We always fear what we don’t understand. They took their fear too far, and claimed God was on their side.
“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. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something….Fix society. Please.”
Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old trans* girl, wrote these tragically poignant words just before stepping in front of a 18-wheel tractor trailer on December 28, 2014 at 2:20 a.m. as she walked along the southbound lanes of I-71 near her home in Kings Mill, Ohio. Also in her suicide note, she outlined her troubled relationship with her conservative Christian parents who would not accept or support her trans* identity claiming their religious beliefs as justification. They sent her to a so-called “Christian therapist” who refused to grant her permission to undergo gender confirmation medical procedures.
This reminds us of what Gordon Allport wrote in 1954 in his pioneering book, The Nature of Prejudice:
“The role of religion is paradoxical. It makes and unmakes prejudice. While the creeds of the great religions are universalistic, all stressing brotherhood (sic), the practices of these creeds are frequently divisive and brutal.”
Living on a conservative Christian mission in Florida with his Southern Baptist minister parents, Samuel Brinton lied about his emerging feeling for other boys as a pre-teen because he feared his parents’ reactions. After acknowledging that he was attracted to his best friend Dale when he was 12, Samuel’s father told him he had AIDS, and repeatedly punched, burned, electroshocked, and inserted needles into his fingers to “cure” him. Eventually, Samuel felt forced to lie by telling his parents that he was actually heterosexual.
His parents sent him to a “religious therapist” who told Samuel that “I want you to know that you’re gay, and all gay people have AIDS,” and then placed pictures of men dying of AIDS before him. However, soon after arriving at Kansas State University, Samuel “came out” to his parents again, who told him he would not be welcomed home and threatened him if he returned. But he turned his life around. Following graduation, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in 2010, Samuel Brinton was chosen as the top LGBT activist in the U.S. by Campus Pride, a national organization working for the rights of LGBT college and university students.
At age 14, Lyn Duff came out to her parents as lesbian. Not being able to accept this revelation, Lyn’s mother whisked her immediately and involuntarily to Rivendell Psychiatric Center in West Jordon, Utah where she was forced to undergo so-called “conversion therapy” to cure her from what doctors at the facility termed “gender identity disorder” and “clinical depression.” Though Rivendell was not officially aligned with the Church of Latter Day Saints, Lyn remembers that on numerous occasions throughout her six-month incarceration, Mormon missionaries visited her, and her “therapy” was highly religious in tone.
This so-called “conversion therapy” amounted to “aversion” techniques including watching women same-sex pornography while being forced to smell ammonia, being subjected to hypnosis, psychotropic drugs, and solitary confinement. Staff also imposed so-called “behavior modification” by requiring Lyn to wear dresses, and forced punishments of cutting the lawn with a small pair of scissors and scrubbing floors with a toothbrush. After being locked up for 168 days, Lyn somehow escaped Rivendell, and went to San Francisco where she lived on the streets and in safe houses.
She eventually connected with a local journalist, an attorney, Legal Services for Children, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and she fought and won in the courts a legal emancipation from her mother. A lesbian couple adopted her when was 15, and today Lyn Duff serves as a successful activist and journalist for the Pacific News Service and for KPFA radio’s Flashpoints.
Many of the more extreme Christian Right groups and religious ministries push what they refer to as “Christian therapy” for the purpose of, as they phrase it, removing people from the “deviant homosexual lifestyle.” It is important that parents, social workers, and other mental health professionals know that these so-called “therapies” go by such names as the X-Gay religious ministries, Exodus International, Homosexual Anonymous (a cynical co-optation of 12-Step program method of recovery), PFOX (Parents, Families, and Friends of X-Gays and Lesbians (an obvious rip-off of the LGBT allies support network PFLAG — Parents, Families, and Friends of Gays and Lesbians), and so-called “conversion therapy” (a.k.a. “reparative” and “reorientation” therapy), which promise conversion to heterosexuality if the person has the requisite motivation to change.
These cruel, tyrannical, and bogus “therapies” have been harshly condemned by reputable psychiatric organizations. For example, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution, August 14, 1997, which read in part:
“Whereas societal ignorance and prejudice about same-gender sexual orientation put some gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning individuals at risk for presenting for ‘conversion’ treatment due to family or social coercion and/or lack of information…. Whereas some mental health professionals advocate treatments of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people based on the premise that homosexuality is a mental disorder…. Therefore be it resolved that the American Psychological Association opposes portrayals of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth and adults as mentally ill due to their sexual orientation and supports the dissemination of accurate information about sexual orientation, and mental health, and appropriate interventions in order to counteract bias that is based in ignorance or unfounded beliefs about sexual orientation.”
In addition, the APA, in 2008, passed a resolution,
“Transgender, Gender Identity, & Gender Expression” opposing “all public and private discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived gender identity and expression and urges the repeal of discriminatory laws and policies.”
California in August 2012 became the first state, followed soon after by New Jersey, to outlaw the practice of “conversion therapies” for people under the age of 18 after reviewing reports of the destructive nature of these alleged therapies. A number of other states are currently considering similar legislation.
While his state was holding hearings on the issue, a young man testified in front of the New Jersey Senate Health Committee on March 18, 2013:
My name is Jacob Rudolph,
I am an LGBT teen.
I am not broken.
I am not confused.
I do not need to be fixed.
Leelah Alcorn, Jacob Rudolph, Lyn Duff, Samuel Brinton, and many other young people have cut to the very heart of the issue by showing us all that the problem does not reside within those of us whose sexuality and gender identity and expression differs from the majority, but rather, rests within a society, including a (hopefully) shrinking minority of religious denominations that adhere to a circumscribed view of human diversity.
Returning to Gordon Allport’s quote referring to the paradoxical role of religion to make and unmask prejudice, likewise, religious texts — between disparate religions and between denominations of the same religion, as well as within a single text — on close examination, stand paradoxically and even contradictory. Moreover, individuals and entire denominations often interpret identical scriptural passages very differently, and they also emphasize and adhere to some readings while disregarding and even dismissing others. One particular passage seems to stand out in the Christian Bible when we attempt to answer the question, “Where do we go from here to ensure a just and equitable worldview?” I suggest the following:
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” (James 2: 8-9)
We MUST make real Leelah Alcorn’s wish to “Fix society. Please.”
For a comprehensive investigation, see: Conservative Christian Beliefs and Sexual Orientation in Social Work: Privilege, Oppression, and the Pursuit of Human Rights, edited by Adrienne B. Dessel and Rebecca M. Bolen, Council on Social Work Education, 2014.
We talk about the intersectionality of social issues in popular culture all the time. Want more stories like this? Sign up for our daily or weekly newsletter here.Photo: Flickr/ Noe Carillo