Saturday saw the start of a month long charity event called ‘JamForLeelah’. Aimed at raising awareness of LGBTIQ issues, specifically trans youth issues and the Leelah’s Law campaign, the event will be raising money for a number of charities including Transender Law Center, Camp Aranu’tiq and the Sylvia Rivera Law project.
The event is named in honor of Leelah Alcorn, a seventeen year old transgender girl who sadly took her own life in December last year. Due to Leelah’s interest in video games and games development the events organisers, Matthew Boucher and Kara Jayne, felt that an indie game jam felt like a positive way to raise awareness of Leelah’s plea for social change in a method she may not have only approved of but also taken part in.
Participants have a month in which to submit their games. Boucher and Jayne have asked that the games be centered around trans issues in some way, such as using a trans protagonist or focuses on issues faced by trans people. They have also asked people to look through Leelah’s blog and to draw some inspiration from her own work and the thins that she liked, to try and create something that Leelah herself may have enjoyed.
Despite being held in Leelah’s memory the orgaisers are asking all participants to be both respectful to the subject matter and Leelah herself. They have asked that none of the games to actually feature Leelah as this may be seen as disrespectful to those mourning her loss.
I had the chance to speak to one of the organisers of JamForLeelah, Kara Jayne, and had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about the even.
Why did you choose to honor Leelah, what about her story spoke to you?
Leelah and I had actually spoken, briefly, within the forums of a trans community two months before her passing, discussing ways to deal with some of the struggles trans people face during transition. We didn’t know each other at all, and we lived on opposite ends of the globe, but she, like many trans people you talk to online, made it clear how difficult a time she was having with her family and expectations, and that brought us together. I did my best to raise her spirits, but unfortunately, when dysphoria strikes it’s hard to really penetrate that hopelessness. When the early news reports hit, my heart absolutely sank. Here was a seventeen year old girl who was put into a position in which she couldn’t see a way out, and it broke my heart.
Being a trans woman, and reading through the letter that Leelah left on her Tumblr, I couldn’t help but relate to the feelings she described. I think most trans people can relate to the frustrations Leelah mentioned, and I think there’s an element of communal suffering in knowing perhaps, with maybe a little understanding and acceptance, it may have been preventable. It’s a tragedy, and for the trans community, it’s one that repeats far too frequently. But surprisingly, the media came out in support of a trans teenager – news reports were mostly respectful – and perhaps as a result, or perhaps as a result of the changing response to trans folk over the last few years – people really came out in droves to honor and respect Leelah’s wishes.
But a week after her passing, I was reading a Wikipedia page put up in Leelah’s name, and an argument was being had by its editors about whether it was notable enough news to have a wiki page, since it would likely be forgotten by the next week. It was horrifying to think she might be forgotten so quickly after what she wrote in that letter. Being in Australia, I couldn’t join the candlelit vigils, but I could share the petitions and spread her articles via social media, and I was always looking for a way to keep her message going. Keeping her message alive, and what Leelah Alcorn went through, is so important to me, because there are so many trans people in her position that need to hear that the world is changing.
What made you choose gaming over other avenues of fundraising?
I feel that many of us within the trans community reacted to her passing in the same way, with sadness and heartbreak and a sense of hopelessness that she would be forgotten too quickly, or that her story would be erased by her parents or the media. Many of the people I follow on Twitter became internet sleuths of a sort, trying to come to terms with her passing by learning more about her – following her online presence – and sharing it within the community. Her artwork, music, early comments and thoughts, all began to appear in an effort to shed some more light on what she experienced, or what we could have done to help her. It was a way of the community – I think – further humanizing a girl that, otherwise, might just become another statistic.
And during that time, it starting becoming very clear that Leelah was not just a gamer, but a gamer gamer. Online, she spent time commenting and checking out gaming videos, discussed game development news, wrote up game reviews on her profiles, and even talked about participating in a global game jam called Ludum Dare. As a game designer myself, this really hit home, so when another Twitter user commented that a jam should be held to honor her, I wanted to become involved and help anyway I could. The jam was created by Matthew Boucher, and I’m really honored to be a part of it.
Games are an amazing medium, and although the mainstream media often still clings to this infantile idea of them being children’s playthings with no value, the truth is games are able to really get to the heart of a theme or concept in ways that no other medium can. Games place you in a position as a player, faced with the unknown, and the only way you can proceed is if you come to terms with what the creators of the game set out for you. You can’t passively participate, you need to come to the understanding yourself to get through the game, and I think this is where the power of it lies. One major problem I’ve noticed many cis gendered people have is how hard it is for them to comprehend gender identity as something different to gender expression or sexuality, and perhaps putting them into that kind of narrative as an active participant could help them finally come to terms with it.
What do you hope to accomplish?
Ideally, #JamForLeelah should be about remembering Leelah and her story, raising awareness about her petitions, and in doing so, raising money for really deserving trans charities. The overall goal is trying to further prevent trans people in similar situations from feeling that same helplessness that Leelah felt.
The jam is a trans-positive jam, and much like the #reallivetransadult hashtag, I hope that positive trans narratives come out of it. For somebody who may be having a hard time, playing through a trans narrative that ends on a positive note could really help with that sense of hopelessness. And even if the experience isn’t always positive, it can really help to just know that other people have gone through what you are experiencing.
A little while back I searched high and low for trans narratives within games, and although I found a couple, I was really disappointed about the lack of trans characters and stories within the medium (and all mediums really, if we’re being honest). Two games I did find was Mainichi by Mattie Brice, and Dys4ria by Anna Antropy. They were small indie games, but they still made me feel better just knowing they exist. Diverse representation is so important for any minority, and there’s so little of it in gaming. By hosting a jam entirely about trans-narratives, we hope to get a large collection of games that anyone could play, whether to gain an understanding, or simply to stop feeling quite so alone.
Is JamForLeelah something you could see yourselves holding as an annual event?
We haven’t discussed this to be honest, and I personally think we should wait and see what comes out of it. We’ve had some criticism about using Leelah Alcorn’s story directly, or her name directly in the jam, and we’ve taken a lot of that feedback seriously. The last thing we wanted was to offend people who are still dealing with the loss in their own way, and we really hope that people understand that this is about spreading awareness for Leelah – it’s about getting the petition, which is losing steam, another wave of signers so that we can ban conversion therapy. It’s about raising money to charities that can further assist the trans movement, and prevent stories like Leelah’s from repeating.
One charity in particular, Camp Aranu’tiq, is a summer camp for transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming children and teenagers. It’s a place these kids can be completely free of questions of gender, and who they are, or what they were assigned at birth, and just be kids. A chance to be free of prejudice and hate in a world that, honestly, does not give trans people a break some times. It’s the kind of place you should send your kid if they came out to you. It would be amazing to know our little game event was able to help they further help these children.
What message do you hope this event will send to people going through the same situation as Leelah?
First and foremost, I hope that anyone going through the same situation as Leelah really reaches out to services like the Trevor Project, which can really help those struggling. And I hope that anybody who feels alone reaches out to the community, as the trans community is closer than most communities I’ve seen, and may help them gain a larger perspective on the situation at hand. I’ve seen trans people open their houses to strangers, give their last dollar to help somebody else get by, and they’re always there if family rejects you. The community is heart-warming, and I hope that anyone struggling really reaches out so that they can understand they’re not alone.
And for those who may play the games that come out of the jam, hopefully they get a chance to witness experiences that may reflect their own situation, and as a result gives them hope for their own future. After all, if the trans developer who made the game was able to get through the dark times, maybe the player can to. And maybe, even just having a game with a trans protagonist would be enough to make them feel a sense of normalcy, which is so often denied to trans people in their day to day life.
Ultimately, I hope that they would be able to see the kind of collaboration that went into these games, and understand that a lot of these designers, artists, and programmers are trans themselves and have come through similar struggles. And now, here they are, creating their stories alongside cisgendered developers who, together, want to do whatever they can in order to further prevent another tragedy like the passing of Leelah Alcorn.
For more detail and information on how to join in with JamForLeelah click on the link below to head over to the website and help to support this great cause.