Stop the Assault on LGBTQ Kids

During Pride many of us post our coming out stories on social media. Mine is different than most. At 16, I was expelled from my all girls high school — Philadelphia High School for Girls — for being a lesbian. My father and I sat across from the school’s principal, Dr. Klein, as she explained that I was a “bad moral influence” on the other girls. Enrollment at that time hovered near 3,000.

As we were leaving, I asked Dr. Klein why I was being forced to leave but my lesbian teachers — none of whom had come to my defense — were not. Silence.

It was a familial scandal. My mother and grandmother had graduated from the school, both with honors. I was in an honors program myself. My sister would also graduate from the school. It had been expected that I would go on to a Seven Sisters college like my mother or an Ivy League school like my father. Over 95% of Girls High graduates attended college — it was and is a magnet school for smart girls.

It was also a hotbed of lesbianism. Many of my cohort were gay. An upperclasswoman was the girlfriend whose mother had called the school to report me. Some of my teachers were lesbians, including two English teachers and a gym teacher — classic — who had taught my mother.

My father was confused. “You’re pretty. And boys like you.” My mother was differently so. “All those years of being a tomboy and playing sports.”

Shortly after being expelled, on a cold gray winter morning, I was committed to the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute to the adolescent wing for conversion therapy.

My friend Lisa had been at EPPI after a suicide attempt at a New Year’s Eve party a few months earlier. My friend Kate would be there soon after, also for a suicide attempt. There was a whole ward of us girls who had what they told us was “confused and inappropriate” sexual orientation. Young lesbians with well-educated middle-class parents who had no idea what to do with their embarrassing queer daughters.

Accepting them never seemed an option.

Conversion therapy is torture. It is painful and brutal and is predicated on making you hate your queer self. I endured a couple weeks of it before I figured out how to go along with the program to get out. The trauma has never left me.

And it never leaves many kids who are victimized by this array of practices that have now been decried by the American Pediatric Association and the American Psychiatric Association, among other medical and psychological organizations.

Conversion therapy, sometimes known as reparative therapy, is a range of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Discrimination and societal bias against LGBTQ people allows practitioners continue to conduct conversion therapy. Nearly half of the U.S. LGBTQ population lives in states with no laws or policies banning conversion therapy for minors. Minors like I was are especially vulnerable, and conversion therapy can lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness and suicide.

My experiences at Girl’s High and EPPI were a proving ground for my activism. As an adult, I was a frequent guest on TV talk shows as an activist voice against the growing trend of reparative therapy — the sleek rebranding of conversion therapy — being promoted by groups like Exodus International.

In the 1970s when I was at EPPI and the 1980s when I was on the talk show circuit, conversion therapy was touted as a real alternative for people who couldn’t accept their own sexual orientation in a society that criminalized and demonized being lesbian and gay. Why are these practices still so prevalent so many years later? And why is there a concentrated effort to rebrand these practices yet again with a focus on trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming youth?

Slowly, far too slowly, 20 states and 70 municipalities have at least banned the practice for minors like I was. But there are no bans for adults. Many 18 and 19 year olds are still subjected to it under demands by parents that they change or be cut off financially or otherwise from their families.

New Jersey was the first state in the country to ban the practice. Delaware and New York also ban it. Philadelphia bans it, but Pennsylvania does not. A quick Google search can connect parents to purveyors of conversion therapy right across county lines.

Conversion therapy laws prohibit licensed mental health practitioners from subjecting LGBTQ minors to harmful conversion therapy practices, but these laws do not restrict the practice among religious providers. And 30 states still allow it.

As recently as September 2019, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia hosted and co-sponsored a conference “to address the challenges of gender and sexual identity problems” featuring an anti-gay group focused on conversion therapy and “curing” homosexuality.

Studies conducted by the Williams Institute and Movement Advancement Project show the harm that societal prejudice and familial rejection have on LGBTQ people, particularly youth. There is also evidence of harm to LGBTQ people resulting from attempts to change their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Research on family acceptance of LGBTQ youth conducted at San Francisco State University found that “compared with LGBTQ young people who were not rejected or were only a little rejected by their parents and caregivers because of their gay or transgender identity, highly rejected LGBTQ young people were 8 times more likely to attempt suicide, 6 times more likely to suffer from depression and 3 times more likely to use illegal drugs.”

In addition, among homeless and at-risk youth, fully 40% are LGBTQ. Oftentimes their homelessness is because they have been rejected by their families.

Conversion therapy professes to help LGBTQ people to change or overcome their sexual orientation or gender identity. Instead it compounds depression and creates or reinforces feelings of low self-esteem and shame and can lead to self-medicating, self-harm and suicidal tendencies.

The fight to end these brutal practices is ongoing. But there has been a cure for LGBTQ kids all along — since before that day at Girl’s High when I was expelled. Love your lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, non-binary and gender nonconforming kids the way they are. Let them live their authentic lives. That’s really all the “reparative” therapy they need — to know they have the support of their families against the bigotry and discrimination still so prevalent in our society.

Instead of searching for a “cure” for queer or trans kids, hold them close. Choose love and Pride.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.