April 13, 2015; Washington Post, “WonkBlog”
Some readers may remember the incredibly sad suicide note that circulated around the Internet in December left by 17-year-old Leelah (formerly Josh) Alcorn. Leelah, from Ohio, left the note on her Tumblr page, placing the majority of the blame for her suicide squarely on her parents’ shoulders for refusing to accept her reality of being a young transgender woman.
The suicide note has amassed over 240,000 shares on Tumblr, a telling testament to LGBTQ support. Following Alcorn’s death, the social media community took up arms against the conservative religious parents who Alcon accuses in her note of forcing her to go to Christian therapists who claimed they could cure her gender identity issues.
Alcorn’s death prompted advocacy group Transgender Human Rights Institute to start a petition on the White House website asking the administration to formally condemn conversion or reparative therapy—medical practices that some clinicians and therapists believe can change sexual orientation in minors. Last Wednesday, the Obama administration took the bold steps to call for all clinicians and therapists to cease conversation therapy.
According to a senior advisor to President Obama, “The overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm.”
California, New Jersey, and Washington D.C. have already banned licensed practitioners from using conversion therapy, while 15 more states are considering passing similar legislation. Bills to ban the therapy have already failed in Colorado (last week) and New York (last year). The Republican Party in Texas actually added language into their platform supporting the therapy.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
A few of these areas have also entered litigation over the legality of the therapy. Three years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), a gay conversion therapy service in New Jersey. Back in February, a judge (also in New Jersey) ruled advertising homosexuality as a disorder that could be cured violates the state’s Consumer Fraud Act. That case itself says a lot about the legal world’s perceptions of conversion therapy, or at least how some judges interpret the mainstream view.
The medical community has largely denounced conversion therapy and similar practices to cure homosexuals. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association officially declassified homosexuality as a disorder, indicating, “Both heterosexual behavior and homosexual behavior are normal aspects of human sexuality.”
There appear to be nonprofits on both sides of the debate, though those who support conversion therapy are far between and few on the ground. The APA stands firmly that “most” LGBTQ individuals “experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation” and that “there has been no scientifically adequate research to show that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation (sometimes called reparative or conversion therapy) is safe or effective.” Rather, these therapies may actually perpetuate the negative stereotypes LGBTQ individuals already have to contend with. Several other gay rights advocacy groups, like Jewish Queer Youth (which was founded by an unwilling participant of the therapy), Truth Wins Out, Basic Rights Oregon, and many more have come out batting against conversion therapy.
But then you have organizations like the National Association for Research Therapy of Homosexuality (which had its tax-exempt status revoked back in 2012 for repeatedly failing to file the proper paperwork), the Restored Hope Network, and Joel 2:25 International, who wear a 501(c)(3) badge with their support of conversion therapy. As the legal climate changes and evolves regarding conversion therapy, how will these nonprofits fare the weather? Will action be eventually taken against nonprofits that actively advertise conversion therapy?
And as for Alcorn’s parents, her mother went on CNN a few weeks after Leelah’s death, refusing to use her daughter’s preferred pronoun. “We don’t support that, religiously,” she told CNN. “But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.”—Shafaq Hasan