I was saddened to hear last month about the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager from Ohio. While the death of a minor is always tragic, there is one deeply disturbing aspect of her story in particular: Leelah’s parents forced her to undergo conversion therapy. Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, is the use of psychiatric counseling and sometimes electric and heat shock therapy to condition patients against homosexual and transgender thoughts and behaviors. In this type of therapy, practitioners aspire to restore their patients to cisgender heterosexual individuals by also imposing restrictions on their behaviour such as banning patients from attending the opera or forcing them to attend a single-sex churches and religious counseling. Often these are measures against harmful stereotypes of how people act and express their identity in an attempt to repair the masculinity or femininity of patient. Prior to her death, Leelah’s parents forced to her to take part in conversion therapy with a religious counselor. In addition, Leelah’s parents took her out of school for months as well as taking away her laptop and cellphone, isolating their daughter physically and socially in her greatest time of need. In a suicide note Leelah posted on Tumblr, she cited the therapy and her isolation from friends and technology as main factors that caused her depression and ultimate suicide. Forcing minors to participate in such methods is unethical and barbaric and should be illegal across the nation and there is a petition to the White House that hopes to bring this to fruition.
As someone who hopes to enter the healthcare profession, the use of conversion therapy — particularly on minors — offends me to my core. It is a disgusting use of power by healthcare professionals. I was unaware that conversion therapy was still practiced today. I had heard of cases from the 1960s and ‘70s, but I thought that we as a society had put such crude treatment methods behind us. Only California and New Jersey currently ban the use of conversion therapy. Recent surveys have shown that LGBT youth are a demographic already at higher risks for depression and suicide; to treat them using such barbaric methods seems to be a macabre self-fulfilling prophecy.
Research shows that conversion therapy has absolutely no medical benefits and actually puts the well-being of the patient at risk in several ways. It inflicts mental and emotional harm on patients by preaching self-hate and isolation until the patient is “cured.” The use of heat and electric shock is little more than glorified torture masquerading as medicine. Robert Spitzer, a psychiatrist who had championed the merits of conversion therapy in a 2001 study, retracted his statements in 2012 saying that the study was fatally flawed and that he owed the LGBT community an apology.
Conversion therapy pushes patients towards desperation so great that they would rather live the lie than be truthful about their identities and those who cannot find a tragic end because they feel that there is no way out — and for those that are minors there is no legal way out. Therapists who practice conversion therapy are not interested in acting in the patients’ best interest, but try and pigeonhole them into the confines of what they, and usually the patient’s parents, deem to be normal. Furthermore, because patients who are minors are under the jurisdiction of their parents, they are unable to refuse treatment and are thus forced to endure these brutal methods.
While several states have enacted implicit legislation against conversion therapy as a medical practice, the time has come to bring it to national attention. There is currently a petition to the White House to enact “Leelah’s law,” which would ban the use of conversion therapy on minors. President Obama’s acknowledgement of the LGBT community during his State of the Union address earlier this month is one indicator that LGBT issues are finally garnering legislative traction, but it is our prerogative to use our voices too.
Currently, what Leelah’s parents did is not wrong in the eyes of the law but this is an egregious flaw in the legal system. I highly doubt that Leelah’s parents had any intention of driving their child to commit suicide but their efforts to ‘help’ her through conversion therapy were misguided. The American Psychological Association has firmly denounced conversion therapy as a viable treatment option for gender identity and sexual orientation; all of our states should therefore outlaw conversion therapy.
I have been fortunate to have grown up in an area of the country where conversion therapy is neither widely used nor accepted but the same can not be said about all Wellesley students. Our students come from regions of the country, particularly the South and Midwest, where stories like Leelah’s would not be a sensational headline but rather a disturbing norm. According to a study conducted by Dr. Mark Hatzuenbuehler in 2011, Nebraska, Indiana and Mississippi are among states that have disproportionately high rates of LGBT teen suicide. Under current laws, what happened to Leelah could have very easily happened to one of our classmates. In consideration of gender-based campus discussions, it is obvious that The College has been making strides toward creating a more supportive environment for transgender students but we must do our part as well. Those who practice these means of so-called medicine have no regard for all human lives — just ones that are cisgender and heterosexual. We cannot sit idle while this continues to happen to minors in our country. As with most things, it will take time, but signing the petition is one of the first steps that we can take towards making a difference for our peers.
In her suicide note, Leelah wrote, “The only way that I will rest in peace is if one day, transgendered people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans with valid feelings and human rights. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people that commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say ‘that’s f—– up’ and fix it. Fix society.”
The nation has heard you, Leelah — so let’s do something about it.