BOULDER, Colo. — On Sunday, The Alana Faith Chen Foundation, Born Perfect, Q Christian Fellowship and Out Boulder County hosted a panel discussion about conversion therapy.
After the discussion, the group went to the St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish for a vigil honoring the life of Alana Faith Chen, who died by suicide in December of 2019 at the age of 24.
Conversion therapy for minors is banned in Colorado, but those at the discussion said the legal action does not go far enough. The ban applies to licensed medical or mental health providers, but not something like pastoral counseling.
“It's when you begin to think that you can receive prayer and healing in a certain way that eventually your orientation would be changed," said Christopher Dowling, explaining conversion therapy. “The laws that outlaw conversion therapy are all around licensing for professionals. So, if you're a licensed therapist, the law will outlaw that therapist practicing conversion therapy, so the state can revoke your license. But if you are a religious figure, you're protected under the First Amendment."
Dowling, a Texas man who was one of the panel speakers, said he has experienced conversion therapy in his life.
“I'm reaching across the aisle to the former me and people that I know and still love that are very much in disagreement about this very divisive issue," Dowling said. “This is a cultural battle as long as there is a fear of people living their experience as a gay or LGBTQ person. As long as we are trying to change that or repress that, no matter who you are speaking against, that's where it comes from, and that's not just something that can be outlawed.”
The American Psychiatric Association says conversion therapy poses "a significant risk of harm by subjecting individuals to forms of treatment which have not been scientifically validated" and that it undermines a person's self-esteem.
Another one of the speakers was Jessica Ritter, who also lives in Texas, of Born Perfect. She said at an early age, she was presented the idea that homosexuality was a sin.
“Ultimately, when I came out to my family, they sent me to conversion therapy pretty much the next day. And so, for the next three years, I was going to a licensed therapist, but also doing a 12 step program through my church, and also taking excessive amounts of medication, which then kind of lingered for the following ten years," Ritter said. "About six months in, I kind of realized it wasn't working. And all it was really doing was perpetuating this idea of shame, guilt, self-hatred, which then kind of led into suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.”
Now, Ritter said she has left conversion therapy and has come out to her family for a second time. She said it took around three years to learn to love herself and be at peace with her relationship related to religion.
“As inspiring as this has been, as heartbreaking as it's been, it's also, in some ways, kind of made me reflective of how lucky I am to be here because it could have just as easily been the other way around," Ritter said.
In attendance was also Joyce Calvo, who said her daughter, Alana Chen, died by suicide just after her 24th birthday in 2019. Chen was described as kind and wise and devoted to her church.
Calvo believes her daughter's mental health struggles started when she was much younger.
"She mentioned something like, I think I'm attracted to girls. And then he went on to teach her that it was a mortal sin, she could go to hell," said Calvo, referencing a conversation she said occurred between a priest and her young daughter.
Chen's sister Carissa said religion was a huge part of her life. After her death, the family started the Alana Chen Foundation, which aims to help LGBTQ+ individuals access mental health support.
“We want to honor Alana, but also just make sure that this wouldn't happen to anyone else again," Carissa said.
While at the vigil outside of St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish, Denver7 asked if anyone with the church would like to speak. No comment was given, but the Archdiocese of Denver provided the following statement:
We remain deeply saddened by Alana’s tragic death and want only the best for her family as they continue to grieve and heal.
From what we know from the people in our communities who were closest to Alana, they all loved and supported her in a compassionate and caring manner to the best of their abilities.
People in our communities were among the first to encourage Alana to seek professional help for the mental health issues she was struggling with, but allegations that they performed conversion therapy or encouraged conversion therapy programs are untrue.
If a person seeks to better understand the Church’s teachings on chastity, marriage, and sexual relations, then we try to lovingly share with them what Catholics believe is God's design for human sexuality. A person is always free to accept or reject what the Church teaches, but it is not conversion therapy to teach about the beauty of a life of chastity.