At around 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, December 28th, 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn stepped in front of a semi-trailer on Interstate 71 near her Kings Mill, Ohio home, bringing an end to her young life. Soon after, a pre-scheduled note was published to the teen’s Tumblr account, outlining that it was her parents’ inability to accept that she was transgender that ultimately drove her to commit suicide.
According to Alcorn’s note, after coming out to her parents as transgender at age 14, she was forced to enter a Christian reparative therapy program designed to reorient Alcorn from her identity as a straight, transgender girl, to that of a “straight, Christian boy.” For years, theses programs — designed to alter one’s sexual orientation or gender identity — have been considered highly controversial, often pseudo-science-based exercises in futility, and major medical authorities like the American Psychological Association and the North American branch of the World Health Organization have issued warnings against continued use.
“Since homosexuality is not a disorder or a disease, it does not require a cure,” Pan American Health Organization Director Dr. Mirta Roses Periago said in a 2012 memo. “There is no medical indication for changing sexul orientation.” Dr. Periago went on to note that these types of therapies symbolize “a serious threat to the health and well-being — even the lives — of affected people.”
For years, proponents of the controversial practice pointed to a 2001 study by Dr. Robert Spitzer, titled, “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation?” The study claimed to have found 200 participants who had shifted their sexual orientation from gay to straight, offering evidence of reparative therapy’s potential for success. The movement’s champions — frequently made up of right-wing and religious organizations — touted the study whenever questions over the efficacy of these practices arose. Groups like the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, Focus on the Family, and the somewhat misleadingly-named American College of Pediatricians, have made the 2001 Spitzer study the centerpiece in their arguments in favor of conversion therapy.
In 2012, Spitzer issued a retraction,writing, “I was quite wrong in the conclusions that I made from this study. The study does not provide evidence, really, that gays can change. And that’s quite an admission on my part.” He asked proponents of reparative therapy to stop using his 2001 study as evidence of the practice’s potential for success, and he apologized to LGBT organizations for “making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy,” and stating that he’d like to “apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believe that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some ‘highly motivated’ individuals.”
Still, despite a complete lack of evidence supporting the idea that someone can change their sexual orientation or gender identity as the result of therapy, a number of doctors across the country have continued making use of these methods, with clientele frequently coming in the form of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender children who are forced into these programs by their parents.
Last month, the District of Columbia Council voted unanimously to ban conversion therapy, joining California and New Jersey as the only locations within the U.S. to made the practice illegal. Attempts to ban the practice have failed in other states, most recently when advocates within the Maryland state assembly were unsuccessful in their efforts to pass a bill outlawing it. While the safety of patients and concern that exposure to conversion therapy may result in self-harm have been frequently used in arguments against the therapy, documented incidents have remained relatively rare; that is, until Leelah Alcorn published her heartwrenching suicide note and indictment of the practice.
In the days since her death, there has been a renewed effort among advocates across the nation to put an end to reparative practices. In just over 2 days, a petition to enact a “Leelah’s Law” nationwide ban on conversion therapy has garnered more than 200,000 signatures. With Republicans taking control of both the House and Senate later this month, however, it appears extremely unlikely that such a bill would make it out of committee, let alone make its way to the President’s desk.
There are certain things that simply cannot be changed about a person, their gender identity and sexual orientation, among them. Even if Congress never enacts “Leelah’s Law,” we should continue efforts to inform parents and protect children from the dangerous outcome Alcorn faced. While one’s parental skills can be measured in a wide variety of ways, the core component of what makes a good parent is the desire to ensure the health and well-being of one’s child. By placing them into scientifically-bankrupt therapeutic programs, parents display a blatant disregard for their child’s safety. In the case of Alcorn, it seems as though her parents would rather have a dead son than a living daughter. That, no matter your religious or social views on LGBT issues, is not the mark of a good parent.