Ray Toro was up late when he read about the death of Leelah Alcorn. He had been working in his home studio on his solo album and, before heading to bed, turned on his computer and read through a few blogs. And when he read about Leelah, it stopped him cold.
Leelah Alcorn, aged 17, threw herself under the wheels of a lorry outside her home in Cincinnati at the end of 2014. She had been born as a boy, Josh, but that was not who she was. Her suicide note read: “I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally ‘boyish’ things to try to fit in.”
Her religious parents did not accept those feelings. Though Leelah had spoken to them about how she felt, she says her mother told her she would never truly be a girl and that “God doesn’t make mistakes”. Leelah was taken out of school, barred from social media and taken to see therapists – therapists Leelah said were Christian and biased. They told her that what she was doing was wrong and that she should look to God for help.
Leelah’s suicide note ended with a call for action in the transgender community: “My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say ‘that’s fucked up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
It was reading these lines that hit Toro hardest. He went to bed after reading Leelah’s suicide note but found he couldn’t really sleep. Instead he was thinking about what happened to her and wondering why people found it so hard to accept that other people are different.
“For her to have written that she hoped her death would mean something was so powerful – I can’t even believe that someone as young as her could be thinking like that, it’s on another level,” he says from his LA home. “I hope what she wished for happens because a lot of people are going through what she went through. Unfortunately Leelah is not the first person to go through it and I’m sure it won’t be the last.”
PART OF the reason that Leelah’s death had affected Toro was that he had written a song nearly a year earlier about something similar. While putting together tracks for the solo album he has been working on since his former band My Chemical Romance broke up, he had written For The Lost And Brave. It had originally been inspired by a proposed bill in Arizona that would have allowed business owners the right to refuse to serve gay men, lesbians and others on religious grounds. Sickened, Toro had taken to his guitar to record a reaction. He found, though, that his thoughts applied just as well to Leelah Alcorn’s suicide and the battle the transgender community faces.
“It’s so crazy that I wrote the song a year ago and, when I read the lines I wrote and I read the lines Leelah wrote, I noticed that there are a lot of similarities,” he says.
He had thought of releasing the song before – every time he read about people being oppressed, being put down. But the time had never seemed quite right. He thought he should wait until he had a record deal and release date for his solo album, he thought he should do things properly as the industry demanded.
“I’ve been talking to my wife and people around me about wanting to release the song over this past year. Every time you look in the news there’s some story of some form of oppression, or of people not accepting others for who they are. But the record’s not ready and there’s no video for it or anything – I guess those are all the things you’d worry about if you were on a label – so I thought I should hold onto the song until the record was ready.”
And then he thought: fuck that. Leelah’s story struck him and he wanted to do something in her honour but also in tribute to the transgender community. And so, a week ago, he posted his song For The Lost And Brave on the internet and wrote an eloquent blog post about why he had done so.
“It was so heartbreaking to see what happened to Leelah. I’ve got a son and it really pained me to think of this young child whose whole life was ahead of her but who felt like she couldn’t go to her parents for love and support. It really tore me up.
“The song’s not a promotional thing for the record – the record’s not ready yet at all – I just wanted to bring some attention to the issue and to lend my support to Leelah and anyone else who is going through what she went through. It just felt like the right time to get a message out there.”
My Chemical Romance in Hollywood, May, 2011 Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
AS A member of My Chemical Romance, Toro did not often come across as a crusader for people’s rights. None of the band did – it wasn’t that they didn’t care (they did) but it was not what that band was about. But that doesn’t mean that the plight of others did not affect them. Toro in particular was struck hard by the reaction to the band’s third album The Black Parade and how fans were occasionally victimised by bullies – especially in Mexico where there were so called “emo riots” in which fans who looked different were beaten up in the street.
It was Toro too who was behind the band’s #SINGItForJapan project in which the guitarist re-recorded a version of My Chemical Romance’s Sing in order to raise money for the relief effort after the Japanese tsunami.
Having always been concerned for the plight of others behind the scenes, Toro now feels it is time to be more vocal about social issues publically.
“I was asked the other day whether I have a responsibility to put out a positive message to people,” he says. “When I was in My Chem, my answer to that question would have been ‘no’. I was afraid to take on that responsibility then.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve had a son, maybe it’s because I’m older, but now I do feel it’s important to take that on. That’s why I wanted to put out the song and if it can help someone through a tough time, if it can raise awareness of what the transgender community is going through, or if it even changes one mind, then I’d feel good about that.”
He’s aware, though, that writing about the transgender community as someone who is not a part of it puts him in a difficult position.
“I don’t want to come across as though I understand what the transgender community goes through,” he says. “I’ll never understand that. The only thing I can do is add my voice to it and put across my interpretation. I also worried that people might think I was taking advantage of a hot topic right now to put something out, and that was never the intention. Fortunately, the transgender community has been very supportive – as has everyone else. That made me feel I did the right thing.”
Though clearly the song will now be attached to the transgender community, Toro believes it can have a wider meaning too. Perhaps having seen what happened to those My Chemical Romance fans in Mexico, perhaps having just kept his eyes open, he believes that there is a wider issue of youth not being accepted by the older generation – it’s something My Chemical Romance have sung about in the past in the song Teenagers, and something he still believes is an issue.
“The struggles that the transgender community go through are unique. But I think there are some parallels with being a youth,” he says. “Everybody wants to be loved for who they are, everybody wants to be themselves. It pains me that a lot of people don’t understand that. Sometimes people should realise that they need to accept things whether they agree with them or not.”
In part, he has been thinking about these things since the birth of his son two years ago.
“If ever my son was having a rough time I would just hope that he would trust me and allow me to be there for him. It’s common for parents and older people to look at youth in a negative way and to not respect the young as people. My wife always says that a lot of parents treat their kids like property – the whole, ‘this is my house, these are my rules and you must abide by my law’. You have to put yourself on the same level as your kid, you have to relate to them as a person. I hope that there’s more understanding about the differences between people in the future that my son grows up in.”
THE SONG is an important one for Toro. In My Chemical Romance, Gerard Way would write lyrics while the guitarist would take on large parts of the music. Now he is solo, Toro has found that he has had to learn how to write lyrics and how to sing alone. It’s been a steep learning curve as he has been forced to think differently in terms of seeking out inspiration. For The Lost And Brave helped change that.
“I think this song was a big turning point for me,” he says. “It helped me hone in on a sound and the themes I wanted to write about. Writing lyrics and singing is new to me and I’m learning, but the one thing I have discovered is that I can only write about things that are pertinent to my life and which are happening currently.
“I have a tough time pulling lyrics out of nowhere. I’m reactive. If I read a news story, or catch a certain movie, it can inspire me to write something. I try to role play and put myself inside the head of people going through certain issues.”
It has meant that piecing together his solo record has been a long process as he has written and recorded largely alone in his home studio. More recently, though, he has called in support from others including My Chemical Romance’s engineer Doug McKean, who also produced Gerard Way’s solo record Hesitant Alien. My Chemical Romance’s (final) drummer Jarrod Alexander has also assisted, while Way’s keyboardist Jamie Muhoberac has laid down tracks along with the revered session guitarist Tim Pierce. It’s taken a while, but Toro says the album is nearly complete.
“It’s going to be my Chinese Democracy,” he says, laughing about how long it has taken. “No, it’s all been a journey. For some of us it happens a little quicker, and for some of us it happens a little slower. I feel I’m in the home stretch now and I’m excited to work on the next thing, whatever that happens to be too.”
He hopes to have it out by the summer having reworked it from what he initially said was a Peter Gabriel-esque sound into something brighter.
“This sounds dumb, but there are a few tracks on the album that I can picture people listening to with the windows down,” he says. “For some reason, it helps me to write music thinking about what space people will be in when they listen to the songs. There are a few tracks that feel like summer songs so I’m hoping to get it out by then.”
The final step is to work out how to release the album – whether through a label, or by other means. Toro admits that stuff is “alien” to him, but hopes to have figured it out in the next few months.
Before that, he just has to get it finished and then he has to clear something up. Ever since My Chemical Romance split, a line on Toro’s Wikipedia entry (written, as it turns out, by a fan) has claimed his solo record will be called Minimization Procedure. It’s something that has been repeated in articles and even, ahem, in books. It’s not true in the slightest.
“Ha!” laughs Toro. “The album is definitely not called that. The funny thing is, though, I actually think that’s a pretty good title – just not for this record. It would be a great name for a math rock album. I’m going to keep it in my back pocket just in case I make one – I hope whoever came up with it doesn’t mind.”
Tom Bryant is the author of the My Chemical Romance biography The True Lives of My Chemical Romance, available here.