Perhaps it’s rude or callous of me to admit that part of the reason I haven’t un-friended the American Life League is because I find their posts somewhat funny. Or quaint? Even comforting? I can’t put my finger on it–all I know is that I used to be a pro-life Republican, myself, and there’s something about the ALL Facebook page that’s a little bit like going back and reading your diary from junior high, even the pages with the awful angsty poetry.
But mainly the reason I can’t un-friend the American Life League is because I don’t want to miss another opportunity to comment on their periodic What Would You Do?-style posts that ask followers what they might do, personally, if horrific things happened to them–horrific things like a doctor who performs abortions living in their neighborhood, or Planned Parenthood having a booth at the county fair. Truly, nightmares abound:
I’ve taken advantage of a couple of opportunities to add my two cents–I mean after all, they did ask. So “If I found out my next door neighbor was an abortionist …” I wrote that “it would be none of my damned business?” And “If I went to the county fair and found out Planned Parenthood had an information booth, I would … ” I told them I’d “keep eating my funnel cake and check out the pig races, maybe grab a deep-fried Oreo. After that I would hit the midway and try to win a big stuffed animal. I’m scared of ferris wheels so I wouldn’t go on that, but probably I would ride Techno Power, because man is that thing fast!”
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I’ll be real with y’all: there’s nothing like a little light trolling to make the minutes until happy hour tick away a little faster. Unfortunately, there’s also nothing like someone throwing a homemade bomb at a North Texas Planned Parenthood clinic to make me wonder if there’s something more to those What Would You Do?-style posts. Something a little more sinister.
Here’s what happened: in late July, someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the front door of the Planned Parenthood clinic in McKinney, Texas, which is an affluent far-north suburb of Dallas, the kind of small town with an adorable and artsy town square, highway-flanking McMansions and a lot of SUV’s. It happened at night, and no one was injured. There was no serious structural damage, either. Just another blip on the busy radar of “pro-life” folks committing violent acts, including murder, against abortion providers.
Except, of course, that the McKinney Planned Parenthood clinic doesn’t provide abortions. Now, that doesn’t prevent an American Life League commenter from saying, “The clinic in McKinney (which isn’t too far from where I live) is obviously hiding the fact that they perform abortions yet don’t want to admit it.” And it doesn’t prevent the American Life League from not correcting that commenter even though they think a Forbes blogger writing about ALL protesters and the bombing in the same post is a “lame attempt to tie firebombing Texas PP clinic with ALL.” I’m just saying–if I were the ALL and I wanted people to think I didn’t condone anti-choice violence, I’d probably at least say something like “Even if they are providing abortions in secret, it’s still not okay to bomb them, y’all.” Instead of staying silent when a commenter basically says Planned Parenthood was kind of asking for it.
Why do I even care that the ALL didn’t really bother to engage with this commenter? Because the ALL regularly encourages people on their Facebook page, through these What Would You Do? posts, to speak out about what individual action they would take if pro-choice people and organizations live their lives in the same world anti-choice people and organizations live in.
Not what they would do if pro-choice people set up camp outside their anti-choice houses and businesses and protested their anti-choice beliefs. Not what they would do if pro-choice people tried to ensure that all pregnant women had abortions. Not what they would do if pro-choice people followed anti-choice activists around in their cars to track their movements. No, they’re asking what they would do if pro-choice people did things people have a right to do, which is set up a booth at the fair, among a gazillion other booths, or live in a house on a street, among a gazillion other houses.
Am I the only one who sees a link between the American Life League-goading Facebook followers into sharing their anti-choice savior fantasies and, well, firebombing a Planned Parenthood clinic? No, it’s not direct, but I do think it’s there if we look at the idea of vigilante justice and how people inclined toward that kind of behavior might be encouraged to make it happen in practice. Yes, many times American Life League commenters respond to these What Would You Do? posts by saying they’d do little more than pray, or show off their pro-life t-shirt.
But some responses are more forceful and intrusive. Even vaguely threatening. Commenters talk about waving a pregnant belly in people’s faces, or parading their kids by in some kind of bizarre attempt at using children as little human guilt trips. Others talk about taking information pamphlets and throwing them away. Knocking on doors repeatedly to try and change folks’ minds. Turning yard signs into billboards. One commenter wrote an especially chilling response to what he’d do with a neighbor abortion doctor: “Best I not say….”
To be clear: I am not saying the American Life League had anything to do with this bombing in McKinney, or any bombing or instance of anti-choice violence whatsoever. There is certainly no evidence to support that. None at all. Zero. While the group does protest clinics, there is no evidence that suggests they had anything to do with protesters seen at that Planned Parenthood on the day of the bombing.
But there is evidence to support a mindset that seems dangerous to me: one that encourages individual people to take independent action to impose themselves upon the freedoms of law-abiding, own-business-minding people. It brings to mind the saying: “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” With these What Would You Do? posts, the American Life League is encouraging folks to perceive the line between fist and nose as remarkably thin. Maybe non-existent.
I am not saying that anti-choice activists do not have a right to lawfully protest and speak out in favor of a cause they believe in, or that they should not donate money and time to organizations they believe speak for them and their beliefs and their families. They can and should do that as American citizens, just as pro-choice activists, or any other kind of activists, should do–peacefully and respectfully, and without harm. However, I see a difference between, say, a Walk For Choice rally or Pro-Life t-shirt week and a group encouraging individuals to personally ensure some kind of justice is done, or action is taken, against other–again, law-abiding, demonstrably unobtrusive–individuals or small groups on their property or to their property. Like, for example, a neighbor or couple of volunteers at a county fair booth. Just as one doesn’t have to befriend every neighbor, one doesn’t have to visit every booth at the fair. One can proceed to Techno Power without trying to save a soul.
Of course, the soul-saving is to some degree part of the problem. Evangelical Christianity is, by definition, predicated on bringing other people into the fold. In fact, most denominations of Christianity encourage and even require this of their followers. Spreading the “good news” is part and parcel of calling oneself a Christian. A negative side-effect of that is the extent to which many Christians consider other people’s personal lives–especially their sexual lives and health–the group or church’s business as a whole. What I learned about bodily autonomy, for example, in my nice, liberal church youth group was that I didn’t really have any: “I spent my formative years believing my body, my life and my choices were not my own, but a kind of joint property between myself, God, my parents and my church friends and family.”
When people believe there is no body–no physical body–that they do not have a right to manage or attempt to manage based on what they believe to be the word of God, it seems to me that there is very little that stands between shouting a Bible verse, throwing away an STI information pamphlet and “Best I not say ….”
This is the first article in Rewire’s two-part series about the U.S. immigration system’s effects on unaccompanied children.
Earlier this month, three North Carolina high school students were released from a Lumpkin, Georgia, detention center after spending more than six months awaiting what seemed like their inevitable fate: deportation back to conditions in Central America that threatened their lives.
Wildin David Guillen Acosta, Josue Alexander Soriano Cortez, and Yefri Sorto-Hernandez were released on bail in the span of one week, thanks to an overwhelming community effort involving pro bono attorneys and bond money. However, not everyone targeted under the same government operation has been reprieved. For example, by the time reports emerged that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had detained Acosta on his way to school in Durham, North Carolina, the government agency had already quietly deported four other young people from the state, including a teenage girl from Guatemala who attended the same school.
Activated in January, that program—Operation Border Guardian—continues to affect the lives of hundreds of Central American migrants over the age of 18 who came to the United States as unaccompanied children after January 2014. Advocates believe many of those arrested under the operation are still in ICE custody.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson has said that the goal of Operation Border Guardian is to send a message to those in Central America considering seeking asylum in the United States. But it’s not working, as Border Patrol statistics have shown. Furthermore, vulnerable, undocumented youth who pose no real threat are being stripped of their right to an education and instead sit in detention awaiting deportation. These youth arrived at the border in hopes of qualifying for asylum, but were unable to succeed in an immigration system that seems rigged against them.
“The laws are really complicated and [young people] don’t have the community support to navigate this really hostile, complex system. That infrastructure isn’t there and unless we support asylum seekers and other immigrants in this part of the country, we’ll continue to see asylum seekers and former unaccompanied minors receive their deportation orders,” said Julie Mao, the enforcement fellow at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.
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In January, ICE conducted a series of raids that spanned three southern states—Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas—targeting Central American asylum seekers. The raids occurred under the orders of Johnson, who has taken a hardline stance against the more than 100,000 families who have sought asylum in the United States. These families fled deadly gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in recent years. In El Salvador, in particular, over 400 children were murdered by gang members and police officers during the first three months of 2016, doubling the country’s homicide rate, which was already among the highest in the world.
ICE picked up some 121 people in the early January raids, primarily women and their young children. Advocates argue many of those arrested were detained unlawfully, because as people who experienced severe trauma and exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety, and depression, they were disabled as defined under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and ICE did not provide reasonable accommodations to ensure disabled people were not denied meaningful access to benefits or services.
Just a few weeks later, on January 23, ICE expanded the raids’ focus to include teenagers under Operation Border Guardian, which advocates said represented a “new low.”
The media, too, has also criticized DHS for its seemingly senseless targeting of a population that normally would be considered refugees. The New York Times called Operation Border Guardian “a grossly misnamed immigration-enforcement surge that went after people this country did not need to guard against.”
In response to questions about its prioritization of former unaccompanied minors, an ICE spokesperson told Rewire in an emailed statement: “As the secretary has stated repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration. If someone was apprehended at the border, has been ordered removed by an immigration court, has no pending appeal, and does not qualify for asylum or other relief from removal under our laws, he or she must be sent home. We must and we will enforce the law in accordance with our enforcement priorities.”
DHS reports that 336 undocumented Central American youth have been detained in the operation. It’s not clear how many of these youth have already been deported or remain in ICE custody, as the spokesperson did not respond to that question by press time.
Acosta, Cortez, Sorto-Hernandez, and three other North Carolina teenagers—Santos Geovany Padilla-Guzman, Bilmer Araeli Pujoy Juarez, Pedro Arturo Salmeron—have become known as the NC6 and the face of Operation Border Guardian, a designation they likely would have not signed up for.
Advocates estimate that thousands of deportations of low-priority migrants—those without a criminal history—occur each week. What newly arrived Central American asylum seekers like Acosta could not have known was that the federal government had been laying the groundwork for their deportations for years.
Asylum Seekers Become “High-Priority Cases”
In August 2011, the Obama administration announced it would begin reviewing immigration cases individually, allowing ICE to focus its resources on “high-priority cases.” The assumption was that those who pose a threat to public safety, for example, would constitute the administration’s highest priority, not asylum-seeking high school students.
But there was an indication from DHS that asylum-seeking students would eventually be targeted and considered high-priority. After Obama’s announcement, ICE released a statement outlining who would constitute its “highest priorities,” saying, “Specifically individuals who pose a threat to public safety such as criminal aliens and national security threats, as well as repeat immigration law violators and recent border entrants.”
In the years since, President Obama has repeatedly said “recent border crossers” are among the nation’s “highest priorities” for removal—on par with national security threats. Those targeted would be migrants with final orders of removal who, according to the administration, had received their day in court and had no more legal avenues left to seek protection. But, as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported, “recent border entrant” is a murky topic, and it doesn’t appear as if allcases are being reviewed individually as President Obama said they would.
“Recent border entrant” can apply to someone who has been living in the United States for three years, and a border removal applies “whenever ICE deports an individual within three years of entry—regardless of whether the initial entry was authorized—or whenever an individual is apprehended by Customs and Border Protection (CBP),” explained Thomas Homan, the head of ICE’s removal operations in a 2013 hearing with Congress, the ACLU reported.
Chris Rickerd, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, added that “[b]ecause CBP refuses to screen the individuals it apprehends for their ties to the U.S., and DHS overuses procedures that bypass deportation hearings before a judge, many ‘border removals’ are never fully assessed to determine whether they have a legal right to stay.”
Over the years, DHS has only ramped up the department’s efforts to deport newly arrived immigrants, mostly from Central America. As the Los Angeles Times reported, these deportations are “an attempt by U.S. immigration officials to send a message of deterrence to Central America and avoid a repeat of the 2014 crisis when tens of thousands of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala arrived at the U.S. border.”
This is something Mao takes great issue with.
“These raids that we keep seeing are being done in order to deter another wave of children from seeking asylum—and that is not a permissible reason,” Mao said. “You deport people based on legality, not as a way of scaring others. Our country, in this political moment, is terrorizing young asylum seekers as a way of deterring others from presenting themselves at the border, and it’s pretty egregious.”
There is a direct correlation between surges of violence in the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—and an uptick in the number of asylum seekers arriving in the United States. El Salvador, known as the murder capital of the word, recently saw an explosion of gang violence. Combine that with the possible re-emergence of so-called death squads and it’s clear why the number of Salvadoran family units apprehended on the southern border increased by 96 percent from 2015 to 2016, as Fusion reported.
Much like Mao, Elisa Benitez, co-founder of the immigrants rights’ organization Alerta Migratoria NC, believes undocumented youth are being targeted needlessly.
“They should be [considered] low-priority just because they’re kids, but immigration is classifying them at a very high level, meaning ICE is operating like this is a population that needs to be arrested ASAP,” Benitez said.
The Plight of Unaccompanied Children
Each member of the NC6 arrived in the United States as an unaccompanied child fleeing violence in their countries of origin. Acosta, for example, was threatened by gangs in his native Honduras and feared for his life. These young people should qualify as refugees based on those circumstances under international law. In the United States, after they present themselves at the border, they have to prove to an immigration judge they have a valid asylum claim—something advocates say is nearly impossible for a child to do with no understanding of the immigration system and, often, with no access to legal counsel—or they face deportation.
Unaccompanied children, if not immediately deported, have certain protections once in the United States. For example, they cannot be placed into expedited removal proceedings. According to the American Immigration Council, “they are placed into standard removal proceedings in immigration court. CBP must transfer custody of these children to Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within 72 hours.”
While their court proceedings move forward, HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement manages the care of the children until they can ideally be released to their parents already based in the country. Sometimes, however, they are placed with distant relatives or U.S. sponsors. Because HHS has lowered its safety standards regarding placement, children have been subjected to sexual abuse, labor trafficking, and severe physical abuse and neglect, ThinkProgress has reported.
If while in the care of their family or a sponsor they miss a court date, detainment or deportation can be triggered once they turn 18 and no longer qualify for protections afforded to unaccompanied children.
This is what happened to Acosta, who was placed with his mother in Durham when he arrived in the United States. ICE contends that Acosta was not targeted unfairly; rather, his missed court appearance triggered his order for removal.
Acosta’s mother told local media that after attending his first court date, Acosta “skipped subsequent ones on the advice of an attorney who told him he didn’t stand a chance.”
“That’s not true, but it’s what they were told,” Benitez said. “So, this idea that all of these kids were given their day in court is false. One kid [we work with] was even told not to sign up for school because ‘there was no point,’ it would just get him deported.”
Benitez told Rewire the reasons why these young people are being targeted and given their final orders of removal need to be re-examined.
Sixty percent of youth from Central America do not ever have access to legal representation throughout the course of their case—from the time they arrive in the United States and are designated as unaccompanied children to the time they turn 18 and are classified as asylum seekers. According to the ACLU, 44 percent of the 23,000 unaccompanied children who were required to attend immigration court this year had no lawyer, and 86 percent of those children were deported.
Immigration attorneys and advocates say that having a lawyer is absolutely necessary if a migrant is to have any chance of winning an asylum claim.
Mao told Rewire that in the Southeast where Acosta and the other members of the NC6 are from, there is a pipeline of youth who arrived in the United States as unaccompanied children who are simply “giving up” on their valid asylum claims because navigating the immigration system is simply too hard.
“They feel the system is rigged, and it is rigged,” Mao said.
Mao has been providing “technical assistance” for Acosta and other members of the NC6. Her organization doesn’t represent individuals in court, she said, but the services it provides are necessary because immigration is such a unique area of law and there are very few attorneys who know how to represent individuals who are detained and who have been designated unaccompanied minors. Those services include providing support, referrals, and technical assistance to advocates, community organizations, and families on deportation defense and custody issues.
Fighting for Asylum From Detention
Once arrested by ICE, there is no telling if someone will linger in detention for months or swiftly be deported. What is known is that if a migrant is taken by ICE in North Carolina, somewhere along the way, they will be transferred to Lumpkin, Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center. As a local paper reported, Stewart is “the last stop before they send you back to whatever country you came from.”
Stewart is the largest detention center in the country, capable of holding 2,000 migrants at any time—it’s also been the subject of numerous investigations because of reports of abuse and inadequate medical care. The detention center is run by Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison provider and one that has become synonymous with maintaining inhumane conditions inside of its detention centers. According to a report from the National Immigrant Justice Center, Stewart’s remote location—over two hours away from Atlanta—hinders the facility from attracting and retaining adequate medical staff, while also creating barriers to visitation from attorneys and family members.
There’s also the matter of Georgia being notoriously tough on asylum seekers, even being called the “worst” place to be an undocumented immigrant. The Huffington Postreported that “Atlanta immigration judges have been accused of bullying children, badgering domestic violence victims and setting standards for relief and asylum that lawyers say are next to impossible to meet.” Even more disconcerting, according to a project by Migrahack, which pairs immigration reporters and hackers together, having an attorney in Georgia had almost no effect on whether or not a person won their asylum case, with state courts denying up to 98 percent of asylum requests.
Acosta, Cortez, and Sorto-Hernandez spent over six months in Stewart Detention Center before they were released on bail—a “miracle” according to some accounts, given the fact that only about 5 percent of those detained in Stewart are released on bond.
In the weeks after ICE transferred Acosta to Stewart, there were multiple times Acosta was on the verge of deportation. ICE repeatedly denied Acosta was in danger, but advocates say they had little reason to believe the agency. Previous cases have made them wary of such claims.
Advocates believe that three of the North Carolina teens who were deported earlier this year before Acosta’s case made headlines were kept in detention for months with the goal of wearing them down so that they would sign their own deportation orders despite having valid asylum claims.
“They were tired. They couldn’t handle being in detention. They broke down and as much as they feared being returned to their home countries, they just couldn’t handle being there [in detention] anymore. They’d already been there for weeks,” Benitez said.
While ICE claims the average stay of a migrant in Stewart Detention Center is 30 days, the detention center is notorious for excessively long detainments. Acosta’s own bunkmate had been there over a year, according to Indy Week reporter David Hudnall.
As Hudnall reported, there is a massive backlog of immigration cases in the system—474,000 nationally and over 5,000 in North Carolina.
Mao told Rewire that the amount of time the remaining members of the NC6 will spend in detention varies because of different legal processes, but that it’s not unusual for young people with very strong asylum cases to sign their rights away because they can’t sustain the conditions inside detention.
Pedro Arturo Salmeron, another NC6 member, is still in detention. He was almost deported, but Mao told Rewire her organization was able to support a pro bono attorney in appealing to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to stop proceedings.
Japeth Matemu, an immigration attorney, recently toldIndy Week’s David Hudnall that “the BIA will tell you that it can’t modify the immigration judge’s ruling unless it’s an egregious or obvious miscarriage of justice. You basically have to prove the judge is off his rocker.”
It could take another four months in detention to appeal Salmeron’s case because ICE continues to refuse to release him, according to the legal fellow.
“That’s a low estimate. It could be another year in detention before there is any movement in his case. We as an organization feel that is egregious to detain someone while their case is pending,” Mao said. “We have to keep in mind that these are kids, and some of these kids can’t survive the conditions of adult prison.”
Detention centers operate as prisons do, with those detained being placed in handcuffs and shackles, being stripped of their personal belongings, with no ability to move around freely. One of Acosta’s teachers told Rewire he wasn’t even able to receive his homework in detention.
Many of those in detention centers have experienced trauma. Multiple studies confirm that “detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being” and in the particular case of asylum seekers, detention may exacerbate their trauma and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“People are so traumatized by the raids, and then you add detention on top of that. Some of these kids cannot psychologically and physically deal with the conditions in detention, so they waive their rights,” Mao said.
In March, Salmeron and fellow NC6 member Yefri Sorto-Hernandez received stays of deportation, meaning they would not face immediate deportation. ICE says a stay is like a “legal pause.” During the pause, immigration officials decide if evidence in the case will be reconsidered for asylum. Sorto-Hernandez was released five months later.
Benitez said that previously when she organized around detention, a stay of deportation meant the person would get released from detention, but ICE’s decision to detain some of the NC6 indefinitely until their cases are heard illustrates how “weirdly severe” the agency is being toward this particular population. Mao fears this is a tactic being used by ICE to break down young people in detention.
“ICE knows it will take months, and frankly up to a year, for some of these motions to go through the court system, but the agency is still refusing to release individuals. I can’t help but think it’s with the intention that these kids will give up their claims while suffering in detention,” Mao said.
“I think we really have to question that, why keep these young people locked up when they can be with their communities, with their families, going to school? ICE can release these kids now, but for showmanship, ICE is refusing to let them go. Is this who we want to be, is this the message we want to send the world?” she asked.
In the seven months since the announcement of Operation Border Guardian, DHS has remained quiet about whether or not there will be more raids on young Central American asylum seekers. As a new school year approaches, advocates fear that even more students will be receiving their orders for removal, and unlike the NC6, they may not have a community to rally around them, putting them at risk of quietly being deported and not heard from again.
Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban so-called gay conversion therapy. Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans.
A group of pastors filed a lawsuit last week arguing an Illinois law that bans mental health providers from engaging in so-called gay conversion therapy unconstitutionally infringes on rights to free speech and freedom of religion.
The Illinois legislature passed the Youth Mental Health Protection Act, which went into effect on January 1. The measure bans mental health providers from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts or so-called conversion therapy with a minor.
The pastors in their lawsuit argue the enactment of the law means they are “deprived of the right to further minister to those who seek their help.”
While the pastors do not qualify as mental health providers since they are neither licensed counselors nor social workers, the pastors allege that they may be liable for consumer fraud under Section 25 of the law, which states that “no person or entity” may advertise or otherwise offer “conversion therapy” services “in a manner that represents homosexuality as a mental disease, disorder, or illness.”
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The pastors’ lawsuit seeks an order from a federal court in Illinois exempting pastoral counseling from the law. The pastors believe that “the law should not apply to pastoral counseling which informs counselees that homosexuality conduct is a sin and disorder from God’s plan for humanity,” according to a press release issued by the pastors’ attorneys.
Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban gay “conversion therapy.” Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans. None have been struck down as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court this year declined to take up a case challenging New Jersey’s “gay conversion therapy” ban on First Amendment grounds.
The pastors say the Illinois law is different. The complaint alleges that the Illinois statute is broader than those like it in other states because the prohibitions in the law is not limited to licensed counselors, but also apply to “any person or entity in the conduct of any trade or commerce,” which they claim affects clergy.
The pastors allege that the law is not limited to counseling minors but “prohibits offering such counseling services to any person, regardless of age.”
Aside from demanding protection for their own rights, the group of pastors asked the court for an order “protecting the rights of counselees in their congregations and others to receive pastoral counseling and teaching on the matters of homosexuality.”
“This is an essential human right. However, this law undermines the dignity and integrity of those who choose a different path for their lives than politicians and activists prefer,” he continued.
“Gay conversion therapy” bans have gained traction after Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager, committed suicide following her experience with so-called conversion therapy.
Before taking her own life, Alcorn posted on Reddit that her parents had refused her request to transition to a woman.
“The[y] would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl,” she wrote of her experience with conversion therapy.