It is the thing jokey Will & Grace episodes make fun of, the topic satire film But I’m A Cheerleader was based on. But make no mistake — conversion therapy is literally killing people, yet its practice is alive and well. And it needs to end NOW.
Conversion therapy is the dangerous and harmful practice that seeks to change one’s gender identity or sexual orientation. It’s the painful reality dramatized in the award-winning movie The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and the reason why transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn threw herself in front of a tractor-trailer in 2014.
Alcorn’s Christian parents thought she could be turned back into a boy. That their “sick” child could be cured with counseling. And with enough work, their once again boy would not be attracted to other boys. Instead, their child posted a suicide note to Tumblr and blamed conversion therapy on her feelings of desperation and isolation.
People not only accept but assume heterosexuality. It’s the given default, not a choice. People also accept gender to be defined as either male or female; when our minds align with our sexual anatomy this isn’t considered a choice either. Straight, cisgender people are taken at their word. They are accepted. End of story.
But if someone explains their love of someone of the same sex or have an identity that deviates from the binary, they are questioned. Queer, transgender and non-binary folks are shamed and forced to explain themselves before they can be accepted. LGBTQ people are seen as confused or broken and in need of a fix. Many adolescents are forced into conversion therapy to be cured of their “disease,” but the end result is not conversion; it’s often depression, anxiety, withdrawal, and suicide. There is no scientific evidence that indicates conversion therapy is effective.
Counseling@Nortwestern at The Family Institute at Northwestern University recently published an article on the effects of this dangerous practice called In The Aftermath of Conversion Therapy, Counselors Offer Healing Support. Dr. Joy Whitman offered her expertise and experience working with the LGBTQ community. Whitman is a licensed professional counselor, a licensed clinical professional counselor, and a certified counselor with the National Board for Certified Counselors. Her research focuses on LGBTQ counseling issues and training counselors to provide affirming treatment.
Affirming treatment. Shouldn’t all treatment be affirming? A way to validate our feelings, make us feel less alone, and help us carry and balance the weight of our emotional burdens while finding ways to lighten our load?
Yet 77,000 LGBTQ youth are being forced into conversion therapy by parents or guardians. 20,000 of those kids 13-17 will be seen by a licensed health care professional. The rest are seen by religious or spiritual guides. (Only 13 states and Washington D.C. have banned conversion therapy.) Parents are seeking “help” for their children because of the conflict between homosexuality and religion; parents want to “correct” gender expressions and identities that deviate from the Bible’s truth.
Parents believe conversation therapy can change their LGBTQ children. Change is attempted to be made through electric shock, nausea-inducing drugs while teens are shown homoerotic images, masturbatory reconditioning, individual and group therapy sessions, trainings on social skills, and visualization on how to be straight and cisgender.
But make no mistake, the conflict found in an individual is not from being queer or transgender, but from a lack of support while trying to live under the rainbow religion claims was stolen from God. The conflict comes from not being allowed to live an honest and out life with unconditional love from family and friends while still holding onto their faith. So when teens are forced into rooms or group settings, they are being demanded to admit that what they are feeling is wrong. They are taught that their core identity is wrong. They are subjected to horrific practices that will allow their parents to accept them instead of being allowed to find ways to accept themselves.
Being a gay kid in the ’80s and ’90s was incredibly lonely and scary. I was often filled with shame and fear of being found out. Society provided very clear signs that homosexuality was not normal. My family, my mother specifically, was very religious and I grew up knowing what I was feeling was a sin. I was on my way to Hell. I was miserable and suicidal, but if death lead to the misery of Satan’s fiery pain, what was the point? I couldn’t escape, so I hid.
When I was forced out of the closet by my mother and her Born Again Christian boyfriend, I was immediately prayed for. I was told that my mom’s boyfriend had been saved by God and was no longer gay. Remind me to tell you how well that relationship ended. (Hint: it wasn’t heterosexually ever after.) Suddenly I was a prayer chain away from conversion therapy. The imaginary hands of Christ were placed on me. God’s forgiving blood washed over me. His eternal love was asked to forgive me.
But I wasn’t sorry. I was 19 at the time, so I was old enough to argue and advocate for myself. I had a year of college under my belt and was no longer living at home. I was being rejected, but I could at least leave the oppressive reality of not being supported. Even though I was turned away, I was lucky compared the 77,000 reported LGBTQ youth being subjected to horrific and damaging conversion therapy.
Dr. Joy Whitman knows that trust is the key to repairing this damage.
In the article, Whitman says, “I have to remember that the very profession that I represent has betrayed them. They tried to get help from people that they thought were healers, so I’m very mindful that I will have to work hard to let them know that our work together will be supportive and that I want to understand the conflicts that they have. My role with them is not to try to convince them to be anything, but to help them uncover and discover who they are.”
Whitman also acknowledged that faith may be an important part of one’s identity, one they feel is necessary to support their sexual and gender identities. “In the past where those identities where dichotomized, I want to help them find a way to be whole,” Dr. Whitman said.
To feel whole. That is what all of us want. Everyone deserves to feel understood and accepted for who we are, not in spite of our pieces but because of how they add up to create our beautiful image. Instead of trying to change the identities of LGBTQ youth, parents need to find ways to change their attitudes about them. They need to seek out other supportive parents who have been through the same grieving process.
Grief is involved because parents need to say goodbye to what they thought their children would be. They need to work through fallen expectations and find ways to embrace actuality. But grieving something that was never there, letting go of the wish for a straight and “normal” child is so much better than grieving a life that could have been.
Loving a living child is so much better than loving one you have to bury.
If you or a LGBTQ loved one needs crisis intervention or are having thoughts of suicide, please call The Trevor Project’s TrevorLifeLine at 1-866-488-7386. Or visit their website to talk to an online trained counselor. We want you here.