By now, most people have heard about the suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, who ended her life by walking in front of a truck on December 28. In the week since Leelah’s death, an Internet trail of her struggles has turned up, ranging from a suicide note on her personal blog to a lengthy post on a “ask transgender” thread on Reddit.
Leelah’s experience tells the story of a child who was born physically male, but knew from as early as age 4 that she was meant to be a girl.
As Leelah tells it, she came out as transgender to her devoutly Christian mother at age 14 and was met with ridicule, isolation, and punishment. Leelah’s parents sent her to “Christian therapists,” who, in her words, “instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God.”
While Leelah never called it by name, the treatment her parents sent her for was most certainly conversion therapy, also called reparative therapy. The religion-based treatment has been rejected and deemed dangerous by the mainstream therapeutic community, and the nation’s major mental health groups—American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and National Association of Social Workers—along with World Health Organization (WHO), have denounced this practice.
In fact, conversion therapy on minors is outright banned in California, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia. Similar bans have been considered but stalled in a number of other states, mostly, but not entirely, in the Northeast. In November 2014 the United Nations Committee Against Torture (COT) raised concerns with US officials about the lack of more widespread legislative action on conversion therapy.
Now, a petition on Change.org started by the group Transgender Human Rights Institute is asking President Obama and Congress to create a nationwide ban on gender conversion therapy. As of Wednesday, January 7, the petition had more than 296,000 supporters.
What Exactly is Conversion Therapy?
Because conversion therapy is not recognized by major therapeutic organizations, there is no widely available manual or training materials for it. There are also no well-designed scientific studies on its effectiveness.
The primary premise of this “treatment” is to change a person from homosexual or transgender to heterosexual or cisgender. The methods for doing so range from psychotherapy to aversive techniques, including electric shocks to the genitals, according to some historical cases. Accounts from former patients describe the therapy as involving blaming homosexuality on overprotective mothers and distant fathers, and counseling men to get “in touch with their masculinity.”
In 2012, a group of former patients of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing), a New Jersey counseling group that practiced conversion therapy for gay men, filed a civil suit for consumer fraud, claiming the group made empty promises to turn them heterosexual and engaged in practices that led the men to need further psychotherapy to undo the damage they caused. In 2014, a superior court judge in that state ruled that JONAH may be required to pay three times the cost of the additional therapy each man needed. The New Jersey ban on conversion therapy was signed into law by Governor Chris Christie in 2013.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) has started a campaign, #bornperfect, to push for legislation that bans conversion therapy for LGBT youth in every US state within the next five years. The organization’s website includes toolkits for advocates and a directory of where legislation stands in each state.
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