ITHACA, N.Y.– Many students today have their own ideas on how to impact society for the better. One such student is 16-year-old Magdalena Smith, of Ithaca, who recently founded a non-governmental organization dedicated to banning all forms of gay conversion therapy in the United States.
Smith, the founder and executive director of the youth-driven NGO SAPPHX, said the logic behind gay conversion therapy is believing that queerness of an individual must be “corrected.” She said her goal is to outlaw all forms of LGBTQ+ conversion therapy in the country. According to the Williams Institute nearly 700,000 adults in the U.S. have experienced gay conversion therapy during their lives.
“Gay conversion therapy as a practice is antithetical, not only to the ideas of tolerance, equality, and equal rights, but also to American values,” Smith said. Smith attended Ithaca High School but is now taking courses at Cornell University and Harvard Summer School.
Though some restrictions on gay conversion therapy have been passed, many parts of the country, including New York, still allow it. The only state to have fully banned gay conversion therapy is California. Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order that barred insurance coverage for gay conversion therapy for minors.
Before founding SAPPHX, Smith was selected as a youth delegate to the United Nations Youth Assembly, an organization in which students from around the world come together and develop skills to make real impact in their communities and the world at large, which she said played a role in her decision to start the NGO.
“One of the philosophies of the Youth Assembly is that youth are not the future, they’re both the future and the present. It shouldn’t just be adults impacting society, it should be anyone who has an idea about how to make society better for everyone. We have quite a lot of power even though we cannot vote yet, and we need to exercise that power because doing so will cause real change,” she said.
Smith sees SAPPHX as a small part of a broader global fight towards queer liberation, and described gay conversion therapy as a form of forced assimilation.
“When we challenge the idea that there’s one way to be a human being, which is generally a white, cisgender, heterosexual male with a bit of money, then we can work towards raising up the groups that are socially, politically and historically marginalized so that we can have a diverse plethora of human beings in our society.”
One of Smith’s proposals is the United States should enforce governmental protections on LGBTQ+ youth rather than entrusting their safety solely with their parents and communities. According to Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, 42 percent of LGBTQ+ youth in the country reported that they do not feel accepted in their own communities.
A study by Cornell University states LGBTQ+ youth face risks of mental and physical health dangers including depression, suicide, substance abuse and low self-esteem, and that parents who are not accepting of their children’s’ sexual orientation are likely to worsen these problems.
Some laws have also been deliberated in Congress, such as the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, which states that “there is no evidence that conversion therapy is effective or that an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity can be changed by conversion therapy.”
Jack Bryant, assistant professor and program director in the department of media arts, sciences and studies, wrote a film called “Fair Haven” about the aftermath of a young man who experiences gay conversion therapy.
“With the film, I wanted people to learn more about gay conversion therapy,” Bryant said. “One of the biggest obstacles we ran into while producing the film was that it wasn’t a topic that people knew much about, so not many people were very passion about it.” He added that in the past people only heard about conversion therapy from the perspective of those who support it, which is why Bryant wanted to explain conversion therapy by focusing on the experience of someone in the LGBTQ+ community.
Bryant added that after medical organizations such as the American Psychiatric Institute stated that conversion therapy cannot change a person’s sexual orientation, the goal of conversion therapy shifted from completely changing someone’s sexual orientation to teaching them how to suppress same-sex desires.
Bryant explained that practices of gay conversion therapy vary across the country because it’s not a practice overseen by any medical body or therapy organization, and therefore does not follow a universal procedure. Older forms of conversion therapy used physical pain to associate negative feelings with same-sex attraction, such as electroshock therapy, which Bryant said isn’t as prevalent in the United States as it was two decades ago. Other forms of conversion therapy have been described as counseling, where people are taught to resist same-sex attractions, often based on a biblical standpoint, Bryant said.
In recent years more states have moved to ban conversion therapy for minors, because many people who experience it are children who are unwillingly sent to these programs, Bryant said. On the other hand, Bryant added that it was also common for adults to go to conversion therapy on their own will in hopes of changing their sexuality.
“Many people who go to conversion therapy already feel ostracized by their family, friends, church, or society,” Bryant said. “They don’t feel like they fit in because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and they may go into it with the hope that they can change their sexual orientation. Then when it doesn’t work, they will blame themselves for not being capable of doing what the program wants.”
Like Smith, Bryant said he believes gay conversion therapy should be banned in the United States.
Smith said SAPPHX currently has some funding and is applying to multiple grants that will go toward financing chapters across the country for people to meet with their state representatives to advocate for the potential legislation she is drafting. Smith has worked with activists involved in LGBTQ+ rights law, along with students from Harvard University, Cornell University and the Youth Assembly, to draft proposed legislation that would ban gay conversion therapy in every state.
Smith said one of the biggest problems she’s faced while running SAPPHX has been people not taking her seriously because of her age, but said that once there’s enough change caused on the state levels, she can contribute to a “changing perception of youth activism.”
“Although the LGBTQ+ rights movement has achieved many significant milestones, and without figures such as Audre Lorde, Marsha P. Johnson, James Baldwin, Ellen DeGeneres, or Oscar Wilde, I would not be able to be the unapologetically out lesbian I am, there are many battles left to win. Banning all forms of conversion therapy deliberately opposes the narrative that being not heterosexual and/or not cisgender is a personal, moral, and political aberration that must be corrected.”