Friday, June 5, 2015

We Must Fix Society and Stop Trying to Fix Each Other

On May 22, I was invited to speak to The Counselor, Social Worker, and Marriage and Family Therapist Board in Ohio to share my experiences with trying to change my sexual orientation.  This was part of an on-going conversation by the board to determine how they can best respond to the practice of conversion therapy with minors.  I was honored to be able to share my story with them.  The discussion of this particular method of treatment has increased tremendously since the suicide death of Cincinnati transgender teenager, Leelah Alcorn.  In Leelah’s suicide note, she cited her parents’ having taken her to see Christian counselors as one of the contributing factors in her decision to end her life.  She also made a plea within her note that those of us she was leaving behind that she wanted her death to be “counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year.”  She also asked that we “fix society.”  I don’t know that we will ever completely fix this, but I will not stop talking until we do.  I do not know what it is like to grow up transgender.  I don’t know what it is like to be forced into counseling to change who I am against my will by my parents, but I do know what it is to grow up as a young gay man in a small town.  I know what it is to feel fear and shame, fearing that you will never be able to fully disclose to anyone who you really are.  I know that it is for that internalized self-loathing to drive you, as an adult, to plead to a pastor that he help you “fix” this part of yourself that everything around you seems to be telling you is broken.

Fortunately, I also know what it is to trust God enough to step out of that fear and into another kind of fear.  I know what it is to walk away from everything you know, not knowing what lies ahead, but trusting that God is going to be there to catch you.  I know that it is to walk away from your whole world to find that there is a whole new one waiting for you, a world in which you are embraced and respected for who you are.  I know what it is to allow myself time to heal, to search, and to discover a notion of God and of love far greater than I ever could have imagined before.  I cringe to think that so many see Christians, and all people of faith, as collectively condemning and judgmental.  Is that perspective represented among the faith community?  Absolutely.  I see them every June at every Pride festival I go to.  They carry their bullhorns and their black signs with bold yellow and white letters, but, every year, their numbers seem to dwindle, leaving fewer and fewer on the sidewalks to spread their hate and condemnation.  I sit here typing this as a full time seminary student pursuing a Masters in Counseling so that I can help to heal the hurts that are inflicted upon so many in the name of faith.

On June 2nd, I mailed a thank you letter to The Ohio Counselor, Social Worker, and Marriage and Family Therapist Board.  I believe that the board genuinely wants to do what is best, but there are limits on the scope of what they can do.  We need legislation in place at the national and/or state level that bans this type of "treatment."   We all need to do our part to make certain that our elected officials know that we do not support this kind of efforts to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity.  Hopefully, my words and the voices of so many others that have been wounded by efforts to change who we are can make a difference and bring and end to this dangerous and harmful therapy.  The contents of my thank you letter are below:

Dear Members of the Board:

I want to thank you for allowing me to be a part of your discussion surrounding the practice of conversion therapy.  As someone who is pursuing a Masters in Counseling from the Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO) with hopes of someday being licensed by this Board as a Licensed Professional Counselor, it was an honor to sit among you and to share my story, the story that has driven me to want to do this work with you.  I regret that my commitments to my employer and to the running clock of a parking meter forced me to have to leave before the discussion was concluded.

I hope that the sharing of my experiences, while they did not occur in a clinical setting, allowed you to get a glimpse of how harmful the practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation can be.  I am one of the fortunate ones.  When I sat before you that afternoon, I was doing so as a man six years removed from those experiences.  I have had time to come to peace with my spiritual and my sexual identities, two parts of myself that used to be in conflict.  I have found community and belonging in terms of the professional, personal, and spiritual aspects of my life.  About eighteen months ago, I also began seeing a psychologist to help me work through unresolved grief issues related to the abrupt separation from my previous faith community.  In short, I have had time to heal, to gain perspective, and to grow from an experience that was, at the time, quite traumatizing and still leaves me with lingering triggers that I have to be conscious of.

Not all people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender have the benefit of being able to go through the process that I have in order to put themselves back together after such a traumatic experience.  This is especially true in the case of young teenagers such as Leelah Alcorn.  Sadly, Leelah is just one young person who was subjected to this type of effort to change who she was.  There are so many other stories, many of which we will never hear because the voices of those individuals have been silenced by fear and oppression or, tragically, because they have taken the step to end their own lives.  In Leelah’s suicide note, she explained that she had been taken by her mother to see, “christian therapists (who were all very biased).”  She also said that she was told by these counselors that she was “selfish and wrong” and that she should “look to God for help.”

As a student at a Christian seminary, I fear having labels applied to me in my future professional life such as ‘Christian counselor’ or ‘biblical counselor.’  I chose to pursue my education at MTSO because, as someone who has suffered harm at the hands of the faith community, I see both the tremendous good as well as the tremendous harm that can come from people of faith.  It is important to me that I am able to speak to and address with comfort, the spiritual aspects of a client’s life that they might bring with them to a counseling session, regardless of their personal faith perspective or religious beliefs; however, while my personal beliefs might serve as a guide and drive to serve the client with empathy and compassion, I do not believe that it is appropriate for me to bring my own spiritual beliefs and convictions into a session with a client to be used as measure against which the client should be compared.  I believe that placing one’s personal religious beliefs ahead of one’s clinical training and professional judgment can be dangerous.

In Ohio, it is illegal to drive an automobile or ride in the front passenger seat without wearing a seatbelt.  This law exists because it was determined that not wearing a seatbelt is dangerous and potentially deadly.  We have laws against the smoking of cigarettes in public places because it has been determined that it can have negative health impacts on others who are nearby, even though they are not smokers themselves.  From my perspective, conversion therapy for minors is the therapeutic equivalent of placing a child in the front passenger seat of an automobile against their will, not securing them with a seatbelt, and allowing them to be driven off by someone smoking a cigarette with the windows rolled up and a history of reckless driving.  That may seem like an extreme example to some, but I feel that it is a pretty accurate depiction of what is being allowed to happen.

Ohio leaders recognize that this harmful practice needs to be stopped.  On the same day as my meeting with you, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown announced the Stop Harming Our Kids Resolution of 2015.  As part of his announcement, Senator Brown said, “Conversion therapy is not therapeutic and has no place in our society.  Experts agree that the practice is harmful, ineffective, and should not be used in health care facilities or counseling centers.  We must take steps to protect minors from the emotional trauma that conversion therapy can cause and stand in support of policies that are inclusive of the LGBT community.”  I agree with his words, and I hope that this Board will do all that it can to live into the call to action that is contained within them.


Joshua Culbertson

© Joshua Culbertson 2015

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