SAN DIEGO (AP) — A 16-year-old transgender girl who spoke on YouTube about being bullied at school in Southern California killed herself, a support group said, raising questions about what educators can and should do to support students who change gender identity.
Taylor Alesana was constantly picked on by peers before taking her life last week, the North County LGBTQ Resource Center said.
"With few adults to turn to, and with no support from her school, her life became too difficult," the group said. "Taylor was a beautiful and courageous girl, and all she wanted was acceptance."
Alesana attended meetings at the center and was very supportive of others, said Max Disposti, the group's executive director. She posted a series of online videos that included makeup tutorials and accounts of her struggles.
In her first video posted in October, she said bullying began at a San Diego-area middle school when she disclosed that she was bisexual.
"I fear for anyone that's even just a little bit different. They know what bullying is like," she said.
Alesana said her family recently moved to Fallbrook — a community of about 30,000 people next to Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, 70 miles north of San Diego — and that she was "living my life as a girl now," wearing female clothing on weekends and during summer. She eventually found friends at Fallbrook High School but encountered rejection first.
"I made a couple (friends), went from group to group. The group would usually kick me out after they realized, 'Oh, you're different. We can't have you hanging out with us,'" she said.
Alesana had a strong relationship with her school counselor but administrators "didn't take the necessary steps," Disposti said. They never contacted his organization, even after a Thursday night vigil at his Oceanside office that was attended by Alesana's family and about 200 others, he said.
Fallbrook Union High School District Superintendent Hugo Pedroza said in a statement that a student died tragically on April 2. "It is never easy when something like this happens, but we are working to move forward together and stronger than before," he said.
Experts said schools must train staff to be alert to bullying and instill in students that it is unacceptable, but they also need to acknowledge any of their own biases.
"The fears that students have of transgender youth actually stem from adults," said Dorothy Espelage, professor of educational psychology at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "If you're not going change the attitude of the adults, you're not going to change the attitudes of the kids."
James Garbarino, professor of humanistic psychology at Loyola University in Chicago, said transgender students are in a similar position as gay and lesbian students 10 or 20 years ago. Homophobic bullying remains a serious problem, but it has declined to the point that gays and lesbians are elected prom kings and queens.
"What really drives this — whether gender, race, class — is how the adult society views these issues," he said.
Alesana is the second transgender teen who sought services at the North County LGBTQ Resource Center to die by suicide since March, Disposti said. A boy who took his life last month had a supportive environment at home and school, but he struggled with other issues, including his mother's death.
Alesana was unusually vocal about the challenges of being a transgender teen. An effort to reach her family through Disposti was unsuccessful.
"She was very outspoken and had incredibly positive energy," Disposti said. "She was helping others as she was struggling."