As we ring in the New Year, it is with a sadness that, though we are in 2015, ignorance and fear still run amuck in regard to transgender/gender non-conforming issues and the people who strive to live in truth. As an out and proud transgender educator and HIV/AIDS activist, it was alarming and sad to have read the letter that Leelah Alcorn left to her friends and family on Dec. 28 before stepping in front of a semi-truck. It is well known that trying to delegitimize or force a person into a false gender identity can severely harm the individual and ultimately lead to death. Leelah was subjected to a life-threatening practice by her parents that combined with erasure and suppression of her gender identity ultimately caused her death.

At no time should a transgender person ever be subjected to psychological brainwashing tactics based on religious beliefs. The utilization of religious-based “transgender conversion therapy” is an atrocity against our youth and needs to be banned in all 50 states.

In honor of Leelah Alcorn, we call for the immediate creation of a national effort to bring about Leelah’s Law, in order to ban “conversion therapy” against transgender, gay, lesbian and bisexual youth.

Leelah’s tragedy is not an isolated case. Just two weeks before Leelah’s suicide we lost another member of our family to suicide. On Dec. 14, 24-year-old Andi Woodhouse died by suicide near the 10th St. Bridge in Pittsburgh. Andi was from Lebanon, Penn. He was in Pittsburgh temporarily for some services and he worked at a local McDonald’s.

Here in Asheville and the Western Carolinas, several organizations are collaborating to bring attention to Leelah and her sad, and yet brave cry for help, and the way she begged to not allow her death to go in vain.

TransHealth Coordinators has set up a local project called “Live Your Queer Life.” The word “queer” is used as in the Latin “torquere,” meaning to turn or twist, hence becoming different. Torque produces torsion, rotation, a force of change and motion. Queer embodies power.

The new project has both a social media presence and a website, launching the third week of January, that will offer essays, real life experiences and a linked YouTube channel where local LGBTQ people can share their stories. The goal of which is to allow local and even national youth feel the power of community, knowing no one is alone in our community.

Though Asheville is considered a “small” city we have a huge transgender/gender non-conforming & genderqueer community and support including the first all-inclusive and oldest support group in the country, the Phoenix Transgender Support Group which was founded by Holly Boswell and Jessica Britton over 25 years ago. Plus, over the past 15 years, new groups and organizations have formed here. We have TranzMissions that offers support, outreach and education, Asheville Transformers, the LGBTQA women of Asheville and Youth OutRight.

Each of these groups offers support, community and education. Nationally-active TransHealth Coordinators is based here in Asheville and offers resources for primary care, HRT, free HIV and STD screenings, supports a needle exchange and offers several workshops across the country for medical providers and support staff each year.

Religious-based rejection from families causes thousands of transgender youth to end up on the street across the country and even right here in Asheville. We are fortunate to have Be Loved House as the only shelter that will host LGB “T” specific folks in their shelter. The religious based shelters refuse us regardless of what the weather condition might be outside. One in five transgender people are refused housing and one in 10 are evicted due to lack of federal and state protections in regard to gender identity and/or gender expression.

Other statistics show dangerous levels of rejection and discrimination. Fifty-eight percent of transgender people face family rejection. Forty-one percent of transgender people are at risk of suicide. Taken together with other barriers and disparities in regard to employment and healthcare and we see a real need for attention and focus on these issues in our community.

Right now is the time for the conversation to be brought to the table — where do we go from here and how do fix this? We need to rally, yes. But we also need to step up with ideas of solutions so that in 2015 we have fewer (if not zero) trans and queer youth feeling the isolation, the persecution of church and family that can lead to suicide being an option. Plus we must offer education to parents, schools and those lacking understanding in our mainstream society.

To start this off, Gender Benders of Greenville, S.C., and TransHealth Coordinators are collaborating with Victoria Lemay, the organizer and founder of a vigil and rally called “Fix Ourselves, Fix Society,” a candelight vigil for Leelah Alcorn and other victims of conversion therapy. The name of the vigil is inspired by Leelah’s suicide note, in which she wrote, “I want someone to look at that number and say ‘that’s f*cked up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.” The event will be held on Jan. 17, 5:15 p.m. at Liberty Bridge at Falls Park on the Reedy in Greenville. We hope you’ll join us there and in other future actions, along with supporting our ongoing campaign. : :

— Jennifer Barge is the director of TransHealth Coordinators , a HIV/AIDS activist and transgender educators. She is based in Asheville, N.C., but can be found all over the country with her work with the CDC.