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January 19, 2015 12:00 PM

At first it seemed like a tragic accident. While walking along a darkened stretch of Interstate 71 during the early morning hours of Dec. 28, an Ohio teen stepped into oncoming traffic and was struck by a tractor-trailer. By the time police arrived at the scene outside Cincinnati, it was too late. The body was taken to the coroner’s office, and the authorities initially believed the death to be a typical highway fatality.

But 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn’s Tumblr account told a different story. In a note that posted automatically after being written earlier that day, Leelah wrote, “Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in … because I’m transgender…. To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4.” Leelah then took aim at her parents. “When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant. After 10 years of confusion, I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong.” Crossing out her given name, Josh, the teen signed the name Leelah.

The heartbreaking note sparked a nationwide discussion about how parents should treat transgender children. But as the suicide message went viral, Leelah’s parents grieved for their oldest of four children—and attempted to explain their deep Christian beliefs. “We don’t support that, religiously,” Leelah’s mother, Carla Alcorn, said of the teen’s transgender identity in an interview with CNN, adding that her child had been medicated for depression. “But we told him we loved him unconditionally. I loved my son. He was a good kid, a good boy.” Leelah’s father, Doug, shared a similar sentiment in an e-mail to local news station WCPO. “We love our son, Joshua, very much and are devastated by his death,” he wrote. “We have no desire to enter a political storm or debate with people who did not know him.” (The couple, who had to reschedule plans for the funeral after receiving death threats, did not comment to People after multiple requests.)

Despite the Alcorns’ plea to mourn in private, they’ve found themselves embroiled in a national debate about gender, religion and parenting. Transgender advocates have condemned their use of male pronouns to describe their child, and many people closer to home were also critical of the couple. Several of Leelah’s friends and neighbors claim the family cut her off from the outside world after she came out. “When she sent me a message, I tried to reply, but her parents had deleted her Facebook,” says former classmate Raiden Quinn, who also came out as transgender in high school. “She never talked about having support.” Adds Annie Davis, a social worker who lived next to the family for 14 years: “Leelah was not allowed to hang out with my son after she came out. I thought, ‘This is a recipe for suicide.’ Isolation is never a good thing.”

That isolation may have led Leelah to post a desperate plea on a Reddit message board two months before her suicide, asking whether her parents were abusive. “Please help me,” she wrote. “I don’t know what I should do. I’m not physically beaten or hit, but I feel like this is a different kind of abuse, maybe mental or verbal. I can’t take much more of this.”

That raw emotion strikes a nerve with those who have felt similar anguish growing up. “The Internet was the only place Leelah could be her true self, with hostile parents and a community that was not welcoming,” says Janet Mock, a transgender community advocate and author of Redefining Realness, a memoir of growing up as a transgender girl. (Mock, 31, is a former staff editor at People.com.) “In her statement she is telling us we need to fix how we deal with transgender kids.”

But not everyone is condemning the Alcorns; some acknowledge that even the most open-minded parents can struggle when their child comes out as transgender. “A lot of people are criticizing the parents, but we are not,” says Adam Hooper, copresident of Marriage Equality Ohio. “[They] are going through a hard time. We’re hoping to bring understanding about what people are going through.” Adds Johanna Olson, medical director for the Center of Trans Youth Health and Development at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles: “It’s completely rational for parents to not want their kids to be transgender, because we don’t live in an environment that is celebratory of the trans experience. The threats are real: Children can be harassed, bullied or even murdered. But parents need to be fearless, listen to their children and accept them for who they are.”

Whatever their disagreements, those who were close to Leelah Alcorn are now coping with the senseless loss of a smart, artistic teen who loved music and was a voracious reader. On Jan. 3 hundreds of classmates, teachers and supporters held a candlelight vigil outside the main entrance of Kings High School, where Leelah had been a junior. “Our hearts are breaking,” says teacher Julia Kurtz, who once taught Leelah. “I don’t know that there are sides to be taken, other than the death of a child is just devastating.”

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