Homosexuality was once considered a mental illness, along with schizophrenia and borderline personality syndrome. However, as more and more people came out of the closet, mental health specialists generally dismiss sexual orientation as a disorder. But while many experts consider therapy to “cure” homosexuality to be a fruitless and unnecessary endeavor, a controversial medical approach used in prior decades has slowly begun to resurface.
Conversion therapy is a technique practiced by few psychologists and psychiatrists, but also one that has resulted in lawsuits and even suicide. Conversion is the act of transitioning a homosexual or, in recent years, transgender individual back to a “normal” heterosexual mindset.
The therapy technique came under further scrutiny after Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl from Ohio, committed suicide by walking in front of a moving truck in December. Alcorn, who was born as Joshua, had said she was undergoing conversion therapy at the request of her parents.
The teenager’s public act of self-harm — which was preceded by social media posts describing her plight — resulted in petitions and public discussions of conversion therapy as it relates to young people, especially who assume a transgender identity. More than 117,000 people have signed onto a petition for President Obama to enact Leelah’s Law — legislation that would ban all conversion therapy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
“‘Conversion therapies’ have been documented to cause great harms and, in this case, Leelah’s death,” the petition reads. “Therapists that engage in the attempt to brainwash or reverse any child’s gender identity or sexual orientation are seriously unethical and legislation is needed to end such practices that are resulting in LGBTQ+ deaths.”
Though the petition has sparked a viral conversation, some LGBTQ community leaders say the legislation focuses on the wrong problem.
“Conversion therapy is considered completely unacceptable for homosexual children and adults,” said Pauline Park, a prominent transgender activist and acting executive director and president of the board of the Queens Pride House in Jackson Heights. “However, for the transgender community, it’s a bit more complicated.”
According to Park, the complexity becomes a factor with transgender children because the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, still lists gender identity disorder as a genuine mental disability, as it has since 1974.
Park calls the GID the gateway diagnosis to accessing hormone replacement therapy — medication that allows people to develop some of the physical traits consistent with the gender they identify with.
“Even though the language makes it seem as though it allows transgender people to access hormones, the DSM still lists it as a mental illness,” Park said. “Simply by being transgender means you have a mental illness.”
Therefore, even if conversion therapy was a banned practice in the United States, GID would still be in the psychiatric manual as a diagnosable disorder.
Park admits her opinion isn’t a popular one, even within the transgender community. But more and more legislation is being introduced at multiple levels of government — state Sens. Mike Gianaris (D-Astoria), Tony Avella (D-Bayside), Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst), Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) and others co-sponsored legislation last year that would designate engaging in sexual orientation change efforts by mental healthcare professionals upon patients under 18 years of age as professional misconduct.
“It’s a tricky thing to ban conversion therapy,” Park said. “For the gay community, it’s very straightforward, but to ban it for the transgender community isn’t exactly straightforward. This bill could actually criminalize professional conduct, because, it’s important to remember, it’s still listed as a mental illness.”
Park maintains the process of removing conversion therapy as well as accepting homosexuality as a natural and normal condition is purely a social one.
“But for the trans community, the psychiatrist acts as a gatekeeper,” she said. “To ban conversion therapy, you’d have to remove the role of the psychiatrist, because it would criminalize doctors working along the lines of the DSM. You can help them transition with hormones, but can’t convince them they’re not transgender. It doesn’t make much sense.”
The DSM has shown no immediate sign of removing GID from its list of mental disorders, but as suicide, drug use and homelessness has skyrocketed in the transgender community, supporters of the bills maintain it is imperative to protect young people as soon as possible, even if it means a potential loophole, or violation of the DSM guidelines.
“I think at the end of the day, there is this need to construct a classical transition journey and make everyone the same and identify as the same,” Park said. “There are many different ways people transition. Some use hormones and surgery, some never do because they don’t want to. Some may say a crossdresser just likes to look like a woman, but doesn’t actually want to be a woman. It’s not a cookie-cutter answer, which makes it difficult for most people to process. They want to create a line for when it’s OK and when it’s a disease, which becomes quite dangerous.”
Park, who runs a transgender support group at Queens Pride House, said the experiences of the transgender community are personal ones. However, she recognizes and advocates the need for change.
“You just need to look at it from a different angle,” Park said.