This past winter, the tragic suicide of Leelah Alcorn made national headlines and caused an outcry among the LGBTQ community about the rights of teens to live as their authentic selves. Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl, committed suicide on December 28, 2014, leaving behind a suicide note on the social media site Tumblr, where she spoke about the role of conversion therapy and her parents’ denial of her gender identity as the major factors that played into her decision to end her own life. Leelah’s suicide note went viral online and sparked a national debate about conversion therapy for minors. A national petition was started to create Leelah’s Law, a law banning conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors, and was signed by over 120,000 people. President Obama expressed his support for this type of legislation being passed at the state level.
Conversion therapy, also called reparative therapy, is the practice by clergy, mental health counselors, psychologists, or other clinicians aimed at changing the sexual orientation or gender identity of a person to a straight or cisgender identity. Barbaric methods such as electric shock stimulation and inducing nausea, vomiting, or paralysis while showing the patient homoerotic images may be used to create aversion to same-sex attraction and alternative gender expression. This is a tremendously damaging practice and contributes to higher suicide rates among LGBTQ youth, who are two to four times as likely to attempt suicide as their straight, cisgender peers.
The practice has been condemned by every major mainstream mental health organization, including The American Psychiatric Association, The American Psychological Association, The Pan American Health Organization, and The American Association of Pediatrics.
In Rhode Island, there are efforts both in the state legislature and among the mental health community to see this practice banned statewide. A task force of students in the Masters of Social Work program at Rhode Island College worked together with State Senator Donna Nesselbush to draft and submit a bill to the State Senate this past session, and while it was well-received, it was not passed, and will be resubmitted in January 2016. I recently sat down with two of the bill’s advocates to discuss it and find out how we in the local community can help with this issue.
Jacquelyn Scavone and Elliott Paxton Buelter are both dedicated activists for LGBTQ causes as well as graduate students of social work at RIC. They, along with their peers in the graduate program and select local lawmakers, have been working tirelessly to see this bill become law in Rhode Island. It is an issue close to their hearts: as clinicians, they understand just how damaging this practice is. It’s an ineffective technique that encourages the untruth that sexual orientation and gender identity are choices and can be changed.
Scavone and Buelter passionately explained to me that, through investigation, they were able to obtain the names of a handful of clinicians who are still practicing these therapies on our GLBTQ youth, causing them lifelong harm and undermining the acceptance they may find outside of their home environments. Without protections like Leelah’s Law in place, if parents decide their teen is better off straight or cisgender and send that child to a reparative therapist, the minor has no rights to opt out, short of emancipation. Family support is a huge factor for these affected youths and a lack thereof results in much higher rates of suicide and suicide attempts, risky sexual behavior, drug use, depression, self-blame, and self-hatred. This directly hurts the youngest members of our community and there is a way to help.
How You Can Help
You can help further this bill and see it become law by calling your Rhode Island State Senator and State Representative to express support for the bill to prevent conversion therapy for minors. Organizers are calling for supporters to show up and take a stand when the bill is considered this year. If you would like to help, you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org requesting information and you will be added to the email list to receive updates.
We are often unsure of how to help the unsupported LGBTQ teens and kids we know are hurting. This is a way to help them, and I encourage you to contribute your voice to this effort.