Teachers, students and members of Kings Mills, Ohio’s community gathered for a candlelight vigil to remember Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen who committed suicide Dec. 28 after posting an online letter blaming her parents for refusing to allow her to transition her identity from male to female.
The vigil was held at the entrance of Kings High School, where Leelah had been a student.
Many from the student body were shocked and surprised by Leelah’s transformation – partly because after she came out to her parents, she was taken out of school and isolated from her friends.
“She first identified herself as a gay male,” Azalea Laverde, 16, who went to school with Leelah and worked with her at the nearby Kings Island theme park, tells PEOPLE. “I just knew her as Josh Alcorn until she told me she was going to start going by ‘Leelah’ on her 17th birthday – nobody knew [she had come out as transgender].”
Leelah’s death has sparked a growing debate about how to approach transgender youth, as well as a public backlash to how her parents, Doug and Carla Alcorn, handled their child’s situation.
“Leelah was not allowed to hang out with my son after she came out as gay,” says Annie Davis, who lived next to the Alcorns for 14 years. “I knew this wasn’t a good thing. Isolation is never a good thing.”
Forest Hager, 20, who attended Kings High School, lived next door to Alcorn. “The times I did get to see her, she was really friendly, kind of shy,” Hager says. “When she got pulled out of school, she wasn’t allowed to hang out with us anymore.”
Many of those who knew her but weren’t in her tight circle of friends struggled with how to address Leelah, having known her as a boy named Josh – until the news of the tragedy struck.
“When I knew Leelah, I knew her as Josh,” says Julia Kurtz, who was Alcorn’s sixth grade librarian. “I remember him being a voracious reader with every book I tossed his way.”
Ellie Jelinek, 17, shared classes with Alcorn. “It was a big shock, you wouldn’t have expected it,” she says. “He loved art and knew anything that had to do with gaming. He’s a very smart and intelligent kid, very studious.”
Mark Webster, who came to the vigil to support the need for more acceptance for transgender people, says, “People don’t understand it – even I as a gay man don’t understand everything about it – but humans deserve rights regardless of what you are.”
Raiden Quinn, a transgender person who went to Kings High School with Alcorn, says Alcorn reached out to her several times before she lost her social media privileges.
“At the time I identified as a gay male but wore high heels and makeup. She always talked about how she felt people were not accepting of her,” Quinn says. “It was really hard for me too when I went to school, and when she posted her last letter, I remember feeling exactly the same way she did when I was her age.”
“We shouldn’t have to be different in a community,” says Shelly Sizemore, a parent of a Kings Mills student. “We should all stand together. I wish she would have spoke out sooner so she didn’t have to end her life like she did.”
On Wednesday, Leelah’s parents gave an interview to CNN. Their explanation of why they did not accept her new identity came under immense fire from those supporting Leelah’s transformation on social media, and as a result of threats, her funeral was postponed.
Tim Tripp, family minister at Northeast Church of Christ, where Alcorn’s family sought counseling, says, “I can’t discuss the family or situation due to confidentiality rules, but our focus as a church is to be a structure and pillar of support to this family. People are saying a lot of things based on a lot of false information.”
In her interview with CNN, Carla said, “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.”
“We don’t have to agree with it, but parents are human and they make mistakes. Unfortunately, this has a horrible consequence,” Laverde says. “Instead of harassing them and calling them bad parents, we need to take into account that they have other kids who have to deal with this entire situation.”
“They lost a child, whether they want to identify Leelah as a boy or a girl. Their children lost a sibling, and we all lost a friend.”