Monday, December 28, 2015


Throughout the day today, I have seen post after post on social media about the one-year anniversary of the death of Leelah Alcorn, the young transgender teen from Kings Mills who took her life by stepping in front of a truck on I-71 north of Cincinnati.  As I have seen the posts, I have continued scroll past them, unable to let myself feel the weight of the day.  Why?  Leelah death and, more importantly, her life deserve my attention and recognition. 

Leelah Alcorn 1997 - 2014

Leelah and I have almost nothing in common.  I have no idea what it is to be a transgender teenage girl.  I have no idea what it is to live in a household with parents who isolate you from outside influences in an effort to, out of their own desire to love their child, force them into isolation and into therapy to change who you are. 

My story is different.  I am a cis gendered gay man.  I knew who I was from a very early age, even though I didn’t always have the language or the courage to verbalize it.  I isolated myself through my inability to live authentically as who I am.   My parents, even if they would have been so inclined at the time, didn’t put me in therapy to change who I was because I couldn’t even be honest enough to tell them who their son was.

In many ways, I respect Leelah.  I respect her bravery and boldness to be who she knew that she was, even when those who were entrusted to care for and nurture her told her that she should be someone else.

Leelah and I only really have a handful of things in common.  First, I feel connection to her through her birth name of Josh, given to her when she was assigned the gender of male at birth.  Even though I was very much closeted as a child and adolescent and even as a young adult, knowing that her parents called her Josh at home strikes something within me.  Even though my internal struggle was self imposed in many ways, I know what it is to be a young child knowing that there is something inside you that is struggling to get out, something that you know you can’t let out because you know it will bring unwelcome consequences if you do, and, yet, know that you cannot deny that it’s there.

The second point of connection that I feel with Leelah is, of course, the experience of conversion therapy.  I, as an adult, walked willing into the process to allow others to tell me that there was something broken inside of me.  Leelah was forced into that process.  Those years were hard enough for me at times.  I have memories of hating the very core of my being for the thoughts that inadvertently passed through my head.  I oppressed myself as well as trying to oppress others by encouraging them to enter the same sort of “victorious” life that I was living.  If I, at that time, had encountered someone like Leelah, I would have reached out to her.  Absolutely I have.  I would have wanted to hear her  story, listening for the very moment that I could identify a moment of weakness or doubt within her.  I immediately connected with the conversion therapy aspect of Leelah’s story.  I had always assumed that it was because of our common pain.  Now, tonight, as I reflect, I realize that it stems from unresolved guilt that I feel over the paid that I knew I might have inflicted upon had our lives aligned differently and our courses in life taken on different direction than they have.

The third and final point of connection that I feel with Leelah comes from a place of connection with the current me, not the former.  While there are still tinges of guilt from the old me, the reality is that I wasn’t very effective, thankfully, at leading people, including myself, out of a life of what I would have termed at the time “sexual brokenness.”  To my knowledge, there is only one soul who is, partially because of my influence, still trying to deny his true self.  He has his own internal demons and familial influences that he has to battle and push past though in order to set himself free.  Leelah left us with a plea, to “fix society.”  In this edict, I see my final point of connection with Leelah.  We both have an indomitable desire to make the world a better place.  I wish that she could have had the opportunity to do so with the tragedy of her life rather than the tragedy of her death.  I have been vocal and will continue to be vocal in advocating for bans on conversion therapy on the state level for Ohio, but that is not enough.  This needs to be a national conversation, and the battle cannot stop with our licensed counselors, therapists, and social workers.  It must extend to every church, mosque, synagogue, and temple as well.  No longer should who we are and what we believe be so intertwined that one is contingent upon or disqualified by the other.  We must learn to embrace all aspects of our identities within ourselves and within each other.  I wish that Leelah had not died, but I cannot change that now.  I can do something, we can do something, for the millions of young people who are left behind and struggling just to be able to say, with authenticity, this is who I am. 

~ Culbs

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ohio Tackles Conversion Therapy: A Vital and Necessary Conversation

I want to use this blog post to take a look at and call attention to a couple of pieces of legislation that have been introduced with the Ohio Statehouse.  They are House Bill 247 which was introduced by Representatives Denise Driehaus and Debbie Phillips and Senate Bill 74 which was introduced by Senator Charleta Tavares.  Both are aimed at banning the practice of reparative, or conversion, therapy on minors.  This particular therapeutic practice has been used to try to decrease same-sex attractions in lesbian, gay, and bi-sexual clients as well as to try to suppress the feelings of transgender clients that their interior gender is out of sync with their biological sex.  This practice has come under fire, and across the nation, since the death of Leelah Alcorn, a young transgender teen from the Cincinnati area.  Leelah’s parents had taken her to see a counselor who engaged in such practices, and this was one of the factors, according to her suicide note, that contributed to her feeling that the only way she could be heard was to take her own life and put out a plea that we “fix society.”

Since I spent so many years trying to suppress my own sexual orientation through faith-focused change efforts, another avenue of reparative therapy, I am glad that this discussion is happening amongst our state legislators.  I wish it could have happened sooner and that Leelah could be here to celebrate the introduction of this legislation with us.  As a gay man, I can never truly know what it is to see the world from Leelah’s context.  I have so much respect for my friends who are transgender.  Navigating and accepting my own sexual orientation was enough of a challenge.  I admire the courage and awareness that it takes to discern that your physical form is out of alignment with your inner self, acknowledge that to yourself and to others, and to make the brave step to live inwardly and outwardly as who you truly are.  Our context differs even more in that I entered my efforts to change my sexual orientation as an adult of my own free will as an adult.  Leelah had this process and expectations forced upon her as a child and against her will.  Rather than being supported and encouraged in her process to become her authentic self, Leelah was told to deny her true identity in an effort to prevent its outward emergence.

Both bills would “prohibit certain health care professionals from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts when treating minor patients.”  The bills would also allow counselors and other professionals to still deliver the needed care and support a young person in transition would need by not prohibiting, “assisting a patient who seeks to transition,” “Providing a patient with acceptance, support, and understanding,” “Providing a patient with sexual orientation-neutral interventions to prevent or address unlawful conduct or unsafe sexual practices,” and “Counseling that does not seek to change a patient's sexual orientation.”  This allows room for the client and the professional to chart a course together that is appropriate to the client or, if they professional does not feel that they have the knowledge, credentials, or experience to best assist the client, they can get them connected with a professional or group that specializes in, or possesses the necessary resources to assist the client.  If a professional engages in any behaviors aimed at hindering the client’s process and/or care, they could face having their credentials to practice suspended or revoked.

It has been brought to my attention by a concerned member of the transgender community that having supportive counseling practices not be prohibited doesn’t go far enough.  They feel that the legislation should be amended to read that the professional “must” provide those services and support.  While I am not yet a counselor, I am currently a student in a graduate program aimed at getting me to the point that I can serve as a licensed professional counselor within the state of Ohio.  My current feeling is that this “must” language is too strong.  Counselors, like medical doctors and attorneys, often specialize in certain areas.  An individual charged with murder would not want to be represented by a tax attorney, even if they were the very best tax attorney available.  Similarly, a patient undergoing open-heart surgery would not want the procedure to be carried out by a podiatrist.  That isn’t meant as a criticism of tax attorneys or podiatrists.  If I find myself in a bind with the IRS, I don’t want someone who specializes in criminal law by my side.  I want that top-tier tax attorney.  To put a professional in a position where they “must” provide care when they might not be, even by their own admission, the best to do so could have detrimental impact to the client’s process whether they are in the process of transitioning or coming to terms with and accepting their own sexual orientation or gender identity. 

My other thought is that, while I do not ever want to speak for the context of another, my conversations with friends who are transgender seem to indicate that the transitioning process in terms of timing and process is unique to each individual.  I would not want to put a professional between a client who says they are not ready to begin transitioning and a law that says that they “must” provide care once a diagnosis of gender dysphoria has been reached.

In my opinion, these pieces of legislation provide for the avenue for corrective action that we need while allowing the flexibility needed to provide supportive care.  I am curious to know if others feel differently.  I am also interested in thoughts as to how to address where the vast majority of efforts at changing a person’s sexual orientation or suppressing someone’s need to transition takes place, our communities of faith.  Obviously, this legislation would not address those efforts.  Those discussions to accomplish change would have to come from within our faith communities, denominations, and various faith perspectives.  Please, I welcome your comments and thoughts below.  I’m not sure that we will ever have all the answers, but discussion, even if it is sometimes messy, is how we move forward.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Be Prepared for the Holidays!

It is the night before Thanksgiving, and I am sitting at home on my couch.  I worked earlier today.  Then, I came home, fixed dinner, and then headed off to the nearby Starbucks to work on a group project that I will be helping to present for a class next week.  I know that I could have put it off until the weekend, but I wanted to be able to head into tomorrow without it hanging over my head.  Now, I have given myself permission to take the last few hours of tonight just for me.  My plans for the remainder of this evening are simple.  First, I want to write this blog post.  I actually have some urgency about it because I have some things that I want to say and that I know some may need to hear.  After that, I am torn between diving into my copy of Tyler Oakley’s Binge or embarking upon the first disc of Modern Family Season One.  I actually have never seen a single episode of the show, and I am feeling like quite the bad gay for it.  Plus, I actually want to see it.

All that having been said, I want you to know that I am very much looking forward to tomorrow.  I genuinely am.  I also want you to know that I have not always felt that way about Thanksgiving or many other holidays and other occasions for family gatherings.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that every moment of every family gathering was awful all the way through, but these types of events always came with a dreaded sense of anticipation because I knew that, at some point, some well meaning aunt or uncle would turn to me and say, “So, Josh, when are you going to bring a nice girlfriend for the family to meet?” 

Now, in retrospect, a much more mature me wishes I could go back to that much younger me and say, “Look.  They’re going to ask the question.  It’s fine.  Let them ask.  In fact, it might even mean that they already know, you know, that you’re gay.  Just tell them that you’re being selective or focusing on yourself.  You don’t have to answer them.”

To a much younger me, this was a terrifying and traumatizing question.  I would feel the gears inside my head begin to lock up, and I could begin to feel that sense of impending dread fill the pit of my stomach.  I would begin to tell myself such dreaded statements as, “They know,” and “I hope they don’t tell my parents.”  These were usually followed by internal questions to myself like, “How did my voice sound?  Was it too gay?” and “What about this sweater?  Can I possibly look straight in this sweater?”

Please know that, if you are young (or even not so young) and you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual, intersex, questioning, or any other points along the spectrums of sexual orientation or gender identity and you find yourself having these thoughts, asking yourself these questions, or dreading the assemblage of family for the holiday, know that you are not alone and you are not the first person to feel this way.  Also, be smart.  You can’t control for everything, but make a plan for the things that you can anticipate.  I’ve made a list of the things that have helped me in the past.

1. That aunt or uncle is going to ask the question about your significant other.  Decide in advance what your response is going to be.   Don’t leave it to the nervousness in the pit of your stomach in that moment.  Don’t invent a fictional boy/girlfriend either.  That will blow up in your face.  It’s okay to say that you’re really trying to get an “A” in ________________________ class or make the ________________________ team.  Adults take time out from dating at time to focus on themselves.  It’s okay for you to do it at 10, 12, 13, 17, or however old you are.

2. Know who your allies are in the room.  Is there that aunt who is always talking about Broadway show tunes and refers occasionally to her gay friends?  What about that cousin who left home to go away to college or moved to the big city and seems to be a bit more enlightened now?  Is there anyone in the room who knows the truth, your whole truth, and they’ve accepted you for who you are? 

3. Thanksgiving often involves family members watching football.  Sometimes people become animated and very critical of the teams and players during this time.  This may manifest in the occasional gay slur or gender-degrading outburst.  Know that.  Be prepared for it.  Don’t let the words of others define you.  If you are offended by their words, take note of that.  Remember who said them.  Decide whether it is in your best interest to acknowledge it while refusing to let it tear you down or, of you feel safe, decide if you should voice that it offended you. 

4.  If possible, plan your exit in advance or, at least, know where you can retreat to if you need a moment.  If you’re old enough to drive, can you find a way to make sure that you have your own car there?  Do you work?  Is your place of employment open?  Maybe you can pick up a shift that leaves you available for part of the family gathering but not all of it so that you can time limit your exposure.  I used to pick up shifts on holidays when I was younger so that I could control my schedule and so that co-workers with young children could be with their families.  If you can’t control your escape, is there a quiet corner of the house or a spare bedroom that you can slip off to in order to collect yourself if need be.  Sometimes we just need a moment or two to regroup before going back into the throng.

5.  Finally, if you need help, ask for it.  If you are a young LGBTQIA person, reach out to a friend or relative you can trust.  Things really do get better, but sometimes that is hard to see when you are young and college and adult life seem so far away.  Know that you are not alone.  You are part of something bigger.  You have worth and value.  Don’t let anyone take that from you.  If you need to talk to someone and don’t have a safe confidant around you, call The Trevor Project at 1-866-4-U-TREVOR (1-866-488-7386) or, for any age, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


I hope that we all make it through this difficult season.  If you need help in doing so, it’s okay to ask.  I would love to hear about some of your challenges in navigating the holidays.  Let’s just accept that, sometimes, life can be awkward.  Please feel free to reach out to me by e-mail or comment before.  Happy Thanksgiving, and may the holidays be a time of joy and time spent with those you care about!

~ Culbs

Friday, November 20, 2015

Transgender Day of Remembrance

I first remember becoming aware of the Transgender Day of Remembrance four year ago.  I was very active as a volunteer with Equality Ohio and some friends were going to attend a Transgender Day of Remembrance Service.  My work schedule didn’t permit me to be able to go as I usually work in the evenings.  At that time, the notion of someone being transgender was something that I was still becoming comfortable with.  I feel like I almost want to yell at my former self as I write that because it isn’t for me to have to, or not have to, become comfortable with someone else’s journey, but, at the same time, that is as honestly as I can express where I was at that time, and I want to share that here because, somewhere, someone might read this is who struggling to accept someone as transgender.  That someone might even be themselves, and I want them to know that it is okay to honestly wrestle with where they are in an effort to find a place of greater acceptance and understanding.

I met up with the friends who went to the service four years ago afterwards to get dinner.  They tried to explain to me what transpired during the service.  Despite their best attempts, I couldn’t fully visualize it, but I did get a grasp of the fact that it was a very weighty service. 

As time has gone on, and I have continued to do work in the LGBTQIA community, I have gained more and more trans friends.  As I have done so, despite the fact that I have still yet to be able to attend an actual service due to work commitments, this day has increased in weight for me tremendously.  Now, when I think about this day, I see the faces of the trans folks who populate my life.  I see their faces.  I hear their voices.  I think about the things that they contribute to my life and to the lives of others.  Then, I try to imagine the world without them.  Even now, as I write this and intentionally put myself in that space, the thought of their voices being suddenly silenced is enough to bring tears to my eyes.

As I think back over my own journey, as I reflect on the struggle to accept myself as a gay man, it took me a long time to work through the internal questions of my sexual orientation, and it took an even longer time to be able to articulate that to others.  I cannot imagine that additional layer of complexity that comes into play by adding factoring in one’s gender identity being out of alignment with what everyone else sees and working to accept that and then to work through it.  That isn’t my struggle to have though.  It isn’t my journey to take.  That journey belongs to my trans brothers and sisters.  My commitment is simply to journey alongside them and to be an ally in any way that I can. 

No one could have taken my journey for me, and I am thankful that no one has taken from me the ability to continue on this journey.  My trans brothers and sisters deserve the same opportunity.  We all deserve the right to work through our own questions of identity, and, once we have found our own truth, to live it out.

~ Culbs