the school faculty about my disorder, and I didn’t understand why my teacher would respond to me the way she did given what she should have known about me.  A few minutes later I asked to go to the bathroom.  I went, put the lid down on the toilet, sat on top of it and cried.

As early as I can remember, I got all kinds of questions from my peers about why I made the sounds I made or did the things I did.  I got made fun of, laughed at, bullied, excluded from things.  I was called stupid and annoying.  My parents taught me to attempt to stick up for myself, and when asked why I did certain things I would say, “Because I was born like that.”  But for the most part in early childhood they taught my brother, who is a year younger than I am, to explain my situation to people at summer camps, on the school bus, or wherever we were together.  But moving into middle school, a lot of the bullying I dealt with wasn’t even over Tourette’s.  Maybe because by seventh grade my classmates understood and were over it.  But I still was teased for other reasons: for my thick lips, my wide ears, my dark skin.  I was already self-conscious about the things my body was doing involuntarily; now I was given new reasons to feel uncomfortable with the body I was in. To this day, I still don’t get why I was picked on.  Maybe because after years of me not really responding to being bullied over Tourette Syndrome my classmates now saw me as an easy target.  But this continued even into high school and got worse, with people who didn’t even know I had Tourette’s.  I was bullied for the same reasons: my ears, my lips, my complexion, and now for how I talked.

In high school, we had the same class schedule every day for the full school year, and in my freshman and sophomore years, I dreaded going to Chemistry and Physics in the mornings, because I knew if I opened my mouth at all – to ask or answer a question, anything – somebody would make fun of me.  Somebody would mock me in a funny voice and say “that’s how you sound.”  Sometimes – not often, but it still happened – the same kids threw things at me.  I would laugh a lot of things off like it didn’t bother me, but it hurt.  It hurt badly.  The night of my 16th birthday, I refused to come out of my room because I was so emotionally exhausted from being harassed that day, and the next day I refused to go to school because I needed a break from people.  Plus, I was lonely, I had no friends, in large part because the medication I was on to curb my Tourette’s had the side effect of making me timid and anti-social, so I was never good at making friends.  I had acquaintances, a few people I ate with at lunch, a few people I went to the movies with every now and again, but nobody I talked to outside of school on a regular basis.  And for the first two years of high school, not once did I ever visit anybody’s house.  No one ever invited me.

For years,  I did not like being me.  I thought something was wrong with me.  There had to be.  There was no other reason why kids in different places, at different times, and at different ages would make fun of me for the same things, and unprovoked.  There could be no other reason why I had no friends (I didn’t understand then what I do now about the medication I was on).  And I truly believed this until I got to college and met some wonderful people who, I felt, for the first time in my life, truly embraced me and liked me for me. But even so, I still have insecurities that I struggle with because of years of being bullied and constantly worrying about what other people thought of me.

So, I say all of that to say this: I get it.  I cannot identify entirely with Leelah’s struggle as a transgender person, but I understand her pain and her loneliness.  I understand feeling like you can’t be yourself. I understand feeling like no matter what you do or don’t do, no matter how you try to please people, nobody likes you.  I understand feeling like you could never feel lower.  And I understand feeling like nobody cares.  Because I’ve been there.  And having experienced what I’ve been through, but also as a Black man, I can relate to being told that who you are is wrong.  I spent a lot of time – most of my life – at the bottom.  But thankfully, things got brighter for me.  Today, I’m 21 and happier than I’ve ever been, and that is almost entirely because I found people who accept me and love me and, over time, I learned to love myself.  Leelah didn’t have that.  And so many others don’t have it.

So I say to all those reading this: be those people for somebody else.  Be those people who embrace those who need embracing.  Be those people who welcome those whom others won’t.  Be those people who care.  And most importantly, love somebody.  Because that love could change that person’s life.  Indeed, it could save a life.

Rest in peace, Leelah Alcorn.  May you never be forgotten.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee of the NAACP Howard Chapter.  He currently writes for NBCBLK and Politic365 and is an aspiring journalist.

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One thought on “What Leelah Alcorn’s Death Means to Me as a Black Man with Tourette Syndrome”

  1. I love this piece and how you get to the bottom of how you and many of us can identify with Leelah’s story and the movement for LGBT rights. We may not be able to fully know what she went through and what countless other trans people experience, but we all (and certainly we Black folks) can empathize with her feelings of loneliness, hurt, and rejection. Thank you so much for sharing your own story as well! I had no idea you went through all that and I’m glad that you’re in the happy place you are now. Great piece 🙂

    Like

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