Conversion Therapy is Child Abuse

Every month, Andrea Houston writes about important issues that our queer community is, or should be, talking about. Part of new series of community voices we’re bringing into our blog to bring the conversation beyond the theatre and out into the city.

The devastating and entirely preventable suicide of Ohio trans teen Leelah Alcorn has become a rallying call to #FixSociety, but this will never happen until society universally calls conversion therapy what it actually is: child abuse.

Leelah was only 17 years old. Rejected by her religious parents who couldn’t see past their own ignorance and bigotry, she saw no other option than ending her short life by stepping in front of a truck on December 28.

Her death has sparked a vital worldwide discussion about trans visibility, acceptance, dignity and respect. In her suicide note – published on her Tumblr – Leelah put the blame squarely on the shoulders of her “good Christian” parents for rejecting, denying, and punishing her over her trans identity.

Her widely shared suicide note has since deleted by her parents, but is visible here.

Months before her suicide, Leelah wrote on Reddit that her parents forced her into conversion therapy. They did this through aggressive bullying and intimidation, by actually threatening her that she was going to hell. They then isolated her from her friends and possible supports that could have saved her life.

Leelah’s story is heart-breaking, but all too familiar – queer and trans youth raised in religious families and indoctrinated into churches that believe anything outside their rigid cisnormative and heteronormative boxes are sinful.

It is no longer acceptable to allow religious beliefs and archaic ideas about gender identity to harm our youth by “repairing” or “converting” them.

Then how is it possible that so-called “conversion therapy” is still legal in Canada, and actually encouraged in two of Toronto’s most prestigious institutions – Canadian Association for Mental Health (CAMH) and the University of Toronto?

Dr. Kenneth Zucker, who heads CAMH’s child and adolescent gender-identity clinic and is a professor at the University of Toronto, is well-known for forcing gender-variant children into therapy to conform them to his expectations for male and female behavior in children.

He is so reviled in the international trans community that some call Toronto “the global epicenter for oppression of sex and gender minorities”.

Trans people have been sounding the alarm for years about Zucker. The trouble is few of us were listening.

“Zucker and his clinic are the result of decades of pseudo-science, claiming that transgender people, especially transgender children, are mentally disordered and in need of reparative therapy,” said professor Lynn Conway, American computer scientist, electrical engineer, inventor, and transgender activist, in 2009.

But now there is hope that could provide change. In a joint statement released last week, the Canadian Association for Social Work Education (CASWE-ACFTS) and the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) have made their position clear with respect to gender diverse children and youth. The group states, “Gender identity is a core aspect of the self. Any professional’s attempt to alter the gender identity or expression of a young person to align with social norms is considered unethical and an abuse of power and authority,” while pointing directly at Zucker and his outdated theories.

The world and our collective understanding of gender identity and expression has rapidly changed around Zucker. It’s time for CAMH to confront this fact.

“Zucker believes that girls who say they are boys are not expressing their true identity. Rather, they are confused. Their mismatched gender identity is likely the result of a childhood experience or trauma, or a manifestation of some underlying psychiatric or family problem. The situation will only be made worse, he argues, if parents and teachers encourage it.”

This type of thinking is exactly what led to the death of Leelah Alcorn. She was not “confused” and she certainly didn’t need tone-deaf and retrograde psychoanalysis. All she really needed was love, which everyone denied her.

Leelah’s final wish is that her death “needs to mean something”. That’s why we must seek justice on her behalf. In the United States activists are pushing for “Leelah’s Law” which would recognize conversion therapy for the cruelty and torture that it is and ban its practice.

It’s a good start, but must we wait for the death of a Canadian youth before a similar law is proposed here?

Andrea Houston

Andrea Houston is a writer, advocate,  journalist, and co-founder of #ENDhatelaws. Her column appears semi-regularly, as Andrea is often hard at work at Queens Park these days. Follow her on twitter @dreahouston

Read all posts by Andrea Houston

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