Not only does conversion therapy fail to change an individual’s sexual orientation, research shows that harm is the most likely result.
This article is divided into three parts. Part one explained what conversion therapy is and provided some history on the topic. This second part introduces the story of Leelah Alcorn and the harmful effects on individuals subjected to sexual orientation change therapies. Part three will address legal endeavors relating to sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE).
“THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the American Psychological Association … supports the dissemination of accurate information about appropriate interventions in order to counteract bias that is based in ignorance or unfounded beliefs about sexual orientation.” — American Psychological Association
The majority of minors who consent to conversion therapy do so not necessarily because they want to change, but more so to escape the pressure, influence, ridicule, and alienation imposed by those around them. Not only do so-called reparative or conversion therapies fail to change an individual’s sexual orientation, but also research shows that harm is the most likely result. No one conveys this message more loudly than those who have experienced the “therapy” and those who have facilitated the practice.
It is widely accepted that minors forced to undergo conversion therapy are subjected to abuse. The story of Leelah Alcorn evinces the harm to minors who undergo such therapy. On Dec. 28, 2014, at approximately 2:15 a.m., 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn threw herself in front of a tractor-trailer on a remote highway effectively ending her life. Leelah, who was given the name Joshua at birth, stated that she began experiencing feelings of gender nonconformity at 4 years old. After coming out to them at the age of 14, Leelah’s parents removed her from public school, confiscated her electronic devices, banning her from social media and severing all communication with her friends. They essentially placed her in isolation. Leelah’s parents also sent her to conversion therapy, which left her feeling as though she had been subjected to abuse.
Prior to ending her life, Leelah drafted a suicide note that posted on Tumblr hours after her death. In this post, she recited her reasons for such drastic measures and conveyed her perception that the problem was not with her, but with society—an opinion she conveyed in her last words, which included a plea to “fix society.” Leelah’s death and suicide note sparked much-needed conversations regarding protections from abuse for members of the LGBT community.
In a 2009 report, the American Psychological Association (APA) quoted results of SOCE studies conducted by Beckstead and Morrow (2004) and Shidlo and Schroeder (2002). The harmful effects included decreased self-esteem, increased self-hatred, confusion, depression, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, shame, social withdrawal, and suicidality. Additionally, participants equated SOCE experiences to personal failure and blamed themselves. The American Medical Association and other health organizations criticize SOCE for this reason.
Following the suicide of Leelah, a We the People petition urged the president to pass a law banning the practice of conversion therapy. In response, White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarret issued a statement on behalf of President Barack Obama, supporting the ban and relaying a personal message that the fate of a young person who decides to convey his truth “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.”
The petition for Leelah’s Law quoted the following statement from the National Association of Social Workers: “… it is fair to assert that people who have same-sex attraction seek therapy for the same reasons that heterosexual people do. However, media campaigns, often coupled with coercive messages from family and community members, can create an environment in which LGBT persons are pressured to seek conversion therapy.”
The so-called “therapists”
David Matheson is a former gay conversion therapist who co-created Journey into Manhood retreats, which attempted to “cure” men of homosexuality. In 2019, Matheson, who had been a therapist for approximately 15 years, revealed that he was divorcing his wife of 34 years, with whom he had three children, and was planning to live his truth in a homosexual relationship. He immediately began denouncing the practice of conversion therapy and apologizing to all those who had been harmed by his practices over the past decade and a half. Matheson has been transparent about his role in the perpetuation of the harmful practice and has given several interviews seemingly as a form of repentance for his prior actions. In these interviews, he has averred that “I was part of a system that held people like me down,” and regrets perpetuating the idea that “being gay is a pathology, a disorder. Perpetuating the idea that God is not okay with people being gay.”
“Any therapy that is based on the idea that being gay is a psychological disorder, which it’s not — that believes that being gay is wrong or bad, which it’s not, and that it can be changed or ought to be changed. Any therapy based on that idea has a great potential of harming people, and that therapy should be stopped.” —David Matheson
Matheson is one of many former proponents of conversion therapy who have subsequently denounced the practice and entered a relationship with a person of the same sex. McKrae Game, founder of the Hope for Wholeness conversion therapy ministry, is another example. In 2019, Game came out as gay and was abruptly fired by the board of directors. He asserts that he is trying to come to terms with the harm he inflicted while facilitating conversion therapy services. Game admitted that “Conversion therapy is not just a lie, but it’s very harmful. Because it’s false advertising.” After denouncing the practice, Game sat down with people who had undergone conversion therapy under his direction and listened to some former “clients” admit to attempting suicide. Others informed him that they were in counseling over the things he had said to them while they were undergoing conversion therapy. Game subsequently posted an apology to those whom he harmed.
“The very harmful cycle of self shame and condemnation has to stop. It’s literally killing people!! Learn to love. Learn to love yourself and others” –McKrae Game
Call it child abuse
We live in a society that condemns child abandonment, physical harm, and mental and emotional abuse of children. Individuals who commit acts of child abuse may be subject to removal of their children from the home, criminal and civil penalties, incarceration, involuntary commitment to a mental institution, and registration as a sexual offender. This same standard should apply to parents who intentionally place their children in the hands of others knowing that harm is likely to result. Under other circumstances, the methods and practices employed in conversion therapy are considered abuse. When used under the guise of conversion therapy, however, the same actions are misguidedly referred to as therapy. Do abusive actions cease to be abuse if the victim is an LGBT minor? Should these children not be awarded the same level of care and protection as heteronormative children?
Minors look to their parents, teachers, religious leaders, and other adults for guidance, protection, and safety. The damage that can result when those in whom children have placed their trust participate in a concerted effort that results in harm and further confusion is immeasurable. The results of such actions have been proven to be undeniably damaging. Matheson and Game are just two of many former conversion therapy facilitators who have since denounced the practice and now speak out against it. This is straight from the horses’ mouths. Every major psychological and health organization has denounced the practice. We have the research, we have the statistics, and we are aware of the traumatizing results. Why is this practice still legal anywhere?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Wansong Harley is a 3L at the Santa Barbara and Ventura Colleges of Law. She has obtained her bachelor’s in Business Management and completed coursework for an MBA with a concentration in accounting at Albany State University. She believes in giving back, paying it forward, and helping the homeless. Wansong believes self-improvement should be a life-long commitment and her favorite saying is “Every man who has gotten where he is – started where he was.” When her head isn’t in the books, she loves to look out her window and watch the waves hit the shore.
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