After Leelah Alcorn's Death, These Trans Activists Want You To Think Differently About Gender

'Trans for me is also a way of expressing that I don't fit in society's definition of 'man' or 'woman,' I'm just myself,' says Alok Vaid-Menon.

In her final words, transgender teen Leelah Alcorn wished that her suicide would help "fix society." We can't say that's happened yet, but what her death has done is open up an honest, sometimes passionate dialogue about the struggles of transgender young people everywhere, including in Leelah's hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio.

The conservative midwestern city (which also happens to be my hometown), finds itself grappling not just with the heartbreaking loss of one of its young citizens, but also with many lingering questions. One of the biggest for Leelah was how to live her life in a way that spoke to her truth.

As supporters prepare to gather on Saturday night at a local 600-capacity rock club for another memorial -- as well as in New York's Columbus Circle for a candlelight vigil -- MTV News reached out to five trans activists who've also struggled with that question and who found some answers along the way. And while there's not one definitive path, what they all revealed was that it begins with looking in before looking out. Here are their stories:

The panel:

Vaid-Menon (@DarkMatterRage) is a trans/national queer South Asian activist and spoken word artist, as well as a member of Look Different’s Good Look Panel. You can read their work at

Tannehill is a Navy veteran, trans woman/journalist.

Milan is a writer and Transgender advocate.

Yokoyama is a BSN and RN who works with as the Transition Care Services Director for the Cincinnati-based Heartland Trans* Wellness Group.

Henise is a transgender man and Towson University student who was one of the stars of MTV's "Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word."

MTV: What does being transgender mean to you?

Alok Vaid-Menon -- It means being able to self determine my gender on my own terms, no matter what family and culture at large tells me. Trans for me is also a way of expressing that I don't fit in society's definition of 'man' or 'woman,' I'm just myself.

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Brynn Tannehill -- It means that in many ways, I was never entirely comfortable with the gender roles assigned to me, even if I did a very good job 'playing the role.' Who I saw in the mirror, and how I saw myself, never really came close to matching until I transitioned. In another sense, being transgender is defined by a willingness to defy societal pressures to conform to any number of gender stereotypes on how 'men' and 'women' are supposed to look and act.

Tiq Milan -- It means that I have taken the steps to becoming a man of my own design. It is a reminder of the deliberate process I’ve undertaken to become my authentic and healthiest self.

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Shane Henise -- Being trans to me means that my gender identity (personal experience of my gender as male) and my anatomy (being assigned female at birth) did not match up, so I took steps to align my body with my internal sense of myself. For as long as I could remember I have always felt male, I just did not have the language or the knowledge that one could transition. As soon as I heard the word 'Transgender' and all that it entailed, I knew it was me.

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MTV: What does gender mean to you?

Vaid-Menon -- Gender means fear and violence. My entire life I've been forcibly gendered without my consent. But I know that as long as we as trans and gender non-conforming people have experienced this violence we have also resisted each in our own unique ways. So gender also means resistance.

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Tannehill -- Gender, in many ways, is a social construct. Just as there is nothing inherently male or female in the colors pink or blue, much of what is expected of men and women is based purely on stereotypes. At the same time, gender, and how one identifies, is an intensely personal part of one's sense of self. Most people clearly know from an early age how they identify … It is very hard to convey to many non-transgender people that gender identity is real with biological origins is very difficult.

It's a stretch for most people to imagine having a identity other than the one they are 'supposed' to, and accepting that there is nothing inherently wrong with identifying as male, female, (or neither) regardless of the sex you were born.

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Milan -- Gender to me is an integral part of our humanity. Gender belongs to the individual not to the institutions. It isn’t for the doctors to impose. It isn’t something for your school or your family or your community to determine. Gender lives on a spectrum, sometimes its fixed and sometimes it’s fluid.

Henise – Gender is such a complicated and personal experience that I have trouble even trying to define or quantify it. My gender has been something that has been confusing, but also tremendously rewarding. Gender is how we see ourselves when the lights are off and no one else is around.

I knew that in order to feel happy and comfortable in my body, I needed to look in the mirror and see who I knew myself to be on the inside (a boy) match who was looking back at me... I believe that if we allowed everyone to determine their own gender and respected their preferences, we would not see nearly as many people struggling or hurting.

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Jonah Yokoyama – Gender identity is our innate, inner sense of who we are. Gender identity has nothing to do with our genes or body parts. You can't see gender identity, it is between our ears.

MTV: What struggles have you faced because of your gender identity?

Vaid-Menon -- As someone who was identified male at birth but presents more feminine and identifies as outside of the gender binary (of male and female), I have experienced a significant amount of gender policing, harassment, and violence. People often make assumptions about my body and my identity checking in with me first which really contributes to a lot of stress and anxiety in my life.

Tannehill -- I grew up raised Mormon by my father, so there were always very clear lines between what was acceptable for boys and what was acceptable for girls. There wasn't much space in between… I nearly quit the Naval Academy when I was 20 to go to a different school and transition. But, if I had done that, I would never have had the chance at my dream career as a pilot. So, I was forced to choose between a career and being myself.

When I did finally accept myself at 35, I was married and had three small children. There's no instruction manual or self help book that tells you how to navigate such a complicated, painful situation that affects so many other people.

Milan -- I am acutely aware that there are places in this country where my marriage, my family and I are not protected simply because I am trans… As a Black man in the United States, there are a host of issues that I have to live in and contend with that intersect with the struggles endured by the trans community.

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Henise -- The biggest probably has to be that I felt as though I wasn’t supposed to exist because society does not create a space for people whose gender identity deviates at all from their gender assigned to them at birth. It took me until I was 18 years old to even hear the word transgender. Before then if I had heard it, it was either the punchline of a terribly offensive joke, or something to be mocked and be disgusted by.

I was incredibly lucky to have such a strong support system in my transition, or I honestly would not be here today. I am here to say that you can find happiness. One day you will look in the mirror and like the person looking back at you. You will find someone who will love and admire you for all of the things that you have been through, and love your body exactly the way it is.

Yokoyama -- I have been physically assaulted 3 times because I am transgender. I have faced discrimination on the job. I have struggled with my identity, self-esteem and perception. I've been rejected and hurt. I've also met a wonderful, loving, caring community. Through the introspection and work on myself that I've done I've learned what I really value in life and how to seek it out and make it a reality.

MTV: Are these issues harder to face in (smaller/more conservative) places where transgender conversations aren’t going on every day?

Yokoyama -- Trans* people of color (particularly transfeminine individuals), those in faith communities, rural areas, and youth are most at risk. Any additional burden such as being in a less open area will compound the difficulties the person faces.

If you’re struggling with issues of identity, head to Half of Us.

To learn more about being transgender, check out GLAAD and Look Different.

If you are transgender and thinking about suicide, or know someone who is, please contact the Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860.

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