When 17-year-old trans teen Leelah Alcorn committed suicide December 28 of last year, she wrote in her online suicide note that her death "needs to mean something." Chris Fortin, who once attended her high school in Kings Mills, Ohio, is setting out to make Alcorn’s dying wish come true with a highway dedication.
“When I go back home, I drive past that highway spot where that event happened. There was a sign there and then it kind of blew down and then it disappeared. It just seemed like something needed to be permanent there,” Fortin tells Pride.
Knowing that Alcorn’s parents disapproved of her trans identity, Fortin didn’t reach out to them regarding the highway dedication. He researched information on Ohio’s Adopt-a-Highway program and took the necessary steps to make the dream a reality.
“When I first had the idea, I made sure with the Department of Transportation, if you put something up in someone’s name, do you need parental or family approval. They said no,” he explains. “My only connection is that my mother goes to church with her parents and knows them. I can’t understand what it’s like to lose a child, but it happened so close to home and I remember my time at Kings High School, so this has to happen.”
Fortin’s identity as a gay man played a major role in his interest in the project. Thinking back on his experience growing up in the same community, he wasn’t able to come out at such a young age and understands the difficulties Alcorn must have faced.
“I graduated in 2001, but I thought about what it would have been like. In high school we knew who the LGBTQ people were, but we never had a gay-straight alliance or anything like that,” he says. “I think I would’ve had an uphill battle. I was teased for other things, so maybe that would have only added to the situation.”
Fortin hopes spotlighting Alcorn’s suicide and commemorating her story will provide an opportunity for other local LGBTQ people to get together and strategize ways to bring more support into the area.
“With the Adopt-a-Highway program you have to clean it up four times a year, but I think we could have highway cleanups with meet-ups, or maybe a social and open discussion to bring education about the trans community and about this situation,” he says. “I want education to happen because I like to give people the benefit of the doubt in their knowledge of different types of people in the world.
“I hope that people have a better understanding than we give them credit for. I think there’s still a lot of work to be done and a lot of people who don’t know how many ways a person can identify and how to respect them.”
If you live in the Cincinnati area and need support, check out these local groups focusing on trans issues:
Cincinnati Trans* Community Group