Leelah Alcorn — assigned the male gender and the name Joshua Ryan Alcorn at birth — came out as transgender at 14 years old. Alcorn’s parents refused to accept her female gender identity and sent her to conversion therapy when she was 16.
In December, the 17-year-old Alcorn committed suicide. She arranged for a suicide note to be posted on social media to raise awareness about discrimination against, and lack of support for, transgender people.
Alcorn’s suicide drew international attention, and — along with an online whitehouse.gov petition against reparative therapy — President Barack Obama in April called for an end to psychiatric therapies that seek to change the sexual orientation of gay, lesbian and transgender youth.Sexual orientation change efforts, conversion therapy, reparative therapy, and ex-gay therapy are all terms used in the practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation.
Jeane Anastas, immediate past president of NASW, said the most current term for reparative or conversion therapy is sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE).
“To use a therapy to ‘repair’ suggests a defect,” Anastas said. “The other term (SOCE) suggests converting someone in their beliefs, as in starting to identify oneself as heterosexual, and then working to make behaviors and desires conform. Similar efforts are applied to those who identify as transgender — to get them to accept the gender assigned at birth.”
NASW Senior Policy Associate Evelyn Tomaszewski said NASW has supported the ban of these practices since 1992.
“There is no scientific evidence that says you can change someone’s sexual orientation,” Tomaszewski said. “SOCE, or so-called reparative therapy — at its root — devalues a person and their relationships. To attempt to change one’s self, to change someone based on their sexual orientation, is discriminating against them.”
SOCE practices that involve minors have been banned in two states — California and New Jersey — as well as the District of Columbia. And according to the Movement Advancement Project, 23 states have introduced bills to ban conversion therapy.
“NASW joined with all the other professional groups in California to ban this practice,” said Janlee Wong, executive director of NASW’s California chapter. “There is no reason to allow this harmful practice to continue, especially for children.”
However, introducing these bans can be a challenge in conservative states like Ohio, according to NASW-Ohio Executive Director Danielle Smith.
The chapter has been advocating to prohibit the practice of SOCE in the state, but Smith says passing legislation could be unlikely due to the state’s conservative legislature. The chapter is exploring working with the state’s social work licensing board to add a specific rule that prohibits licensees from performing SOCE practices with a minor.
“Social workers are the largest providers of mental health services in the country,” Smith said. “In my mind, there is nothing more anti our (Code of Ethics) than allowing our social workers to provide SOCE services to people, especially to minors who are so vulnerable. The suicide rate — which is already very high in the LGBT spectrum — jumps up for minors forced into these types of ‘therapies.’”
Tomaszewski said people on the receiving end of SOCE practices are being asked to, or told they must, separate who they really are from whom others believe they are supposed to be.
She recommends that NASW members support bans on SOCE at the state and federal levels, and educate colleagues, clients and students about the negative implications of this “practice.”
“Social workers may have the option of working with their state licensing boards to start the conversation about prohibiting licensed mental health professionals from engaging in SOCE practices.” Tomaszewski said.
Anastas said that while a minor could be urged into SOCE by parents, adults seeking SOCE likely feel some shame about their non-heterosexual identity, which is, in turn, an internalized response to negative attitudes in society. Therefore, it’s important for SOCE bans to also extend to protect adults.
“Although social attitudes in the U.S. have been gradually changing toward the positive — no doubt in response to the visible gay rights activism occurring after the Stonewall Rebellion — people are strongly influenced by the attitudes they encountered as young people,” Anastas said. “Coming to terms with a positive LGBTQ identity therefore remains a challenge for some.”
The 10th edition of “Social Work Speaks” (2014) — the official NASW volume of policy and practice statements — says the following under “Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Issues”:
“NASW reaffirms its stance against reparative therapies and treatments designed to change sexual orientation or to refer clients to practitioners or programs that claim to do so.”
Anastas wrote an article for The Conversation called Banning conversion and reparative therapies for youth: one step forward.
In the article, she says Obama took a significant step on April 9 when he approved a statement supporting state-level bans on “conversion or reparative” therapies for LGBT youth.
Anastas said one part of the president’s statement that merits special attention is:
“The overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm.”
She writes that the question now is how Obama’s condemnation can be transformed into policy decisions that effectively end such treatments.