Conversation Therapy - What it is Like to Experience the Therapy and the Effort to Ban it
Trigger Warning: Suicide
Following the tragic 2014 death of Leelah Alcorn, a Kings Mills teenager who took her own life after being forced to undergo conversion therapy, a controversial form of psychological treatment aimed to change a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual and or a person’s gender identity from transgender to cisgender, pro-LGBT Ohio legislators and advocacy groups alike felt like they needed to work towards ending the practice.
And so they did.
A piece of legislation to ban the practice of conversion therapy on individuals under the age of 18 in Ohio was introduced in February 2015 in the Ohio Senate, and in the Ohio House in June 2015. Both bills were written just a couple months after Leelah Alcorn’s death. SB-74 and HB-247 to date are still sitting in committees and are not likely to be brought to a vote before the 131st General Assembly session ends in December 2016.
Rep. Denise Driehaus, D-Clifton Heights, who wrote and sponsored HB-247, believes this bill would protect young LGBT children and their families.
“This bill will keep our children safe and strengthen families, by allowing them to make informed decisions based on evidence-based, therapeutic practices,” Driehaus said.
Her legislative colleague and co-sponsor of HB-247, Debbie Phillips, also gave a strong message of support for LGBT children.
“No child should be forced to change who they are or how they feel. Instead, they should be given the tools to understand their emotional and psychological well-being,” Phillips said. “It is time to bring Ohio into the 21st century by ending practices that falsely portray sexuality and gender orientation as mental illnesses.”
HB-247 has been dubbed “Leelah’s Law” for Alcorn. The proposal makes it possible that those who practice conversion therapy could potentially have their professional license suspended or revoked.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has called for similar legislation on a federal level. California, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont and the District of Columbia have passed laws to prevent licensed health providers from offering conversion therapy, and more than 20 other states have introduced the same type of legislation.
For Kim Welter, Deputy Director of Equality Ohio, it became a personal battle following Alcorn’s death. Legislative efforts to end conversion therapy showed mixed results, so she looked for other options.
“After Leelah's suicide, I contacted the Executive Director of NASW Ohio and the Psychological Association about what we could do to minimize conversion therapy besides legislation,” Welter said. “It became very personal here [in Ohio].”
Legislation to outlaw conversion therapy would only affect licensed professionals that conduct therapy sessions. The First Amendment prohibits any further legislation from banning religious groups from practicing the method of therapy.
“I think that ultimately, conversion therapy by licensed professionals will be banned,” Welter said. “It is going to be a much more difficult road to go down with the religious folks.”
The Vindicator spoke to a transgender male who has undergone conversion therapy in the United States and wishes to remain anonymous. They recall growing up while undergoing the therapy a time of great confusion.
“I was so in denial that I couldn’t even process what they were trying to remove from me,” the anonymous source said. “I was a young adult. Kids definitely don’t have the ability to separate everything and think it through for themselves.”
The experience was so confusing for them that they soon began to shut people as well as their faith out of their lives.
“I pushed God and my family and friends away for about seven years because I was worried if they got close they'd see who I really was,” the anonymous source said. “I rejected them so they couldn’t reject me.”
While doing work with the now-defunct Teen Mania Ministry, the anonymous source also underwent conversion therapy at the hands of their ministry group, even recalling a time when the ministry tried to use prayer rituals to “get rid of the evil spirits in them.”
“They took me into a room and sat me in a chair while laying hands on me. They held me down to the chair and prayed, trying to cast out things I didn’t even know about,” the anonymous source said. “I was afraid but I just sat there, praying to myself and hoping that it would end and I could leave. They kept telling me to spit my bad spirits out into a trash can like somehow I had bad spirits in me.”
Up north in Canada, conversion therapy for individuals under the age of 18 was recently outlawed in the province of Ontario. Cheri DiNovo, the bill’s author, wrote on Facebook shortly after its passing that “This was in honour of #LeelahAlcorn.”
The Vindicator spoke to a transgender female living in the Ontario area who underwent conversion therapy as a young teenager and wishes to remain anonymous.
“There was a program in Toronto for youth to be analyzed for gender dysphoria and once they saw you fit enough they could start you on HRT (hormone replacement therapy),” the anonymous source said. “However, a good portion of the staff believed gender dysphoria was like ‘something is just mentally wrong with them and if they could be converted it wouldn’t be an issue.’”
The sessions that this individual underwent were done in the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s controversial Child, Youth and Family Gender Identity Clinic. The head of the Clinic was Dr. Kenneth Zucker, who served as Psychologist-in-Chief. As their sessions with Zucker progressed, it became clear that the therapy was a lost cause for them in their attempts to acquire the necessary treatment to transition.
“My sessions with this doctor were basically him screening me to see if I was ‘save able,’” the anonymous source said. “On my last session, I was to be cleared for HRT. I told him I was in ‘boy mode’ at work for my own personal safety and he took me out of the program and told me I was a confused gay man.” The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has since ceased operations on its 40-year-old Child, Youth and Family Gender Identity Clinic. Zucker was relieved of his duties at the Clinic in December 2015.
Conversion therapy methods were especially popular in the late 20th century. Back when homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder, aversion therapy was used to treat homosexual patients, even going as far as using electroshock therapy and lobotomies to quell homosexual behavior.
The Vindicator spoke to a transgender female who underwent conversion therapy in the Netherlands during the 1970s as a young adult and wishes to remain anonymous.
“I believe the therapy they gave me was for homosexuality, not for gender dysphoria,” the anonymous source said. “I don’t think they understood the two were different.”
The therapy sessions made them repress all thoughts of wanting to be female, even as they experienced a large amount of confusion in their life.
“With the therapy, I completely shut out my awareness of wanting to be feminine and tried to convince myself that I was a man,” the anonymous source said. “This was largely motivated by my desire to be ‘cured’ and avoid any further attempts at electroshock therapy.”
They could recall being given various drugs and methods of convincing to try to persuade them that they were a straight male.
“I had many sessions of counseling and was given drugs that made me feel anxiety and nausea while being questioned,” the anonymous source said. “They also used hypnosis to implant suggestions into my head.”
The doctors at the clinic also suggested that they take up habits such as drinking and smoking in order to calm down and not take things so seriously.
“I remember they suggested I should not be so serious, that I should ‘chill out’ and take up smoking and drinking,” the anonymous source said. “I really did not want to and in desperation I made up the excuse that I did not know how to smoke.”
In the next session, the head of the clinic in which they were receiving the treatment came in and demonstrated to them how to smoke with a cigar.
“The head of the department [at the clinic] came in on my next session and said, ‘Where is this poof who needs to be shown how to smoke?’” The anonymous source said. “He then demonstrated how to inhale with a big fat cigar.”
This was a turning point for them, as they dove into a lot of bad habits as a result of the therapy.
“By this time, I was having serious internalized homophobia and I was despising myself,” the anonymous source said. “I took up smoking and drinking and that progressed to marijuana as a means of trying to feel better. I soon dropped out of university, unable to focus on my study.”
After dropping out of university, they left the Netherlands. They underwent the therapy in 1977 and did not fully transition to female until 2014 as a result.
“Conversion therapy resulted in me being very unhappy and trying to live a lie,” the anonymous source said. “It wasn’t until I recovered from a suicide attempt that I decided my life would not be a continuation of what had gone on before.”