“Being lesbian, gay, or bisexual is not a disease, disorder, illness, deficiency, or shortcoming.”
That’s the affirming statement at the outset of the first full section of a recently passed Illinois law banning so-called conversion therapy for minors. These services, which attempt to turn queer people into heterosexuals, have historically ranged from one-on-one counseling to shock and aversion therapy, hypnosis, and even “corrective” rape. Conversion therapy has been widely discredited and deemed abusive, because it’s based on the mistaken belief that queerness is an undesirable life choice.
Unfortunately, for some, the veracity of queer identity remains in dispute. The Youth Mental Health Protection Act, which went into effect on New Year’s Day, now faces a legal challenge from a group of Illinois pastors. In a lawsuit filed in U.S. district court August 11, Pastors Protecting Youth argued that the law “unconstitutionally restricts a young person’s right to make personal choices regarding his or her own choice of sexual identity” as well as the pastors’ rights of free speech and exercise of religion. They also claim to represent young people who may want to actively change their sexual orientation.
The pastors want the court to declare them exempt from legal penalties, including those that punish consumer fraud. They deserve no such protection for endangering the lives of queer young people in Illinois.
More than two dozen national medical and mental health organizations—including the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and the National Association of Social Workers—have taken positions against the practice of conversion therapy. Such efforts, they note, “have serious potential to harm young people because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal or moral failure.”
As a young queer person who was raised Christian, I know that feeling all too well.
During my adolescence and early teenage years, images of gays and lesbians became increasingly visible. Ellen DeGeneres declared, “Yes, I’m gay” on an iconic 1997 Time magazine cover. Shows like Will and Grace hit the airwaves. And the now-settled issue of same-sex marriage entered the fray. I knew my inner truth, yet the backlash kept me from sharing my full, authentic self for years. Church communities that I’d long considered a refuge suddenly became toxic and suffocating.
At the time, I remember sinking into the pews as ministers climbed into pulpits and denounced the news that Massachusetts could become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. One Sunday afternoon, a visiting pastor at my church exhorted, “If God could destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, what’s stopping him from killing off all these fags and homosexuals today?” A few other church members shouted “Amen!”
I hid my emotions as best as I could, until I collapsed into my pillow that evening, silently weeping, praying fervently to not be gay anymore. I believed the ministers who said that prayer could cure “homosexual urges,” and that without repenting, I’d be bound for hell.
Several weeks later, alone at home, I attempted suicide. It was a shoddy and failed attempt. And for that failure, I’m grateful.
Unfortunately, stories like mine are much too common. According to research published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2009, lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens who reported high levels of family rejection—including admission to conversion therapy—were more than eight times more likely to attempt suicide, nearly six times more likely to report high levels of depression, and more than three times more likely to use illegal drugs or have unprotected sexual intercourse.
—Eliel Cruz, executive director of Faith in America
And beyond this, conversion therapy simply doesn’t work. In March, the World Psychiatric Association, the largest international body of psychiatrists, announced that there is no sound scientific evidence that innate sexual orientation can be changed. “The provision of any intervention to ‘treat’ something that is not a disorder is wholly unethical,” the organization declared.
So, to be clear, a fringe group of Illinois pastors believes it’s within their rights to advertise and promote services that don’t work, that rely upon false pretenses, and that could cause immense harm to clients. That’s the very definition of consumer fraud—and their status as clergy shouldn’t allow them to potentially profit from a bold-faced lie that also doubles as theological violence.
“Conversion therapy is an act of violence against LGBT persons, especially LGBT youth . . . this is not about religious freedom,” says Eliel Cruz, executive director of Faith in America, a group that aims to educate the public about the harm religious bigotry does to queer youth. “Sexual orientation is natural and, as scripture says, we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made.’ These pastors are trying to fit their outdated theology into the narratives of LGBT people.”
On the whole, LGBT young people have no protections from these predatory practices. Only Illinois, California, Vermont, Oregon, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., have laws that ban conversion therapy for minors. According to the Movement Advancement Project, that leaves 76 percent of the LGBT population living in states without such measures.
But fortunately, in other states with conversion therapy bans, similar legal challenges have failed. In a press release, Equality Illinois CEO Brian Johnson said, “Courts have unanimously rejected legal challenges to these laws, recognizing that the state has a duty to regulate medical and mental health providers to protect patients from harmful and fraudulent treatments.”
Indeed, young people who may struggle with understanding their sexuality should feel empowered to seek counseling if they so desire. The Youth Mental Health Protection Act doesn’t prevent them from processing these issues in a therapeutic setting. It does, however, hold mental health providers and other counselors accountable for potentially endangering them with the message that queer sexuality is inherently deficient and must be changed.
Young queer people in Illinois deserve that protection—and all the love and safety we can offer them. v
If you are dealing with thoughts of suicide, you are not alone. You can reach the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.