It takes a great amount of courage to recognize that you are transgender and embark upon the personal journey of self-discovery and affirmation. Some people immediately recognize the changes they need to make in order to live as their most authentic selves. For others, it can take a lifetime. The violence of homophobia and transphobia can prevent people from ever feeling safe enough to pursue their authentic selves with dignity. Conversion therapy - a process that seeks to alter someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity using psychotherapy methods - is a practice that rips away our dignity. It is a plague upon many communities because of the way that it destabilizes our ability to live healthy, happy lives as however we identify.
In our state of Missouri, efforts are underway to ban this practice - also sometimes called “reparative therapy”, or “sexual orientation change efforts.” While conversion therapy may seem benign on the surface, in reality it is a coercive type of psychotherapy that attempts to condition away sexuality or transgender identity as though it is an illness, as though curable by wishful thinking or punishment.
Eastern Missourian Zachary Mallory (he/they) is an LGBTQ+ advocate and conversion therapy survivor who has spoken out about his extreme but frightengly common experience. Isolated and abused throughout his school years for being bisexual, he was introduced to a local pastor by a classmate, who said he would “take good care of him”. “Pastor Jake” claimed to be a psychologist and isolated Zachary in a room with no windows in the church for 4-5 hours once a week. “We read bible verses that were directly about homosexuality and I was forced to repeat them to him [...] until I said it correctly.” The Pastor forced him to watch pornography and attached electrodes to his body. “He told me that it was fully legal what he was doing and we didn’t need parental permission to ‘do the curing nature of god’ and we continued moving forward with the process of brainwashing me.” Now, Zachary speaks the truth of his experience in hopes of protecting others from suffering the same way.
The American Psychological Association has opposed conversion therapy since 1998. The Association issued a 2009 statement declaring that its only effects are “depression, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, shame, social withdrawal, and a distinct rise in suicidality.” 41% of trans people have attempted suicide, and for the 200,000 transgender people that have been exposed to conversion therapy in the United States, that likelihood doubles. Children exposed to conversion therapy under age 10 are four times as likely to attempt suicide.
Rep. Tracy McCreery (D-St. Louis County) has filed legislation to outlaw this dangerous practice. In 2018, she introduced the Youth Mental Health Preservation Act (HB 2141) to the Missouri House of Representatives and this year she filed (HB 516), again to outlaw conversion therapy. In February 2019, the Columbia City Council voted unanimously in support of HB 516 to ban conversion therapy and shortly thereafter both Kansas City and St. Louis introduced measures to do the same.
Joel Barrett, an LGBTQ+ Writer and Speaker from Kansas City, Missouri, has also shared his experience with conversion therapy. Joel grew up as a conservative Baptist and to find support with his sexuality, he turned to Exodus International, a Christian umbrella organization connecting over 400 ministries that sought to practice conversion therapy across 17 countries. Exodus shut down in 2013 with a statement from its founder, but in their wake was Joel’s experience, which included divorce, falling into deep depression, resigning as pastor from his church, and considering suicide. Today, Joel is happily married to his husband of over a decade, living his life brightly. “I share my colorful story with audiences everywhere to encourage them to live authentically not controlled by fear and shame.”
Conversion therapy is a danger to LGBTQ+ Missourians, but widespread efforts to bring attention to its horrors and put a stop to it, have already begun to save many. Every day we work for a more nurturing world that celebrates authenticity, that recognizes our inherent right to dignity and respect. Our youth deserve a world that does not shame or torture us for our beautiful diversity, but one that celebrates the varied brilliance we can each contribute by working from a place of love. When transgender youth are supported, uplifted, and affirmed, their lives bloom with possibility, creativity, and joy, and the rest of the world blooms as well.
We need as much help as we can get to pass HB 516 in Missouri to preserve the safety and well-being of our community. You can sign up to volunteer with the ACLU of Missouri or PROMO to help push this campaign across all of Missouri. I am a member of the Trans Leadership Table at the ACLU of Missouri and our recent campaign, Ten Days of Trans Demands, included elimination of conversion therapy as one of ten statewide priorities. Ending conversion therapy can save lives, and it is essential to ensuring dignity for LGBTQ Missourians. If you want to get involved, join us by testifying in Jefferson City, writing to your local newspaper and letting them know you support ending conversion therapy, and or encouraging your faith or community space to publically reject the practice. On February 12, 2020 I urge you to also join the ACLU of Missouri in Jefferson City for their Fifth Annual Voices for Liberty Lobby Day. Join us as we demand a better quality of life for LGBTQ+ Missourians and commit to helping eliminate the horrific practice of conversion therapy, now!
Feroz Khan (they/them) is a 2020 Member of ACLU-MO Trans Leadership Table