Blog Post #9: Transgender Teen’s Suicide Inspires New Law

By Sophia Niazi

During the early morning of December 28, 2014, the news reported that 17-year-old youth Joshua Alcorn was walking along I-71 in Ohio when he was struck by a tractor-trailer.[1] After the discovery of a suicide note posted on Tumblr, it was revealed that “Joshua” was Leelah, a transgendered teen, who purposefully walked in front of the tractor-trailer to end her life.[2] In Leelah’s last post, she explained that her conservative Christian parents had forced her to attend conversion therapy, pulled her out of school, and isolated her in an attempt to have her change her gender identity.[3] Leelah stated that her death needed “to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year” and wanted someone to realize the disproportionate number of transgender individuals committing suicide in order to fix the cause of the problem.[4]

Leelah Alcorn’s death has inspired a new push to end conversion therapy. If enacted, Leelah’s Law will ban the use of conversion therapy against transgender, gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth.[5] Conversion therapy is considered to be a dangerous practice with severe repercussions such as increased anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.[6] The practice generally uses behavioral, cognitive, psychoanalytic, and other practices to attempt to change or reduce same-sex attraction or alter a person’s gender identity.[7] There is no scientific evidence that conversion therapy or sexual orientation change efforts are effective and leading professional, medical, and mental health associations have rejected conversion therapy as unnecessary, ineffective, and dangerous.[8]

Two out of fifty states, California and New Jersey, have instituted laws banning conversion therapy.[9] In 2012, California became the first state to prohibit therapists licensed by the State of California from trying to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of people under the age of eighteen.[10] In 2013, New Jersey enacted a similar law.[11]

In California, the ban was challenged in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by opponents who claimed that the ban infringed on their right to free speech and freedom of religion.[12] The Ninth Circuit upheld the ban, agreeing that the ban acts as an extension of the conditions for providing licenses to counselors in the state and not as a First Amendment issue.[13] The Supreme Court of California declined to hear challenges to the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, thereby permitting the law to take effect.[14] Opponents similarly challenged New Jersey’s ban on conversion therapy, however, the Third Circuit upheld the New Jersey law banning conversion therapy.[15] Judge D. Brooks Smith held that the ban appropriately advanced New Jersey’s legitimate interest in protecting minors from harmful or ineffective professional treatment.[16]

In response to Leelah Alcorn’s suicide, a new push has been made by the Transgender Human Rights Institute to ban conversion therapy on a federal level, citing the harmful effects of conversion therapy with support from prominent professional institutions such as the American Psychological Association, American Association of Pediatrics, and the American Counseling Association.[17] Currently, the petition on Change.org has garnered almost 300,000 virtual signatures in the two weeks that it has been online.[18] The petition calls on President Obama, as well as Senator Harry Reid and Representative Nancy Pelosi to “immediately seek a pathway for banning the practice known as ‘transgender conversion therapy’.”[19] The introduction of a federal ban on conversion therapy for minors will hopefully be an affirmative step towards achieving Leelah Alcorn’s last wish to fix society and its views regarding the LGBTQIA community.

[1] OSP: Kings Mill Teen Hit by Semi and Dies While Walking Along SB I-71, WCPO: Cincinatti, http://www.wcpo.com/news/local-news/warren-county/osp-kings-mill-teen-hit-by-semi-and-dies-while-walking-along-sb-i-71 (last updated Dec. 30, 2014, 10:27 PM).

[2] Leelah’s Story, Leelah’s Law: Support the Ban on Conversion Therapy, http://www.leelahslaw.com/leelahs-story (last visited Jan. 7, 2015).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Press Release: Leelah Alcorn Suicide – A Call to End Conversion Therapy, Leelah’s Law: Support the Ban on Conversion Therapy, http://www.leelahslaw.com (Dec. 30, 2014).

[6] Conversion Therapy, S. Poverty L. Ctr., http://www.splcenter.org/conversion-therapy (last visited Jan. 7, 2015).

[7] #BornPerfect: The Facts About Conversion Therapy, Nat’l Ctr. for Lesbian Rights, http://www.nclrights.org/bornperfect-the-facts-about-conversion-therapy (last visited Jan. 7, 2015).

[8] Id. (stating that the American Psychiatric Association “opposes any psychiatric treatment such as reparative or conversion therapy. . .”).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Katy Steinmetz, California Ban on Conversion Therapy Stands, Time (June 30, 2014), http://time.com/2940790/california-ban-on-gay-conversion-therapy-stands/.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Jonathan Stempel, New Jersey ‘Gay Conversion Therapy’ Ban is Upheld, Reuters (Sep. 11, 2014, 4:27 PM), http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/11/us-usa-gaytherapy-newjersey-idUSKBN0H622620140911.

[16] Id.

[17] Transgender Human Rights Inst., Enact Leelah’s Law to Ban Transgender Conversion Therapy, Change.Org, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/11/us-usa-gaytherapy-newjersey-idUSKBN0H622620140911 (last visited Jan. 7, 2015).

[18] Id.

[19] Id.