The Storyteller Becomes the Story
In 2020, Yellow Scene covered the story of Alana Chen, a 24-year-old from Louisville. Her death, ruled a suicide, was a tragedy that has stirred concerns within the local LBGTQ community and its allies since her body was discovered in a reservoir.
Chen’s past involvement in conversion therapy sessions and her relationship with her church’s leaders gained attention during the search. She’d been counseled by church officials not to disclose her sexual orientation with her family, and to covertly seek conversion therapy, which she did for seven years. A compelling new podcast, “Dear Alana,” is shedding light on conversion therapy, specifically in the context of religious organizations.
Before you read on
Some readers may be tempted to dismiss this story as something that couldn’t happen to them — especially those of us who don’t belong to any sort of religious organization. Conversion therapy must only happen to the “brainwashed”, the ultra-religious, or those with “bad parents” who forced them into it to “cure” their child of homosexuality. Popular films such as “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and “But I’m a Cheerleader” have played into these tropes in some ways. But many of our societal mores are so entrenched in religious concepts that they’re virtually imperceptible.
“We can denounce religion and reject its beliefs at a literal level, but its traditions, these tenets of “good” and “bad,” are woven into the fabric of society. They don’t need our approval or subscription to hold us captive. They operate in us on a subconscious level.” ? Elise Loehnen, On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good
Ultimately, we pay a price to try and be “good” whether in the face of our religion, our families, our friends, or our workplaces. The following interview examines one such price, and whether free will or choice were actually possible in these circumstances.
Yes, conversion therapy still exists
Conversion therapy, or Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression Change Efforts (SOGIECE) is a discredited practice aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, involving manipulative techniques that can lead to severe psychological distress. Despite increasing scrutiny, providers employ varied terminologies, such as “Reparative therapy,” and “Healing sexual brokenness,” among others, which can sometimes appear innocuous. Studies have highlighted the risks, however: Conversion therapy has been found to be “the strongest predictor of multiple suicide attempts, even after adjustment for other known risk factors”.
The UCLA Williams Institute estimates that 698,000 LGBTQ adults in the U.S. have undergone conversion therapy, and tens of thousands of youth will receive it from healthcare professionals or religious advisors.
Leading U.S. organizations, including the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, have opposed conversion therapy, citing lack of evidence in its efficacy and potential harms. Laws protecting LGBTQ+ youth from conversion therapy have been enacted in 22 states, including California, New Jersey, Colorado, and Oregon.
Despite the passing of such laws, such as Colorado’s HB19-1129, tragic outcomes such as Alana Chen’s underscore the need for continued awareness and education to prevent similar situations in the future.
A shocking embedded narrative
Upon learning of Chen’s passing in the news in 2019, tech and media professional Simon Kent Fung was taken aback at the similarities between her story and his own — so much so that he was compelled to find out more about what happened to her, and what occurred in the years leading up to her tragic death. Fung embarked on a journey of discovery and research, which ultimately led to the examination of his own life and secrets he’d been keeping from the people closest to him.
After over a year of correspondence, Fung met with Chen’s mother, Joyce Calvo. Calvo was determined to share her daughter’s struggles, which she’d kept hidden away for so many years during her adolescence. What he discovered led him to create a podcast, Dear Alana, which explores the deep complexities of Chen’s story, her engagement with church leaders, and the emotional toll it took on her. Chen’s family believes that her interactions with the church staff exacerbated her struggles, leading to feelings of shame and confusion.
Fung explained to YS why Chen’s story was so shocking to him. “It mapped to a lot of my own experiences. I spent almost all of my 20s seeking conversion therapy in my attempt to become a Catholic priest. I connected to Alana’s deep faith and her desire to find belonging in the community.” The more Fung learned about Chen’s story, the more he realized there was more to the story and he wanted to understand the events leading up to her death.
Chen’s family was supportive of the podcast’s concept, which initially was more of a ‘passion project’ according to Fung. The family allowed him access to her journals, of which there were more than two dozen as well as her emails and phone. The material became the basis of Dear Alana. Fung also developed a relationship with Chen’s mother, and believes her openness and willingness to share her story is reflected in the podcast.
The excerpts of Chen’s journals that Fung highlights in Dear Alana, describing her inner struggles, her anguish and her shame, are especially heartbreaking to the listener. “Religion is complicated,” stated Fung as he narrated the podcast. “We have to find shame and comfort from the same ancient faith.”
“In my case,” he explained, “my faith and religious community provided me with an incredible and really deep sense of belonging and identity on one hand. At the same time it perhaps inadvertently perpetuated a sense of deep shame around other parts of my identity that I felt were in conflict with that faith. Unfortunately, a lot of the guidance we both received in some senses also perpetuated that shame.”
Fung explains that the dichotomy between finding love and some form of acceptance and the shame and isolation isn’t unique to religion — we experience this in our families, schools, and other communities we’re a part of. “Hopefully this podcast can show that while the setting of a lot of these experiences was in our faith communities, that they’re not isolated to those spaces, and are actually more common than we’d like to think.”
While listening to Dear Alana, the commonalities between both Fung and Chen with regard to oscillating trust and mistrust during their journeys are clear — not only in external organizations such as their churches, but with their friends and family members. To Fung, so much of the story is centered around coming of age and adolescence, an already turbulent time in most of our lives: “In that period, we do often take issue with the authority figures in our lives, and find new ones. I think that’s a common experience. Alana certainly went through that with her mother, and I find that a very relatable part of growing up. For me, what made things more complicated, and for Alana, so much of the therapy we pursued in the name of “fixing ourselves” was tied up in neo-freudian theories of parental trauma and psychological wounds. This set up distrust for me towards my parents and especially toward my father. I felt like he was both the cause of my gayness and the source of healing or “fixing” of my sexuality. There was a real concerted attempt to work with my dad in and outside of therapy to work on our relationship.”
“As much as there were many parallels, there were also many differences,” Fung continued. “She wasn’t bullied as a child, she was well-loved, she was accepted in her family and friend group, and I wasn’t. I was bullied at school in a way that made me very depressed. That was a foundation for a lot of my own faith journey. For Alana, there were certainly moments of isolation that she expresses in her journals even as a young child, but the church provided a sense of community and belonging in addition to her other social groups. It was also a stable place that she’d sneak out to attend when things were rocky between her mother and father. Church for a lot of people is a source of stability and tranquility; a kind of home away from home. One of the things I hope the podcast can show is that there are a lot of positive reasons why people gravitate toward faith communities. I think we see a lot of that happening in both Alana’s and my own life.”
While preparing for “Dear Alana,” Fung was listening to between six and eight hours of archival tape of conversion therapists and practitioners. The material brought him back to the period in his life when he was desperately seeking answers and led to panic attacks which he describes vividly in the podcast.
He admits to still feeling the allure of some of these theories: “They’re able to offer a very clean explanation for my life,” Fung told us. “And it’s still something that I wrestle with. One of the challenging things about conversion therapy is that it can draw on a lot of common experiences so many of us have had: trauma, isolation, feeling alone. What it does is attach a narrative to the causes of your sexual orientation.”
Fung wanted to demonstrate in the podcast that conversion therapy isn’t always on the surface confrontational, coercive or physically violent, though it certainly can be.
“It can look like talk therapy, group therapy, and spiritual practices that anchor on the idea of one’s sexuality as a pathology that can be fixed,” he explained. Fung told YS that he sees that conversion therapy perpetuates a deep sense of shame, manifested in several layers: shame one already feels around being different due to their sexual orientation, shame from the conversion therapy narratives that “something horrible” happened to a person that made them this way, and finally the shame of being “unsuccessful” after having gone through the conversion therapy. “Those three levels end up stacking,” he said. “and end up driving a lot of young people to despair.”
Fung recalled experiencing those feelings of despair and exhaustion at a point in his life when he moved to a new apartment in the Bay Area of San Francisco. “Everyone’s life was progressing, and had something to look forward to and I didn’t, because this part of me was still unresolved. I was pleading with God. I was so exhausted from pursuing all of this. I thought, ‘I don’t think I can keep doing this. I don’t think I can keep trying to change this part of me, because if I do, I will wither and die’.” That moment in the apartment was a turning point for Fung, when he decided to consider other options in his life outside of religious vocation.
A true choice?
Fung questioned whether conversion therapy was in fact a choice he made for himself. “In reality, I think we were set up to pursue this based on the stakes at play, religiously.”
Conversion therapy is illegal for minors in Colorado, but the law came into effect after Chen had already been attending specific programs. “The question of coercion versus free choice is a really interesting one in this case, for both Alana and myself,” he told YS. “I think we both really did feel like we were choosing a path that was going to bring us close to our vocations. However, it’s been pointed out to me while making Dear Alana, that this may not be a real choice for a lot of people, given the religious and existential stakes at play.”
Fung spoke with researchers and psychotherapists regarding conversion therapy. He relayed some words that stayed with him were ‘It’s not a free choice when you have an existential gun to your head.’ Fung explained the impact of the phrase: “If you don’t change, you miss out on following your life’s purpose and are at risk of going to hell. So I think that’s an added dimension that makes the issue of agency more complicated.”
Fung is still a practicing Catholic, and is still close to members of his faith community — who he describes as well-meaning people trying to navigate these questions for themselves. For Fung, part of the sadness of Chen’s story is a lack of closure. “It can be hard to find accountability when a lot of the awareness and education of what harm can look like is not confronted,” he told us. “A lot of religious communities don’t get to hear about the experience from the people under their care, who they’re giving this guidance to. One of my goals is to bring some awareness and education to spaces that are feeling very threatened right now by what they would consider an antagonistic culture towards their beliefs — in a way that doesn’t necessarily point fingers but that we can unintentionally be harmful toward those we love.”
Fung refers to one of Chen’s journal passages where she described how conflicted she was about the guidance she was getting because it was “in the language of love, and loving her. She was concerned that the ‘loving’ these communities were providing were actually causing harm.” Fung doesn’t believe Chen ever recovered from the sense of betrayal she felt from the Church community and her advisors.
“The richness, beauty and depths of love can only be fully experienced in a climate of complete openness, honesty and vulnerability.” – Anthony Venn Brown, former Australian evangelist and author of A Life of Unlearning — Coming out of the church
Telling the story
Fung believes that by sharing his story alongside Chen’s in the podcast is his contribution to the conversation, and a means of speaking up, and that listening to Dear Alana, will help others who are experiencing similar struggles to feel less alone, and realize there are alternatives and help available. He also hopes that people will learn to recognize conversion therapy and the ways in which it can show up, as well as the harm it can cause. Bringing lived experience into the conversation, he believes, will “provide more perspective on what can be seen as a purely political culture war issue.”
Fung told YS that he wanted to publicly explain “what it’s like to be caught in the middle of faith and queer spaces. This project aims to be honest about what that experience is like. A lot of LGBTQ folks end up leaving their religious communities. So you end up having a selection bias around who remains in those spaces to provide the input back into those communities in terms of how they’re being affected. This project aims to provide a bridge between those spaces, and provide folks in religious and non-religious spaces understand.”
“The sense of not having a future for oneself is really common for a lot of LGBTQ folks,” according to Fung. “We’re presented with a limited set of options, and if we can’t find ourselves living in one of them, we feel like there’s something wrong with us. Some of us go to really great lengths to try and ‘fix’ that.”
The magic of storytelling is that part of our story lives on in others. We become a living mise en abyme — a picture within a picture within a picture. For everyone who listens to Dear Alana, her story continues and lives on.
We asked Fung what advice he’d give to a young person struggling with their sexual orientation and faith: “I’d tell them that you’re deeply good. You are not defective. It’s possible to be a person of faith and to live a full life as oneself.”
If you or someone you know is struggling, please visit the resources on the Dear Alana webpage.