COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Techniques known as “conversion therapy,” used to attempt to convert those who identify as LGBTQ+ into straight or cisgender people, have led to high rates of youth suicide. 

According to research from San Francisco State University, LGBTQ+ youth who underwent conversion therapy are eight times more likely to have attempted suicide, six times more likely to report high levels of depression and three times as likely to use illegal drugs. 

“[Conversion therapy] is not a therapy,” said Danielle Smith, Executive Director of the Ohio Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “It’s more akin to brainwashing or behavior modification techniques, and it is a practice by anyone who tries to actively get the victim to identify differently in their sexual orientation or gender identity.” 

The practice of conversion therapy can manifest in various ways, Smith said. A victim will commonly be spoken to about gender identity or sexual orientation in a stigmatized way to change their behavior. 

Techniques can also become physical. Practitioners of conversion therapy will often aim to establish negative reinforcement through stimulation, like showing a victim a photo of a person they’re attracted to and then snapping a rubber band on their wrist. Smith said the method creates a connotation of pain with the visual.

“The experience is so harmful; it’s harmful to have someone try to convince you that who you are is not okay and that it’s wrong and that you need to change,” said Erin Upchurch, Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Youth Center – a local drop-in center for LGBTQ+ youth that provides support, programming and housing. 

Smith said LGBTQ+ youth are often subjected to conversion therapy by the will of their parents or guardians, leading to family alienation. Parents prioritizing their own beliefs over the young individual creates further separation. 

“The more harmful practices and conversations that parents or guardians have with their youth creates more likelihood that division occurs with the family unit,” Smith said.

This leads to higher rates of youth running from home and attempting suicide. Smith said LGBTQ+ youth are five times more likely to die by suicide due to their inability to be out among family members and peers. In addition, 92% of transgender youth have attempted suicide before age 25. 

“Discourse at home or family rejection is the number one reason [LGBTQ+ youth] find themselves without stable housing, and I can say that for all of our young folks in [Kaleidoscope’s] housing program that is the case,” Upchurch said. 

Who is performing conversion therapy? 

These tactics have been discredited by every major professional association dealing with mental health, including the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. According to the American Medical Association, the assumption that someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity can be changed is not based on medical or scientific evidence. The National Association of Social Workers has also condemned conversion therapy as a harmful practice since the early 90s, Smith said. 

Still, more than half a million LGBTQ+ youth in the U.S. were at risk of undergoing conversion therapy in 2021, according to a study published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics. The practice also has steep financial costs, with the total estimated at $650 million a year in the U.S. In addition, harmful effects linked to the method cost an estimated $8.58 billion for a total burden of $9.23 billion on the U.S. economy. 

So, how and why does conversion therapy continue to be practiced? Smith said there are many belief systems and institutions that cause individuals to have this stigmatized view. However, the number of licensed mental health care providers practicing these tactics is relatively small. 

“The most prevalent group [practicing conversion therapy] are non-licensed people, primarily personnel through religious institutions,” said Smith. 

Smith cited transgender 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, who died by suicide in Cincinnati in 2015. Alcorn was subjected to conversion therapy by a clergy member at her parent’s church. 

Like Alcorn, most youth undergoing conversion therapy do so through a faith-based approach or model. However, the tactics are not always easy to identify as these unlicensed providers and religious personnel doesn’t typically call the tactics “conversion therapy.” Most often, it is referred to as “reparative therapy.” 

“Sometimes, young people in particular, don’t know that’s what they’re involved in until they’re multiple sessions in and the damage has already started to be done,” said Upchurch. 

A call to action in Ohio

The Ohio legislature has been unable to ban conversion therapy statewide. Most recently, Senate Bill 50 was introduced by state Senators Tina Maharath and Nickie Antonio. The bill states, “an application or health care professional shall not engage in conversion therapy when providing mental health treatment to a minor patient.” The bill has not received a hearing nor been brought up for a vote. 

“I don’t think we’re doing a great job caring for our young people or providing environments in which they can thrive,” said Upchurch. 

Smith says Ohio’s legislature is more conservative than the general populace and found lawmakers cite parental rights and religious freedom as a reason for not banning the tactics. In addition, Upchurch says conservative lawmakers don’t want to put their political futures in jeopardy by standing up for the LGBTQ+ community.

“People can’t physically abuse their children without consequences from the state, but yet we are allowing emotional, psychological abuse to happen through conversion therapy,” said Smith. 

In response, cities like Columbus and Cincinnati passed ordinances banning the practice. In June, Reynoldsburg became the ninth city in Ohio to ban conversion therapy. However, the city-wide bans and attempted bans on the state level do not pertain to unlicensed individuals and religious personnel, says Smith. 

“Bans, as good as they are, I would argue the more important part that they do is to help educate the public that conversion therapy is incredibly harmful,” said Smith. “[Bans] don’t necessarily address the full scope of everyone who is performing conversion therapy.”

Without a statewide ban, KYC offers a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth ages 12 to 20. Youth can come in during weekly drop-in hours and receive a free meal, talk with trusted adults and engage in a wide range of supportive services. KYC also offers three programs based on need for individuals aged 18 to 24 who are struggling with housing. 

According to True Colors United, a national nonprofit dedicated to youth homelessness, at least 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+. Queer youth are also 120% more likely to experience homelessness, with a majority forced out of their homes due to family rejection or familiar abuse.  

While it’s difficult to ban the practice, Upchurch says Columbus communities need to speak out together to spread awareness of the traumatic effects of conversion therapy. Upchurch especially encourages allies to speak out, and says the freedom of all Ohioans is dependent on the liberation of minority groups.

“Our young folks, they need to know that we are standing with and for them,” said Upchurch. “They need to hear us speak out against these things that are made to harm them. To say that it’s wrong – reparative therapy is wrong, conversion therapy is wrong.”