The recent death of 24-year-old Louisville local Alana Chen has many in the local LBGTQ community and their allies concerned about a link between Chen’s death and the faith-based “conversion therapy” her family alleges she underwent in Colorado. “My daughter wrote in her journal, ‘I have a story to tell, but nobody will listen,’” says Joyce Calvo-Chen, Alana’s mother. Calvo-Chen is determined to keep her daughter’s life and struggles in the hearts of the public through telling her daughter’s story.
She is a mother with a mission.
On December 9, 2019, Chen’s body was found at Gross Reservoir after an intense search and rescue effort was launched. She had been missing for several days and the efforts to find her reached from law enforcement into regional hiking groups on social media. Her death was ruled a suicide on January 9, 2020, by forensic pathologist Dr. Meredith Frank. According to the autopsy report, Chen hanged herself and left a suicide note.
During the coordinated effort to find her, Alana Chen’s conversion therapy past and her relationship with her family’s church leaders was brought to the forefront of the conversation. She had attempted suicide three years prior, after years of attending conversion therapy sessions with members of her family church. What is conversion therapy?
Conversion therapy is the practice of treating being LGBT as a mental illness that can be treated through repetitive emotional and traumatic techniques. It has many names, such as “talk therapy,” “reparative therapy,” and “sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE).” According to The Trevor Project, all of the terms mean the same thing, and distinctions are superficial.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed HB19-1129, a bill banning conversion therapy, on May 31, 2019. California was the first state to ban the practice, making it the first state to protect LBGTQ youth from the abusive practice. Colorado’s bill specifically prohibits state-licensed mental health professionals from engaging in efforts to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of anyone under 18 years of age.
The passing of HB19-1129, however, did not save Alana Chen’s life, and now her family wrestles with the complicated aftermath of her struggles. They are specifically concerned that people do not know what conversion therapy is, or how deeply it can change a family forever.
“I feel like I was fooled by a church that was very safe and liberal, and I’m usually not fooled. I am devastated. She was amazing, and beautiful. She really did want to be a nun, but at a cost. She was told by the church that God loves you only if you don’t act on your sexual attraction,” says Joyce Calvo-Chen. “I know a lot of open and inclusive Christians, including Catholics. It seems to start with the Bishop and their leadership. These people aren’t saying what Jesus said.”
According to Calvo-Chen, Alana began a series of secret meetings with high ranking members of the St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Boulder when she was 14-years-old. These meetings continued almost until her death, with various members of the local clergy. Calvo-Chen believed Alana was using the bus to go see friends. However, she soon found out her daughter was seeing church staff members.
Calvo-Chen says that although she rebuilt trust with Alana, she believes the church already had an emotional hold on her daughter. She also believes the church has absolved itself of any responsibility. One member of the clergy, Father David Nix, has been removed from the church proper and has been allowed to raise money for himself as a “hermit” priest, according to Calvo-Chen.
Calvo-Chen, who is trained as a spiritual leader, wants the community to be wary of other people calling themselves “spiritual counselors” or “spiritual leaders.” She believes the term has been co-opted by religious fanatics who target college and university campuses.
“As a spiritual leader, you listen. You do not give advice. You might talk about a higher power. We have a code of ethics. And they have broken the ethics,” she says of the Sisters of Life, who met with Alana after Father Nix was moved away from the church.
The Sisters of Life, an organization of nuns who frequent the CU campus and offer what they call “spiritual direction” to LBGTQ students, stepped in to counsel Alana when Father Nix left. Becoming a nun was a vocation which Alana made as a goal.
“It (faith) did become important to her. I think as she became more involved, she clung to it more. Then, at the church, she was told by a priest she should become a nun – that it was her calling. This priest told Alana not to tell us about these plans,” says Carissa Chen, Alana’s older sister.
“The Sisters of Life were hired by Bishop Aquila to come down and be Alana’s spiritual director. They wanted her to go, they are still there. They go to Denver and Ft Collins. Their teachings are very specific that these things are sins. I feel responsible for being fooled, for bringing my family there. I’m worried about other students who may be LBGTQ who may go there,” says Joyce Calvo-Chen.
“Alana trusted them. She did want to become a bride for Jesus, but that her sexuality held her back. She thought that they could help her,” says Carissa. “In Alana’s journal entries, she wrote ‘my wires are crossed.’ She believed what they believed.”
The Denver Mission of the Sisters of Life stated in a letter, “We spiritually accompanied Alana for approximately a year and a half (ending in September 2017) when she chose of her own accord to discontinue that accompaniment.”
They further say, “We want to clearly state that we never promoted, encouraged or even discussed conversion therapy with Alana or her family. We absolutely respect the free will of each person uniquely created by God in His own image and likeness.”
In a letter sent January 1, 2020, they assert that they serve mainly on university campuses, offering spiritual aid to students as they search for a life serving Jesus Christ. They write, “Our hearts and prayers go out to Alana Chen’s parents and siblings during this time of tremendous grief.”
But they weren’t the only church staff meeting with Alana. The Chen family says that a man named Father Peter Mussett also ministered to Alana. Joyce Calvo-Chen says Mussett told Alana that she (Alana) could not receive communion due to her confessed same sex attraction. Alana’s mother says the staff’s pressure on Alana to change her sexual orientation caused her daughter grief as the young woman searched for the church’s acceptance.
Calvo-Chen questions how the church staff approaches young people during vulnerable phases of their lives. She says Father Peter Mussett’s “hipster” look may attract students who want to belong to a group, or who are isolated from close family ties.
Father Mussett has been featured in many regional news outlets as a modern relatable faith leader.
In a statement from St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center and Father Peter Mussett, Mussett writes, “We do not practice conversion therapy, and reject any other practices that are manipulative, forced, coercive, or pseudo-scientific.”
The church also writes, “We are devastated over the death of Alana Chen and cannot begin to imagine the pain and grief of her family and friends. Our prayers will continue to be with them during this incredibly difficult time.”
Of the church’s response to Chen’s struggles with being LBGTQ and her depression, Calvo-Chen says, “Bishop Aquila never helped me. He had his monsignor call me, who told me that Father Nix would never call or talk to Alana again. When Alan was receiving in-patient treatment, Father Nix still got in touch with her. The monsignor told me Father Nix is not allowed to be a priest, so the Bishop moved him around.”
“Every time there is a problem. The last move was to a convent in Colorado. Then he went out of state. He recently did an article calling himself a whistleblower, and now points the finger at the Bishop. The Bishop is now approving him (Father Nix) to return and live as a hermit. This is not the teachings of Christ, it is twisted.” says Calvo-Chen. The church has not confirmed any of these claims to us directly.
A blog written by Father Nix, however, is available online for the public to read. In a blog post, Nix publicly appeals for donations in the amount of $250,000 as a 501(c) to live as a hermit in Boulder County.
In response to this story and questions regarding Alana’s relationship with him, Father Nix says in a letter, “The things Alana shared with me during spiritual direction are not for me to share publicly, but in my 10 years of priesthood I have never told anyone that it is a sin to be attracted to anyone. In my 10 years of being a priest, I have never done conversion therapy with anyone, and I have never suggested conversion therapy to anyone.”
Nix says Alana was “one of the holiest people I have ever met, and her death is an incredible tragedy.”
Carissa Chen says, “She (Alana) came out to the priest in this secretive period. So, Alana was keeping these secrets, while the priest was telling her attraction to women is a sin.” The elder Chen says their mother didn’t force religion on the family, and that “it was just a part of [their] life.”
“Her middle name is Faith, which is really interesting. She was raised Catholic and we took Catechism classes when we were younger. She was asked to go to a summer camp, around age 11 and 12 years old. The youth leaders would tell stories about God and they were very moving. She felt a sense of community and felt welcome. Looking back, while she had friends at school, I think she was struggling and didn’t feel comfortable with her sexuality at school, and that she felt comfortable at the church,” says Carissa Chen.
Area and national LBGTQ organization leaders suggest shame and guilt are large obstacles for LBGTQ youth to overcome. They have statistics to support that belief.
“No young person should ever be shamed by a mental health professional into thinking that who they are is wrong. Mental health professionals should provide care that is ethical and affirming for all people — including LBGTQ young people. Depression, anxiety disorders, and suicidal ideation and attempts are epidemic in minors in Colorado,” says Sheena Kadi, Deputy Director, One Colorado.
Kadi says, “Based on One Colorado’s 2018 health survey, Closing the Gap: The Turning Points for LBGTQ Health, almost one in five LBGTQ respondents said that someone – whether a counselor, therapist, or religious advisor – had tried to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. Colorado was proud to lead the successful efforts to ban conversion therapy for LBGTQ youth in Colorado by a licensed medical or mental health professional during the 2019 legislative session with HB19-1129.”
Kadi explains conversion therapy is based on the false claim that being LBGTQ is a mental illness that needs to be cured – a view that has been rejected as scientifically invalid by the American Psychiatric Association, and every major medical and mental health group.
Senator Steve Fenberg (Senate District 8) shares condemnation of Alana’s struggles with the practice and her subsequent trauma. “It’s incredibly heartbreaking to read about the trauma that Alana experienced as a result of so-called conversion therapy,” Fenberg said in an email to Yellow Scene. He says that, despite last year’s bill banning the therapy on minors, “Alana’s story makes clear that much harm still happens in the shadows.”
“I was the prime sponsor of the bill. It started in my chamber – we were very grateful we were able to pass the bill,” says Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet, who represents District 30.
“Our bill would not have protected Alana or anyone getting conversion therapy, as we have separation of of church and state. I am devastated by her loss. She was a bright light that we lost, and we will continue to fight in her name.” She emphasizes that educating families about the practice is key to avoiding similar tragedies in the future.
LBGTQ community and church leaders see this tragedy as another reason to rally to educate the public on the illegal practice. Chen’s therapy, depression, and suicide is a triggering and traumatic reminder for many LBGTQ people.
“As a survivor of a form of so-called conversion therapy, called reparative therapy, the death of Alana Chen ripped me at my very core,” says Tobi J. Cahill, President of PFLAG Boulder County.
Cahill immediately organized a public event named “The Greatest of These is Love,” which focused on conversion therapy and took place on February 14, 2020. The panel included Mathew Shurka of Born Perfect, which he created after undergoing conversion therapy. Shurka flew into Longmont from New York to speak at the event, and he was joined by area clergy of open and affirming churches. Carissa Chen also spoke to the audience about her sister’s struggles with faith and sexual identity. Few in the audience were left with a dry eye.
Cahill understands the emotional toll that what some see as manipulation between church and LGBTQ identity can take on a person.
“When you are told repeatedly that you are going to hell if you choose this lifestyle, it starts to take a toll on you. The mental anguish and internalized homophobia that you have been fed start to make you question your very existence and worth,” says Cahill. They remind the community that there are several affirming churches that open their doors to LBGTQ people.
Samantha Gerson of www.unbroken-survivors.com adds that the practice is still overlooked by news outlets and the LBGTQ community due to simple lack of knowledge. “The problem with institutional abuses including conversion therapy is that people think it is a dark age practice, yet somehow, it is still a widespread epidemic that is a six billion dollar industry.” Gerson was sent to a youth camp in Utah at the age of 12 for behavior problems.
Gerson alleges she was kidnapped, taken to the camp, stripped and underwent abuse at the hands of camp staff. She says physical and sexual abuse occurred, along with long periods of complete isolation. As an adult, she still has PTSD and has a hard time building healthy relationships due to the trauma she endured while at the Utah location (details of this camp are not disclosed as Gerson is pursuing legal action currently). Gerson began Unbroken Survivors which offers free legal and therapeutic services to survivors of similar situations.
Gerson now advocates for survivors of what she sees as a billion-dollar industry —“troubled youth” camps and conversion therapy sessions. She is recognized as a Forbes 30 Under 30 and as a L’Oreal Paris Woman of Worth for her work educating families about conversion therapy and “troubled youth camps.” Gerson says she was already out as a gay young person, and that her mother was overwhelmed by Gerson’s rebellious teenage behavior.
Another hazard LBGTQ youth face if rejected by their church or home is homelessness. Of the homeless youth in Colorado, 40% identify as LBGTQ. All LBGTQ youth face serious high numbers of suicide attempts and or ideation.
According to the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, nearly half (44.8%) of lesbian, gay, or bisexual students had considered suicide in the past 12 months, a prevalence more than three times higher than that among heterosexual students. Among transgender youth, 58.9% had considered suicide in the past 12 months, while 16.3% of cisgender (straight) considered suicide in the past year. In total, 19.9% of lesbian, gay or bisexual students had attempted suicide in the past year compared to 5.1% of heterosexual students. 6.3% of cisgender youth reported attempting suicide compared to 32.5% of transgender youth.
To lower these numbers, getting the word out about safe places for LBGTQ youth and their support networks is key. Many LBGTQ youth who are excluded from church or home may simply not know there are many open and affirming churches in Colorado. There are also distinctions to make between churches about what “open and affirming” means.
“Affirming churches exist and gladly welcome those who identify as LBGTQ. Folks need to get past the idea that being LBGTQ and being a person of faith are exclusionary identities. They are not. Many in the LBGTQ community identify as people of faith. It’s important to share stories of those who are, to demonstrate that these two worlds can and do co-exist,” says Kadi. Community church leaders are reaching out to LBGTQ people through events like “The Greatest of These is Love,” in which Rev. Sarah Verasco, Senior Pastor of Longmont United Church of Christ, spoke to attendees.
Verasco explains the differences between words churches use such as “open and affirming” and merely being “open.”
“It has become common for churches to say they are ‘open’ to people of all lifestyles and open to people however they identify. This openness can be misleading and is not the same as full inclusion or affirming the LBGTQ community.”
“If you want to know where a church stands on LBGTQ matters you must ask the following three questions: Can my partner and I be married in this church? Can I be ordained (or a clergy leader) in this church? Will you formally and ritually acknowledge my transition by offering me sacraments (Baptism in particular) with my new name?” says Verasco.
Concerns about a church’s authentic inclusion of LBGTQ people is of special concern to Carissa Chen. She is concerned that churches near the young people at University of Colorado use coded language and a relatable style to entice LBGTQ youth to join their congregation. She worries that words like “spiritual direction” may emotionally hook people into changing their sexual identity at the guidance of church leaders.
According to a 2009 report of the American Psychological Association, techniques used to try to alter sexual orientation and gender identity include showing the patient homoerotic images, electric shock use, using shame to create aversion, and quoting Biblical passages.
The association “advises parents, guardians, young people, and their families to avoid sexual orientation change efforts that portray homosexuality as a mental illness or developmental disorder and to seek psychotherapy, social support, and educational services that provide accurate information on sexual orientation and sexuality, increase family and school support, and reduce rejection of sexual minority youth.”
Sheena Kadi underwent the trauma of conversion therapy. “As a survivor of conversion therapy – both by a religious counselor and by licensed mental health practitioners as a minor – the shame and hopelessness that survivors struggle with is very real. Adding in the dynamic of being a person of faith, it caused me to question my very existence. I spent years trying to reconcile my sexual orientation and my personal relationship with God in non-affirming churches. We have to continue to share these stories,” Kadi says.
These concerns are echoed by the Pan American Health Organization, which says the practices “lack medical justification, and present a real threat to the well-being of affected people.” Risks for youth are even greater than for adults. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are more than five times more likely to have high levels of depression and are more likely to use illegal substances compared to those from a supportive family.
According to the Trevor Project, “Conversion therapy… ’ is any of the several dangerous and discredited practices aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation nor gender identity. More than 700,000 LBGTQ people have been subjected to the horrors of conversion therapy. Estimated 80,000 youth will experience this unprofessional conduct in the coming year, often at the insistence of well-intentioned but misinformed parents or caretakers.”
The Trevor Project is the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LBGTQ young people. It runs Trevor Space, a safe space social network site for LBGTQ youth and runs educational, research, and advocacy programs.
Casey Pick, Senior Fellow for Advocacy and Government Affairs at the Trevor Project, says the 50 Bills 50 States campaign works to introduce and promote legislation to protect LBGTQ youth from conversion therapy in every state. The aim of the campaign is to “educate lawmakers and the public about the dangers of conversion therapy,” and by building a grassroots campaign of volunteers to get the mission accomplished by email, calls, and meeting with elected officials.
The repeating theme of “support” is of utmost importance to organization leaders. Even Psychology Today lists a national search bar on its website for trans, non-binary, and all LGBTG people who want to find a supportive network and therapists who do not condone conversion therapy.
Scott McCoy of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) represented several young men and two of their mothers in a landmark case against conversion therapists in New Jersey. The suit was brought under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA). The clients were awarded the amount they spent on conversion therapy which totaled around $1,000 for individual and group therapy sessions, and included the amount for a program called Journey Into Manhood. This program involved weekends in the woods with others struggling with same sex attraction in the hopes of converting them. One plaintiff, Ben Unger, won over $17,950 because he was reimbursed for what McCoy calls “legitimate” therapy Unger needed after undergoing conversion therapy. Which is all to say, apart from the trauma conversion therapy can wreak on a person’s emotional and psychological state, the financial implications can be devestating.
In Tampa, a case against a well known conversion therapist named Dr. Joseph Nicolosi alleges that Kevin Shelton spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on conversion therapy. This case was settled, but McCoy says, “These conversion therapists are charlatans who take advantage of desperate people and at great cost both financially and emotionally and psychologically.”
Sharing this kind of information and networking are of equal importance according to non-profit organizations, legal counsel, and church leaders. Sheena Kadi says that people must share their stories to stigmatize it to the point that faith communities hold their leaders accountable and stop trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Kadi remains optimistic for the future and cites the passing of Jude’s Law (HB19-1039) as a step forward. The bill streamlines the process of name changing for trans people.
“We also saw the passing of HB19-1120, allowing youth in Colorado as young as twelve to talk to a mental health specialist without parental notification. This allows questioning LBGTQ youth the chance to speak with an affirming counselor without fear of being rejected or kicked out by a non-affirming family,” Kadi says. In the future, One Colorado wants to add gender identity to the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA), banning the gay and trans panic defense, mandating LBGTQ affirming trainings for foster and adoptive parents, and treating mental health days as an excused absence at school.
Rep. Brianna Titone, who is the first openly trans person elected to the state of Colorado, says she headed a grassroots effort to get municipalities and cities to make proclamations against the practice to help raise awareness about the issue and try to sway the committee.
“Since I’ve started fighting to ban conversion therapy, I’ve spoken to more and more people who have told me their story. I realized that there had to be more who have been keeping it to themselves, or worse, died by suicide and their secret story also lost,” says Rep. Titone, who represents House District 27.
Rep. Titone says she thinks the best way to overcome the remaining barriers is to elect more LBGTQ people. “This helps people have the courage to be themselves, accept people who are different from them, and removes the stigma of being different. We all share the same basic goals and aspirations and elected officials help to show that we really do care about everyone.”
“I look back on myself as a kid; not being out, just being an awkward geeky kid and dealing with bullying. It makes me angry to think that kids are being told they can’t be themselves. To me, that’s bullying those kids in a different way and often by the people they are to trust the most,” says Rep. Titone.
“Colorado is fortunate to have made a lot of progress since 1992 when we were dubbed the ‘hate state.’ Since then, we have enacted many protections for LBGTQ community including banning conversion therapy for minors and removing burdensome requirement for trans people to get their birth certificate changed. However, there are always more thing we can do to clean up statutes and fill in holes where the LBGTQ community has been left out.”
Carissa Chen remains concerned that not enough is being done to enforce legal consequences against churches or individuals, such as clergy, who practice conversion therapy. “I need to find strength in this,” Carissa Chen says of her sister’s life, struggles with her sexual identity, and ultimately, her death.
Carissa Chen says her younger sister, Alana, “was special. She was talented in so many different ways. She got the best grades. She loved fashion. In her room, even now, there is a rack of clothes from a thrift store she was going to repurpose. She was into sustainable fashion, and she made jewelry. She was artistic in many ways.”
“I think a lot of people don’t understand that conversion therapy can be emotional and psychologically change someone through talk. My parents didn’t let or make her do anything. Alana herself at the time wanted to do this so she could be perfect for God, and become a nun,” Carissa Chen says.
Also revealed in Alana’s journal entries, which Carissa chose to share with Yellow Scene, Alana wrote about climate change advocacy and how to help local people in need. Carissa says Alana purposefully sat among the homeless in Boulder County and became close to a woman named “Shorty.” According to Carissa, her sister helped Shorty get into a rehab facility. “Alana wanted to help people.”
Joyce Calvo-Chen is dealing with immense grief and loss. But she wants her daughter’s story to reach someone and to make a difference. “I hope my daughter’s story will save lives. I want this outlawed for everyone, not just minors. It’s wrong.”
Since her death, Alana’s family has created a foundation to further educate people on conversion therapy and what the family sees as a major injustice. On the website, Chen’s mother shares the ways she feels the church mistreated her daughter. She asks supporters to contact the church to demand justice.
The newly created foundation’s page says, “The Alana Faith Chen Foundation is an organization that works diligently to provide mental health support and community education on mental illness and effects of trauma. The Alana Chen Foundation will be inclusive to all, including specific programs dedicated to helping the LBGTQ+ community.”
LBGTQ youth, parents, and community members can find support at coloradocrisisservices.org, the trevorproject.org, and crisistextline.org.