One day as I scrolled through my Twitter feed, I stumbled upon a tweet from a friend of mine: “I honestly can’t believe that conversion therapy on minors is still legal.” Subsequent to reading, feelings of exasperation and fury entered my body and ignited a fire within me. I checked to make sure this statement was accurate and, unfortunately, it is the stone-cold truth. Even as an individual of the LGBTQ community, I was completely in the dark—it had always seemed like a relic of the past to me, but it’s still a horrible part of our present.
There are several steps we can take stop the practice as a whole, but we must begin with education.
Conversion therapy, or ‘reparative therapy,’ according to the Oxford Dictionary, is a form of psychotherapy aimed at changing the individual’s homosexuality, based on the view that that sexuality is wrong. These practices have been rejected multiple times by every mainstream medical and mental health organization—like the American Psychiatric Association and the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration— because it’s dangerous and, in some cases, fatal. In 2009, the APA issued a report concluding that the reported risks of the practices include depression, guilt, problems with intimacy, and nearly 20 other harmful side effects.
Due to the ongoing problem of discrimination against LGBTQ people, some practitioners continue to partake in this barbaric treatment. In the past, some mental health facilities used extreme measures like institutionalization, electroconvulsive shock therapy, and castration to “convert” people into a heterosexual or cisgender identity. The National Center for Lesbian Rights finds that most of the practices are different today, though still damaging—behavioral, cognitive, and psychoanalytic methods are used to try and alter gender identity. According to the Movement Advancement Project, an organization that provides research on the LGBTQ community, only Illinois, California, Oregon, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia have passed laws to prevent licensed providers from offering reformation therapy to minors.
Leelah Alcorn, the 17-year-old transgender girl whose suicide in December 2014 attracted the attention of people all over the world, was a victim of this terrible practice. According to reports from CNN, her parents are conservative Christians who rejected their daughter’s gender identity entirely. "We don't support that, religiously," Alcorn's mother told Ashley Fantz of CNN. When she was 16, her parents forced her into Christianity-based reformation therapy. They held high hopes this “therapy” would convince Leelah to convert back to the gender she was assigned with at birth. Obviously, it did not work, because weeks later she expressed her attraction toward males—therapy only caused more pain and suffering for her. “I have decided I’ve had enough,” said Alcorn in the suicide letter she posted on her Tumblr blog. In the note, Leelah wrote about societal standards affecting transgender people and expressed the hope that her death would create discussion about discrimination, abuse, and lack of support for the community.
Her voice spoke volumes. Leelah’s story even reached the White House, prompting a statement from Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarett.
After her death, the “Leelah’s Law” petition was created by the Transgender Human Rights Institute to raise awareness of the psychologically harmful effects of such practices and ban them in the United States. By Jan. 24, 2015, the Change.org petition had 330,009 signatures and was deemed the fastest growing petition of 2014. President Obama responded with a pledge to advocate for the ban.
The process of ending conversion therapy is not going to happen overnight, but we can start by taking some simple steps. This can begin with education; we need to inform the ignorant. We need to make sure we do not sugar-coat anything when explaining. This practice is shocking and repulsive. The truth needs to be told in order for these things to really sink in.
Although Emerson can sometimes feel like a bubble of progress, much of the country has plenty of work to do. Hopefully, society has learned an important lesson from Leelah and the many other suicides of LGBTQ minors. We need to be more aware of the things that are happening around us. Let’s all work together to educate, inform, and speak the truth about these issues. We have the ability to put a stop to discrimination and say “no” to this continued abuse.