It’s Time to Ban “Pray Away the Gay” Therapy

Our Kids Are #BornPerfect — Let’s Stop Telling Them Otherwise


Do you remember Justin Aaberg, the 15-year-old Anoka-Hennepin student who, after enduring ceaseless taunting about his sexual orientation, hung himself? Aaberg’s was the most prominent of a wave of suicides that resulted in the district, Minnesota’s second-largest, coming under a court order to protect its LGBT kids.

Justin was out to his perfectly affirming mother, Tammy, who speaks passionately on why the embrace of a supportive family doesn’t always fend off the hate. Imagine showing up to school to find your classmates decked out in matching “Be Happy, Not Gay” T-shirts. Imagine those classmates can reach past your mother into the cocoon of your bedroom and into your pocket, via the digital conduits for harassment.

Hearing Tammy Aaberg’s story devastated me while I was covering the suicide contagion for MinnPost. But thinking about the Aabergs halts my breath in a whole new way now that I am the gay parent of a 15-year-old who has been bullied. His school is a haven for queer kids and educators, but then there’s the world, you know?

The seventh anniversary of Aaberg’s death just passed. It’s time for Minnesota to join the 11 places–10 states and the District of Colombia—that have outlawed conversion therapy for minors. It’s time for private and public schools to stop insisting that if fragile young people can’t “pray away the gay” they are fundamentally “disordered.”

The statistics are heart-stopping. Compared to youth who have experienced acceptance or mild negative reactions, young people whose parents and caregivers have rejected them are eight times more likely to have attempted suicide, six times more likely to experience depression and three times as likely to use drugs and be at high risk of HIV or STDs.

The education-focused news site Chalkbeat last week carried a story noting that 27 Indiana schools with policies barring gay or transgender kids received $16 million in public funds via that state’s school voucher program. The same story noted that one in 10 Indiana’s voucher schools have these policies.

Half of the schools in question are accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International, whose website reveals there are 39 Minnesota member schools. I checked out a dozen, and all have an anti-LGBT statement defining marriage and gender and stating that students who live in homes where there is homosexual activity won’t be admitted or may be asked to leave.

(Which is an absurd flavor of logic: On the off chance a queer parent like me decided to enroll their child in a school that expressly describes me as disordered, why penalize the student? Why not “save” them? Because exposure to gay people normalizes them is my guess.)

We know from experience that these aren’t the only Minnesota private schools that absolutely reject the idea of protections for LGBT kids. Do you remember the years-long campaign to enact a meaningful anti-bullying law for schools here? I do—I was at the Capitol for every chapter and I tell you, the defeat of the 2013 version of the bill was payback for the passage of marriage equality.

When the law passed the following year, it was with significant carve-out for religious schools. Which, voucher debate notwithstanding, already receive significant tax dollars for benefits Minnesota law says accrue to students, not their schools.

The more I have thought about this in association with the voucher debate the more convinced I am we need to have a separate conversation about protecting LGBT students. Because while many states prohibit some forms of discrimination against voucher students, not a single one bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Even if by some stretch of one’s political imagination Minnesota passed the first voucher law requiring schools to uphold gay kids’ rights—and one local advocacy group is in fact trying to ensure any voucher law would protect all kids–it wouldn’t protect students in schools that decided not to take the money.

Nor have civil rights laws like Minnesota’s carried the day in traditional public districts like Anoka-Hennepin, where a federal consent decree in a lawsuit filed by queer teens hasn’t been enough to quell the din. A persistent and vocal group of religious right activists has continued to push for conversion therapy.

(Happy little aside: When you Google “conversion therapy Minnesota,” the first link that pops up is an ad for a psychotherapy practice that specializes in supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.)

In the wake of her son’s suicide, Tammy Aaberg and Anoka-Hennepin teacher Jefferson Feitek—who risked his job running what was essentially a one-man suicide prevention line—started a nonprofit, Justin’s Gift. The little nonprofit (which sadly has been shuttered) did things like holding a teen Pride celebration and alternative proms and dances.

When the group was only a few months old, its students were barred from participating in Anoka’s storied Halloween parade. Which is so very telling, right? The presence of safe, affirming spaces for students questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation terrify these folks.

It’s time to drive a stake through this monstrosity’s heart. Every major medical and mental health organization in the country agrees conversion therapy is dangerous. Indeed, military brass aren’t acting too swiftly to remove transgender soldiers, are they? This isn’t about political risk, it’s about human rights.

Our kids are #BornPerfect. Let’s make sure to tell them that, over and over, until each and every one of them is positive that’s the truth.


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