Alana Chen was only 14 when she confessed to her parish priest that she was a lesbian and had strong attractions to other women. He advised her not to tell her family and put her through relentless conversion therapy, which her mother now asserts led Chen to self-harm, hospitalization, and, last week, to death by suicide.
In August 2019, Alana Chen and her family spoke with The Denver Post about her experience with conversion therapy and subsequent struggles with depression to warn others about the insidiousness of the practice and its inherent dangers. Describing how she practiced self-harm, Chen said, “I was feeling so much shame that I was comforted by the thought of hurting myself.”
Chen said her reason for contacting the newspaper was she wanted to educate people about her experience so other LGBTQ people would not feel isolated and alone and would resist seeking the harmful treatment.
In the August interview, Chen said that in addition to the informal conversion therapy from her parish priest, she received formal reparative therapy counseling through the church and Catholic Charities’ Sacred Heart Counseling while in college.
Chen said, “I felt a lot of shame and anxiety.”
She said, “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Was I going to hell? But I was still extremely faithful, and I felt like the church, and the counseling was the thing that was saving me. The worse I got, the more I clung to it.”
On Dec. 16, the family of Alana Chen told The Denver Post that they believe their daughter’s suicide is a direct result of conversion therapy, and it harmed their daughter so deeply that she died by suicide.
A spokesperson for the Denver Archdiocese who declined to give their name told PGN that the church does not use conversion therapy and “rejects any practices that are manipulative, coercive or pseudoscientific.”
But in January 2019, the Denver Archdiocese sponsored a conference on sexual orientation and gender identity by the conversion therapy organization Desert Stream Ministries. According to Andrew Comiskey, the founder and executive director of the ministry, “There is no such thing as a ‘gay’ person. That is a popular myth. Satan delights in homosexual perversion.”
PGN reported that a similar event by Comiskey was sponsored by the Philadelphia Archdiocese in September.
Conversion therapy is the pseudoscientific practice of claiming to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The American Psychiatric Association “opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy, that is based on the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or is based on the a priori assumption that the patient should change his or her homosexual orientation.”
Alana Chen’s mother, Joyce Calvo-Chen, wrote an extended message on Facebook about her daughter, who she described as a “multi-talented artist who loved to sing, dance, write, play sports and instruments.”
Calvo-Chen wrote her daughter “fell in love with religion” when she was 13-years-old, and “quickly became immersed in God’s words.”
“She wanted to become a nun,” Calvo-Chen said. But Alana Chen told The Denver Post that the priest said her sexual orientation would prevent her from following that vocation.
According to Calvo-Chen’s lengthy post, Alana Chen revealed her sexual orientation to a priest at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Boulder, Colorado. The priest advised Chen not to come out to her family and gave her counseling that explicitly stated she was in danger from her sexual orientation and had to change it.
Alana Chen’s parents reported her missing on Saturday night, Dec. 7, after she failed to return home from a hike. The following Monday morning, Dec. 10, Boulder law enforcement received information that a suspicious vehicle was parked at the reservoir in the Boulder County foothills in Chautauqua Park in Boulder, Colorado.
Her body was found several hours later nearby by a search party. Sheriff’s officials have said Chen’s death is “not considered to be suspicious,” but the autopsy results have not yet been made public. Chen’s family revealed the cause of death was suicide.
A July 2019 study from The Williams Institute at UCLA revealed that more than 700,000 LGBTQ people between the ages of 18 and 59 had been subjected to conversion therapy, more than 350,000 as minors. The study projected an estimated 80,000 LGBTQ youth would be subjected to the practice in the next few years. An additional July 2019 study focused solely on trans persons found 42 percent of those who had undergone conversion therapy for gender identity had attempted suicide after the treatment.
Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Phila) is working to ban conversion therapy in Pennsylvania. He told PGN, “Conversion abuse is a danger to Pennsylvania and its residents.”
Kenyatta said, “With the tragic passing of Anna Chen, we must redouble our efforts to ban this practice in the Commonwealth and beyond. We are losing too many members of our community because of this barbaric practice, and it must end. To all our young people, please know — you are perfect just as you are, and you have so many people fighting to make sure no one is paid to tell you otherwise.”
If you are in crisis, you can call:
The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386, thetrevorproject.org/help or text START to 678-678. Crisis line for LGBTQ youth
Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org. Text 741741 to reach a counselor.