While suicide is the second leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year olds, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) youth are at particular risk for suicide. According to The Trevor Project (www.thetrevorproject.org), LGB youth commit suicide at a rate that is four times higher than their peers, while questioning youth commit suicide three times as often as their heterosexual counterparts. The danger is even greater for transgender individuals. Over 50% of transgender youth have reported serious thoughts about suicide and 1 in 4 have attempted to kill themselves. The danger is enhanced for LBGTQ individuals who come from family backgrounds that reject non-heterosexuality and demand gender conformity. These individuals have a suicide risk that is more than eight times higher than their LGB peers who come from families that accept non-heterosexuality and gender non-conformity. Therefore, transgender individuals are at the highest risk of committing suicide.
In a case that made national and international headlines, Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen from Ohio, committed suicide on December 28, 2014. Leelah grew up in a very conservative Christian household in Kings Mill, Ohio. Kings Mill is about 30 miles Northeast of Cincinnati. Leelah requested that she be allowed to begin the transition process from male-to-female, but her family refused. Instead, they forced Leelah to go to conversion therapy, removed her from her high school and limited her access to social media. In short, they tried to arrange a living environment that was completely rejecting of non-heterosexuality and which demanded gender conformity. Leelah killed herself by walking into traffic on a busy Interstate highway, three days after Christmas, and arranged for her suicide note to be publicized after her death. Within hours of her death, her story made national and international headlines.
The stated aim of conversion therapy is to make non-heterosexual individuals deny their sexuality and only practice heterosexuality and gender conformity. Therapists proclaim that individuals chose to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender and since it is a choice, individuals can choose heterosexuality and gender conformity. Generally, conversion therapists are closely tied to religious organizations or churches and is based upon the belief that homosexuality and gender non-conformity is inherently sinful or evil.
Conversion therapy as a legitimate form of therapy is widely rejected by the medical and mental health communities. Fourteen years ago, the Surgeon General of the United States proclaimed that there was no scientific evidence that sexuality can be changed. All of the mainstream medical (i.e., American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Academy of Physician Assistants) and professional mental health associations (American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, American Counseling Association, American Psychological Association, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Social Workers) have denounced the practice of conversion therapy. In general, these associations have declared that not only is the practice of conversion therapy not based upon science, but it can actually cause harm to the individual receiving the “therapy.” Medical associations have declared conversion therapy to be in violation of the Hippocratic Oath because it can cause harm to the individual. In 1998 (17 years ago), the American Psychiatric Association stated that efforts to change an individual’s sexuality was in opposition to professional standards and in 2000 clarified that it was unethical to attempt to change sexual orientation.
The American Psychological Association, the professional association for psychologists and many master’s-level therapists, released guidelines in 2011 for working with LGBTQ clients. Therapists who are APA members and practice conversion therapy are in direct violation of these guidelines (http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/guidelines.aspx) and in violation of the code of ethics (http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx). Therefore, a member of the APA who participates in conversion therapy is in danger of sanctions or losing membership in their professional association.
Exodus International, a leading proponent of conversion therapy in the United States, discontinued activities supporting conversion therapy and closed in 2013, after operating since the mid-to-late 1970s. In 2012, the President of Exodus International issued an apology to conversion therapy participants for the harm the organization had caused them and stated unequivocally that conversion therapy does not work.
On December 9, 2015 in a 7-2 vote, the Cincinnati City Council voted to ban conversion therapy within the city for individuals under the age of 18. This bill was championed by Chris Seelbach, a City Council member who was himself subjected to conversion therapy. Cincinnati joined the District of Columbia, California, Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon in prohibiting conversion therapy. Protestors, including one City Council member, have vowed to overturn the ban and have threatened a lawsuit to end the ban. They portend that the conversion therapy ban will have a chilling effect on free speech and freedom of religion. They also argue that it takes away parental rights and the rights of LGBTQ youth who want to change their sexual orientation.
Free speech has constitutional limits. An individual is not allowed to yell “fire” in a crowded building when no such danger exists, because it has the potential to harm individuals. Think about that for a moment. It has the potential to harm individuals. Does conversion therapy have the potential to harm? Absolutely, it does.
There is also legal precedent for limits to freedom of religion. Since 1982, there have been more than five dozen criminal cases prosecuted against parents who did not provide their child with appropriate medical treatment. The government has an inherent interest in protecting the rights of children. I propose that the government has a strong interest in preventing conversion therapy, because not only is it not scientifically-based but also has been shown to be harmful in many cases. Causing harm to children is, by definition, child abuse. Therefore, parents who force their children to attend conversion therapy and therapists who practice conversion therapy are guilty of placing a child in a potentially harmful situation, which is tantamount to child abuse.
The Constitution provides for specific freedoms of individuals in the United States. However, by exercising those freedoms, one does not have the right to harm others. If adults wish to participate in conversion therapy, that is their choice. However, forcing a child who is already at tremendous risk of suicide due to LGBTQ status into a type of therapy that promotes the idea that the child is evil and must change is child abuse. Conversion therapy can be dressed up as a matter of freedom of speech or religious freedom or parental rights by those who believe in it, but that is not the truth.
The truth is that years of scientific research have not provided support for the usefulness of conversion therapy. The truth is that none of the medical or professional associations believe that conversion therapy is helpful. The truth is that even the leading Christian organization in this country that was dedicated to conversion therapy for more than 35 years has admitted wrongdoing. The truth is that conversion therapy is harmful. The truth is that parents who force their children into conversion therapy are committing child abuse. The truth is child abuse is not a parental right. The truth is the government has every right to stop child abuse.
Porter, N. (January 2016). Cincy bans conversion therapy. The Gay Word, 24(7), 30. http://thegayword.com/cincy-bans-conversion-therapy/