By Sam Ames, #BornPerfect Campaign Coordinator & Staff Attorney
Today, on National Coming Out Day, countless lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people around the world will find the courage, through one another, to tell the world who they really are. But this day is more than a just a celebration of the freedom to be ourselves. It commemorates the 1987 National March on Washington, a grass roots protest against the Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick upholding criminal sodomy laws, and the Reagan administration’s refusal to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic. At a time when our nation’s leaders were trying to stigmatize us out of existence, silence wasn’t just death. Speaking was survival.
Today, much of the landscape is markedly different. In the United States, we celebrated two major marriage equality victories this week alone, and, in more and more communities, coming out is becoming an accepted rite of passage for LGBTQ adolescents. Sadly, however, the privilege of authenticity is neither secure nor universal. Only 16 years ago tomorrow, Matthew Shepard was murdered for being openly gay. For many queer youth, the risk of violence and the struggle to survive are still daily realities. This National Coming Out Day, thousands of kids will come out only to face an impossible choice: try their luck on the streets or change the unchangeable.
As far as equal rights have come in the last few years, up to a third of LGBTQ people are still subjected to conversion therapy, among the most damaging forms of psychological abuse a person can endure. Conversion therapy is a range of dangerous and discredited practices aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Based on the false premise that being LGBTQ is a mental illness that can and should be cured, it can include everything from talk therapy to exorcisms to “orgasmic reconditioning.” Shockingly, it is still legal for licensed therapists to practice conversion therapy on children in 48 states. The result is lifelong damage that can include depression, substance abuse, and even suicide.
The conversion therapy industry preys on the confusion and anxiety of families who don’t know what to do when they discover that their child is LGBTQ. With few exceptions, parents don’t subject their children to conversion therapy out of hate or malice. Tragically, they are almost always motivated by love and concern for their children’s well-being and have no idea what they are risking. When Jane Shurka’s son, Mathew, came out, she and her husband worried that his future would be bleak. A conversion therapist told them he could turn Mathew straight in six weeks. Over the next five years, she watched in agony as her bright young child fall apart. He struggled with anxiety, his grades suffered, and he became seriously depressed. It took five years of turmoil before Mathew was able to embrace his true self. Earlier this year, Jane and Mathew testified together before members of the New York Senate in support of a bill that would protect youth under 18 from conversion therapy. That a licensed professional convinced her to try and change her son, she told legislators, was a tragedy not just for him, but for their whole family. But, like so many brave conversion therapy survivors, Mathew didn’t just survive. He went on to dedicate his life to making sure no one else has to go through what he did.
NCLR is working with legislators and LGBTQ leaders in New York and more than a dozen other states to bring similar protections to young people across the country. We’ve already succeeded in California and Jersey. Although most of these bills are still in the early stages of the legislative process, there is reason for optimism. When anti-conversion therapy laws come up for a vote, they receive broad bipartisan support from lawmakers and enjoy overwhelming backing from mental health practitioners, faith leaders, youth advocates, reproductive justice groups, and civil rights organizations. Protecting our kids from quack medicine is simply not a controversial issue.
Although regulating licensed therapists is an important way to protect LGBTQ youth, not all conversion therapy takes place in a doctor’s office. Some fringe religious leaders still engage in the unregulated practice of conversion therapy in schools and houses of worship. When Jeff White came out at fourteen, his parents sent him to a religious school that promised it could change his sexual orientation. For three years, he endured weekly counseling sessions at the hands of a teacher who routinely raped and sexually assaulted him to convince him that being gay was more painful than suppressing his sexual orientation. He kept his experience hidden from those closest to him, afraid that speaking out would place him and his family in danger. This August, NCLR helped him report the abuse he endured, and, fifteen years later, a formal investigation has finally been launched. Like Mathew, Jeff didn’t just survive either; he went on to found the Mississippi Gulf Coast Rainbow Center, where he serves kids all over the state struggling with intolerance.
In June, NCLR launched #BornPerfect, a campaign to end conversion therapy in five years by passing laws across the country like the one Jane and Mathew advocated for in New York, fighting in courtrooms to ensure the safety of kids like Jeff, and helping other survivors speak out about the devastating effects of these practices. By National Coming Out Day 2015, the state of conversion therapy in the United States could look very different.
But today, we recommit to fighting for those who cannot come out without placing themselves in serious danger at the hands of those who would rather change them than love them for who they are. We recognize the sacrifices many of our youth have made over the years, from Matthew Shepard to Mathew Shurka. We celebrate those who find their way out of the closet and honor those who must protect themselves by staying inside. And, most of all, we celebrate our community’s history of survival, whether by breaking the silence or by braving it.
This article was originally published in The Huffington Post on October 10, 2014.