I didn’t see the 1999 film But I’m a Cheerleader until a few years after it was released. I sat with a group of friends huddled around a television where we couldn’t stop laughing. Who could keep a straight face watching RuPaul play the part of an ex-gay who led others to heterosexuality at True Directions inpatient camp, a facility dedicated to conversion therapy and the twelve-step addiction model similar to Alcoholics Anonymous? Who didn’t laugh when Megan (played by Natasha Lyonne) outsmarted the True Directions staff to sneak moments alone with her new crush Graham (played by Clea DuVall)? We all cheered when Megan ultimately defied the teachings of True Directions and escaped with Graham at her side. Underneath this comedy, though, lurks a dark truth that I and so many others recognized: the harsh reality of what happens when a person is forced to change her sexual orientation or gender identity.
Conversion or reparative therapy, the buzz phrase floating around President Barack Obama for the last few months, isn’t nearly so light-hearted. It is the practice of “repairing” or “curing” a person’s sexuality or gender using methods that may ultimately be dangerous and harmful, both physically and emotionally. The American Psychiatric Association reports that there is no evidence that this practice is effective and stands behind their 1998 position statement which opposes “any psychiatric treatment, such as ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy, which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder, or based upon a prior assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation.” Additionally, when minors are exposed to these methods, the Human Rights Campaign reports that such therapies “can lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide.” Case in point: Ohio teen Leelah Alcorn.
Leelah Alcorn, a seventeen-year-old transgender woman, asked her parents if she could begin transition from male to female. Alcorn’s parents refused and instead sent her to Christian conversion therapy. Alcorn took her own life last December by stepping in front of a truck on a Cincinnati-area highway. She is named in the We the People petition that calls for a ban on conversion therapy for minors. In January, this petition garnered almost 121,000 signatures of support. All those signatures, however, were too late to save Leelah. Sadly, her story is all too familiar within the LGBTQ community.
Conversion therapy and its horrific sibling, ex-gay ministries, have often been linked together. Many ex-gay ministries support conversion therapy. Both believe that a person’s sexual orientation or gender can be “fixed” if only the individual works hard enough. The idea that God, or a higher power of your choosing, can simply take away an individual’s homosexual or transgender feelings if the individual prays enough, is the basis for many of these groups and practices. When all that hard praying and “therapy” doesn’t work, the blame is placed on the individual. The shame-filled message is clear: Something is wrong with me. Even God doesn’t love me. Self-loathing and self-blame become the norm in many of these types of therapies.
When I was eighteen, I began seeing a new therapist who encouraged me to attend a support group for homosexual, bisexual, transgender, and questioning individuals in my area. “You might meet some new friends,” this therapist encouraged me. “You might learn something about yourself.” I wasn’t completely sure of anything in my life at that point, but I was searching for others who were also searching. I expected this support group to be a supportive environment with a trained leader who held some sort of psychology degree. I expected camaraderie. I expected people who would be willing to listen.
Before the support group meeting, I was told I needed to meet with the leaders, a husband and wife. Neither were pastors or therapists or psychiatrists; the man worked in business and the woman considered the support group to be her job. This Christian couple, who I guessed to be in their late 50’s, led me into a softly lit room where they offered me hot tea and proceeded to interview me to engage in “dialogue” about my homosexual behavior. It felt very much like a forced confession and was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. They said long prayers for God to change me and for God to intervene; they didn’t want any more “damage” to be done. I have always been a private, introverted person, and I felt like I was suffocating under the judgment from this couple. Relief flooded me once the meeting began and other participants arrived. I needed to get out from under the scrutiny and laser-like focus of the two leaders. What I found in the group, however, was a room full of men ranging in age from 20-70. These men “confessed” to feelings of desire for other men and prayed for those feelings to stop. I knew this group wouldn’t work for me. I couldn’t wait for the meeting to end and never returned.
I have never been able to forget it, however, and my experience with the “support group” became the inspiration for my first thriller novel, Crossed.
I began researching ex-gay ministries and conversion therapy in 2006 while I was in graduate school. I learned that the Midwest was one of the hotbeds for these groups in the 1980s and 1990s, and the support group I went to was loosely associated with an international organization that is now defunct, Exodus. I needed a lot more than my personal experience with the group in order to write Crossed, so I conducted interviews with past members of ex-gay ministries. I learned that there are many LGBTQ people across the country that have at one point or another in their lives participated in conversion therapy or ex-gay ministries, though it is rarely discussed. Because of this silence around the topic, I found that there are many, regardless of their sexuality or gender, who are not familiar with these groups and what they do. Ex-gay ministries and conversion therapy have, unfortunately, become a part of LGBTQ history. I want my novel and its characters to express the dangers of such practices. It is my hope that when more voices contribute to the fight, these types of organizations and therapies will end and the LGBTQ suicide rate will drop.
Leelah Alcorn’s suicide was the whisper that raised voices for change inside the American political scene. Congressional action is needed for the ban to become national; however, each state has the power to ban the practice. Currently only California, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia have done so. Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, Washington, New York, Wisconsin, and others have either voted down the ban or it has been withdrawn. President Obama, however, publicly supports the petition and has called for a national ban to be called Leelah’s Law in honor of Alcorn.
In June, I watched with great interest as the trial of Ferguson v. JONAH played out. In this first of its kind case, three gay men and two of their mothers filed suit against one organization that offers ex-gay and conversion therapies, Jews Offering Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) for violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. JONAH, according to the plaintiffs and the Southern Poverty Law Center, failed to provide the services they promised: they did not alter the three men’s sexual orientation. In addition, the plaintiffs claimed to have suffered emotional distress as a result of JONAH’s services. In the landmark victory JONAH was found to be unconscionable and fraudulent; they were ordered to pay the victims over $72,000 to return fees for their program and to cover the mental health counseling they needed after their time in JONAH. This landside decision was a strong affirmation to me and all people who have experienced the negative effects of conversion therapy and ex-gay ministries. Not only has the court delivered an empowering message to the LGBTQ community, but it has also given us a strong indication of what’s on the horizon when more states vote to support the ban against the use of conversion therapy for minors.
It has been sixteen years since the writer Brian Wayne Peterson and director Jamie Babbit brought But I’m a Cheerleader to the silver screen. Sixteen years and the practices of conversion therapy are still going strong in segments of our country. It has been seven months since Leelah Alcorn took her own life, writing in her suicide note: “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights.” In honor of Leelah and so many others that have gone before her, we need the current political whisper to become nothing short of a roar for change.
*If you are a victim of conversion therapy, the Southern Law Poverty Center would like to hear your story. Please visit http://www.splcenter.org/conversion-therapy to learn more about the damages of conversion therapy and to record your own experience.
American Psychiatric Association. “LGBT: Sexual Orientation.” American Psychiatric
Association. 2015. Web. 22 May 2015.
Capehart, Jonathan. “Obama Comes Out Against ‘Conversion Therapy’ to support ‘Leelah’s
Law.’ Washington Post. April 10, 2015. Web. 22 May 2015.
Hartmann, Margaret. “Where the States Stand in the Fight to Ban Gay Conversion Therapy.”
New York Magazine. April 9, 2015. Web. 22 May 2015.
Human Rights Campaign. “The Lies and Dangers of Efforts to Change Sexual Orientation or
Gender Identity.” Resources. The Human Rights Campaign. Web. 22 May 2015.
Wetzstein, Cheryl. “Gay Conversion Therapy Faces a Legal Fight in New Jersey Case.” The
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