Mental Health

Conversion Therapy’s Deadly Outcomes

by Rev . Irene Monroe

Trigger warning: discussions of suicide

I wish Leelah Alcorn was alive today. She would know how a petition on the White House website with 120,000 plus signatures calling for the enactment of “Leelah’s Law to Ban All LGBTQ+ Conversion Therapy” not only went viral across mainstream and social media internationally, but how the petition was also swiftly supported by Obama and his administration.

Leelah’s Law would require all states to end efforts by therapists to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Tonight, somewhere in America, a young person, let’s say a young man, will struggle to fall to sleep, wrestling alone with a secret he’s held as long as he can remember. Soon, perhaps, he will decide it’s time to let that secret out,” Obama’s statement read.

“What happens next depends on him, his family, as well as his friends and his teachers and his community. But it also depends on us — on the kind of society we engender, the kind of future we build.”

Leelah’s memory will haunt us as a society until there’s change.

As a transgender teenager, Leelah endured conversion therapy (also known as “reparative therapy”), a kind of pseudo-therapy that is hell-bent on the idea that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people can and should be made straight and/or cisgender.

Leelah’s note described her experiences:

To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4….When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness.

After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.

My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more Christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.

In wanting to advance the civil rights cause of transgender people Leelah, a 17 year old trans female, left the following instructions:

I want 100% of the things that I legally own to be sold and the money be given to trans civil rights movements and support groups…Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. 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 f***ed up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.

Leelah’s story is not unique. The negative health outcomes both emotional and psychological these “conversion” programs exact are untold and include depression, anxiety, self-destructive behavior, sexual dysfunction, avoidance of intimacy, loss of faith and spirituality, and the reinforcement of internalized homophobia/transphobia and self-hatred, to name a few.

There are, however, still conservative groups, proselytizing “ex-gay” rhetoric as both their Christian and patriotic duty.

For example, “Pray the Gay Away?,” an episode of the television series “Our America with Lisa Ling,” that aired on “OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network” in March 2011, Alan Chambers, then president of the renowned conversion therapy enterprise Exodus International, spoke about his sure-fire remedy for us LGBTQ “prodigal” children.

He spoke about how his organization can help us reconcile our faith, mend our sinful lives, and finally walk away from our supposedly wrong-headed “lifestyle” choice to be gay or transgender. Chambers is a married man with two adopted children, and a purported ex-gay client himself.

“Conversion” therapies are acts of rhetorical violence aimed squarely at LGBTQ people.

They are also a tool used by right-wing religious organizations to raise money and advocate against LGBTQ civil rights. With this money these organizations are able to produce politically and religiously Biased Agenda-Driven (aptly abbreviated as “A.D.”) science like “reparative therapies.”

They attempt to justify these “therapies” by presenting LGBTQ people as genetically flawed—a charge eerily reminiscent of the scientific racism and sexism that once under girded treatment of blacks and women morally inferior due to supposed genetic flaws.

In a public mea culpa about conversion therapies in 2013, titled “I Am Sorry,” Chambers wrote:

For quite some time we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical….God is calling us to…welcome everyone, to love unhindered….Please know that I am deeply sorry….I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents….I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.

For some of us in the LGBTQ community, Chambers’ apology was more than a day late and a dollar short—it was suspect. Chambers act of contrition was suspect not only because of huge cultural and legislative changes made in support of LGBTQ civil rights, but also because Chambers always knew from his own first-hand experience of same-sex attraction that one’s gay sexual orientation is never a choice and can never be “cured.”

With more and more ex-gay ministries not only losing potential clients and political leverage, but also losing monies reparative therapies generate, there is a gradual shift from “curing” one’s LGBTQ sexual orientation to abstinence from it. In other words, the theological message that homosexuality is an abomination to God and is a sin remains intact, but more emphasis will be place on celibacy.

An emphasis on a discipleship to celibacy is equally as harmful and damaging as ex-gay ministries.

This message suggests we’re incurable and should execute control over our ungodly desires.

However, when we miss the essential point that human life is varied, precious, and of equal worth, we ignore the unique gifts that each life brings to each other and to the world.

Ex-gay ministries like Restored Hope Network, and “Voice of the Voiceless,” to just name a few should all fold because they don’t focus on families, but rather they blur the distinctiveness that makes us who we are.

God created humanity as a tapestry of variety: diminishing that variety diminishes us.

I think that’s what Leelah was trying to tell us.

If you are in crisis, feeling suicidal, or in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, call the Trevor Lifeline now at 866-488-7386.

Photo via flickr user …storrao..

Comments (2)

Sue Bonner

I went to reparative therapy
I went to reparative therapy through Exodus and I would ask everyone to give Alan Chambers and everyone in leadership of these groups who have renounced it to give them a break. They were in the same position I was: trapped in a lie. I spent many years trying to change my sexual orientation because I thought that’s what God wanted me to. When I found out that when properly understood the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality, I was set free from that lie. I feel better emotionally and spiritually now than I have at any time during my life. I’m living my authentic self and not rejecting the person God made me to be.

Emily Ballou

As we work for the passage of
As we work for the passage of Leelah’s Law, and rightfully celebrate as conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth both falls out of favor, and is increasingly banned for use with minors, I’d like to ask everyone to remember that there’s another group of kids who are routinely subjected to very similar “therapies” (invented by the very same people, in fact) designed to alter intrinsic aspects of their personhood…with practically no outcry or objection from the public and little notice even from the LGBTQA community, and that’s autistic kids.

It’s called ABA, it’s an application of the *very same* theories behind gay “reparative therapies,” and far from moving towards banning or discouraging this practice towards autistic kids, states are increasingly requiring insurance companies to cover these treatments, many of which promise to leave autistic kids “indistinguishable” from non-autistic peers or even “recovered from autism,” but which frequently, in actuality, cause PTSD. And since they work by inculcating extreme compliance, may be a contributing factor to the devastatingly high rate of sexual abuse of developmentally disabled girls.

Autistic youth are disproportionately likely to be trans or gender non-conforming (and anecdotally, probably to be LGBTQA across the spectrum, for reasons still unknown at this time); many of them will belong to the queer community as much as to the autistic community, but while society makes slow progress towards seeing this treatment of LGBTQA kids as inappropriate and damaging, its use on autistic youth is still condoned on a widespread basis.

“However, when we miss the essential point that human life is varied, precious, and of equal worth, we ignore the unique gifts that each life brings to each other and to the world.”

I’d like to ask the LGBTQA community to remember this thinking towards the autistic kids in our midst, subjected to what is effectively conversion therapy for being autistic with the full approval of society, as much as we do towards youth subjected to conversion therapy for being gay or trans or queer.

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