Leelah Alcorn’s suicide has brought about a fresh public awareness of the phenomenon of parental negligence and abuse under the guise of religious freedom. As People describes it, “Leelah’s death has sparked a growing debate about how to approach transgender youth, as well as a public backlash to how her parents, Doug and Carla Alcorn, handled their child’s situation.” As we’ll see below, it is clear that there is a link between higher rates of LGBT teen suicide and the anti-LGBT religious households in which many teens grow up.
The following is an argument that we as a society should hold parents and guardians accountable for working to improve the emotional well-being of their LGBT children as based on a science-based understanding of mental health regardless of their held religious beliefs. In the same way we have begun in the U.S. and the U.K. to criminalize attempted “faith healing” as a form of physical abuse against dying children, we can and should criminalize attempted “gay healing” as a form of emotional abuse toward LGBT children. In short, to attempt to convince a child that the sexuality or gender with which they identify is the result of a mental disorder is nothing less than child abuse.
LGBT teen suicide
To build the case, let’s look at LGBT teen suicide. We need to stop ignoring the fact that higher rates of LGBT teen suicide are correlated to anti-gay religious parenting. While it is difficult to determine the exact percentage of LGBT youth who attempt suicide relative to their non-LGBT counterparts, studies have clearly shown the incidence is much higher in LGBT youth. Further, it has been demonstrated that there is a direct correlation between high rates of suicide attempts in LGBT youth who are living in anti-LGBT households.
According to a San Francisco State University study, LGBT youth “who experience high levels of rejection from their families during adolescence (when compared with those young people who experienced little or no rejection from parents and caregivers) were more than eight times likely to have attempted suicide, more than six times likely to report high levels of depression, more than three times likely to use illegal drugs and more than three times likely to be at high risk for HIV or other STDs” by the time they reach their early 20s.
In this spirit, gay rights activist Dan Savage tweeted in reaction to Alcorn’s suicide, “We know that parental hostility & rejection doubles a queer kid’s already quadrupled risk of suicide—rejecting your queer kid is abuse.”
A direct comparison: faith healing
Next, we need to clearly understand where religious freedom ends and children’s rights begin. Children, unable to make adult decisions by definition, are dependent on the decisions of their adult caretakers. When a parent is incapable of effectively caring for their child, we have already in place a robust framework for removing the child from the ill-suited parent. However, sometimes religion gets in the way of this framework.
A clear example of this can be seen in the phenomenon of faith healing where children are allowed by their parents to suffer and often times die of treatable conditions under the belief that prayer is the only remedy. Modern medicine is shunned in the name of blind faith, and it is helpless children who suffer as a result. Faith healing is physical abuse by any definition and in the case of the death of a child, it is homicide and should be tried as such in a court of law. Much of the time, however, these parents get away with murder under religious freedom legislation.
Recently in the U.S. some states have begun to remove these antiquated legal shields that protect faith healing parents from prosecution under the pretense of religious freedom. Just last month, three years after Oregon updated its laws, two parents were convicted of manslaughter and were each sentenced to 10 years in prison for allowing their daughter to die of a treatable form of diabetes, relying on prayer instead of medicine.
In her sciencebasedmedicine.org article, Faith Healing: Religious Freedom vs. Child Protection, Harriet Hall sums up the issue: “Freedom of religion has come into conflict with the duty of society to protect children. The right to believe does not extend to the right to endanger the lives of children.” She further explains, “The medical ethics principle of autonomy justifies letting competent adults reject lifesaving medical care for themselves because of their religious beliefs, but it does not extend to rejecting medical care for children. Society has a duty to over-ride parents’ wishes when necessary to protect children from harm.”
Emotional abuse is a thing
That the physical abuse of a child by an adult is detrimental to the child’s well-being is obvious and that we should criminalize faith healing when it leads to death or injury of a child should be equally as obvious. But why isn’t emotional abuse held to the same level of prosecution as physical or sexual abuse? Emotional abuse, according to a study cited by the American Psychological Association (APA), is just as harmful as sexual or physical abuse. It was found that “Children who are emotionally abused and neglected face similar and sometimes worse mental health problems as children who are physically or sexually abused.” According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), a charity campaigning and working in child protection in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands, “not recognizing a child’s own individuality [and] trying to control their lives” is included in the definition of emotional abuse. It would seem given these definitions that emotional abuse should be prosecuted no differently than sexual or physical abuse.
In just such a step forward, last June in the Queen’s Speech, Queen Elizabeth announced a crime bill that would include legislation to criminalize neglect and emotional abuse of children.
Conversion therapy is emotional abuse
Coming full circle, conversion therapy can be described as a form of emotional abuse. The foundation of conversion therapy lies on the false premise that homosexuality and alternative gender identity are mental disorders. Forced conversion therapy can be classified as emotional abuse because it works to persuade the subject that they have a mental disorder when in fact they do not.
According to the APA the tenants of conversion therapy have “serious potential to harm young people because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”
Mainstream health organizations critical of conversion therapy include the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Counseling Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the American Academy of Physician Assistants.
The good news is that in alignment with faith healing and emotional abuse as described above, legislative headway is being made in banning conversion therapy.
Washington D.C. recently became the third jurisdiction in the nation, after California and New Jersey, to ban the therapy for minors. There have also been legislative actions to make it illegal in eight other states. In New Jersey, the law was unanimously upheld by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals as Christian counselors and therapists fought to claim that the ban was a violation of free speech. Judge Freda Wolfson summed up the case with: “Surely, the fundamental rights of parents do not include the right to choose a specific medical or mental health treatment that the state has reasonably deemed harmful or ineffective.”
It is clear that suicide rates among LGBT teens are higher than their non-LGBT counterparts. High suicide rates in LGBT teens can be tied to emotional abuse characteristic of anti-LGBT households. In the same way the physical abuse of children should not protected by declarations of religious freedom as we have seen through the phenomenon of faith healing, so too the emotional abuse that comes with falsely diagnosing one’s LGBT child with a mental disorder and demanding that they become ‘healed’ can neither be protected on religious grounds. In agreement with Dan Savage’s view, Leelah Alcorn’s parents should indeed be prosecuted; the emotional abuse they unleashed on their daughter as evidenced through her online footprint can be seen to be the direct cause of her death.