The parents of a gay teenager say her former Catholic high school in the Los Angeles area subjected her to over two years of deeply detrimental conversion therapy ― without ever asking for parental approval.
Magali Rodriguez’s parents say they would have never allowed the 17-year-old high school senior to continue attending Bishop Amat Memorial High School in La Puente if they’d known she was being pulled out of class to attend the counseling sessions.
Based on what their daughter has told them about the sessions, both parents independently told HuffPost they believe the teen was exposed to conversion therapy at Bishop Amat ― something they wouldn’t have wanted if they’d had the choice.
“They wanted to talk her out of being gay, out of feeling this way,” her mother, Martha A. Tapia-Rodriguez, said of the sessions. “They wanted to convince her that this was something bad.”
“I’m just so enraged at the fact that it went on for such a long time and we didn’t know anything about it,” Tapia-Rodriguez added.
The parents learned about the source of their daughter’s deepening distress only after she wrote them a letter in late September. They pulled Magali out of the Catholic school a few days later.
Tapia-Rodriguez said her heart races and her hands start shaking when she thinks about what her child secretly endured. She said she is speaking up now to warn other parents of queer kids at Catholic schools to remain alert.
“I don’t want this to happen to any other child or any other parent,” she said. “[Heartbroken] doesn’t even begin to touch the surface of how I feel.”
Bishop Amat is the biggest private school in Los Angeles County. It is part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, whose leader, Archbishop José Gómez, is the newly elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The school has a good academic reputation, Tapia-Rodriguez said, which is mainly why Magali decided to enroll as a freshman. Some of the teen’s family members, including her father, had also attended the school.
Asked to respond to the parents’ allegation that their daughter was exposed to conversion therapy at Bishop Amat, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles told HuffPost that it was not able to discuss specifics of this matter out of respect for the student’s privacy.
“We do not believe that statements made by the student and her parent are entirely accurate, but we are not at liberty to discuss the student’s status or share her personal information,” spokeswoman Adrian Alarcon told HuffPost.
Bishop Amat issued a statement on Friday as about 200 students staged a walkout in support of Magali. The school said that it was committed to providing a “supportive and inclusive” learning environment for students irrespective of their sexual orientation.
“Any student who is involved in a relationship may socialize appropriately on campus,” the statement read. “However, as stated in the Parent/Student handbook, engaging in excessive displays of affection on campus is not permitted.”
Tapia-Rodriguez insists that her daughter did not engage in excessive public displays of affection at school, especially compared with her straight peers. The mother also faulted the school for failing to publicly address what she thinks is a much bigger issue: that they exposed Magali to counseling to alter her sexual orientation without parental consent.
Conversion therapy, also referred to as reparative therapy or sexual orientation change efforts, encompasses a range of widely discredited tactics used to try to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Researchers say the practice is ineffective and potentially harmful for children. Even non-aversive forms of the practice, such as talk therapy, can be dangerous, experts say, since patients have reported suicidal thoughts, hopelessness and an increase in depression and anxiety.
Catholic doctrine teaches that same-sex relationships are “intrinsically disordered.” The church has tried to distinguish between being gay and being in a same-sex relationship ― claiming that it’s only the latter that is sinful. The only church-sanctioned options for lesbian or gay Catholics are lifelong celibacy or eventually marrying someone of the opposite sex.
At the same time, American Catholics have gradually become more accepting of queer love. Most Catholics (61%) now say that they support same-sex marriage, according to the Pew Research Center.
Tapia-Rodriguez said employees at Bishop Amat High School noticed her daughter’s close friendship with an older female student and singled her out for counseling before the two students officially began dating ― and before Magali had properly come out to herself. The employees allegedly coaxed Magali into acknowledging that she was gay and then promised that they wouldn’t inform her parents if she attended counseling sessions and followed a set of strict rules, such as not sitting close to her girlfriend at lunch.
Members of Bishop Amat’s staff were on high alert to call out and shut down any signs of affection between Magali and her girlfriend, Tapia-Rodriguez said. The mother believes Magali was regularly called in to be berated by a dean of discipline for hanging out with her girlfriend.
In addition, Magali’s parents say that from the end of the teen’s freshman year to the end of her junior year, she attended about 20 private counseling sessions. Most were with a counselor on the school’s staff, while a few were with a faith-based psychologist they claim was specifically brought in to counsel Magali. During the sessions, the mother said, the counselors discussed Catholic theology about same-sex relationships and tried to apply this theology to what the teen was going through. The counselors allegedly asked the teen why she thought she was gay and tried to convince her that her relationship with her girlfriend was not what God wanted for her.
Magali’s father, Nicolas Rodriguez, said that from what his daughter has told him so far, the sessions sound like conversion therapy.
“The goal there was pretty much to shame her to stop or to change her,” the father told HuffPost.
California was the first state to ban licensed therapists, including credentialed school psychologists, from practicing conversion therapy on minors. The state’s law defines conversion therapy as practices that seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation, including efforts “to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex.” The law does not apply to unlicensed individuals, according to the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality California.
Bishop Amat’s counseling sessions and the allegedly hostile attitude of some staff members had a profoundly negative effect on the girl, the parents said. The formerly straight-A student’s grades started to slip, and she became increasingly anxious and depressed, they said.
Tapia-Rodriguez said that Magali referred to Bishop Amat as “hell.” When asked why, the teen said, “God doesn’t live there,” her mother said.
Her parents tried to press her for more details about why she hated the school but said she wouldn’t elaborate.
Looking back, Tapia-Rodriguez said she believes her daughter learned to equate being in a same-sex relationship with being in trouble.
“She’s never been the kind of girl who got in trouble,” Tapia-Rodriguez said. “She thought that my parents work hard to put her through this school and she didn’t want to be in trouble, didn’t want to let [us] down.”
Tapia-Rodriguez said that Magali came out to her parents during her sophomore year. The family embraced her, her mother said, and ensured her that she was loved. After that, the teen slowly started pushing back against the counseling she was receiving at school, her mom said.
Then Magali’s girlfriend graduated, which meant she didn’t have that support system anymore. Things came to a head this September, when Magali wrote her parents a letter describing how miserable she was at school. The parents were alarmed at the tone of the letter.
“My heart dropped,” Nicolas Rodriguez said. “It unfortunately sounded like a suicide letter, a serious cry for help.”
The letter prompted a discussion with Magali in which she opened up about her experiences at Bishop Amat. Rodriguez said he was “furious” when he learned about the counseling sessions.
“How the school could do something like that, refer some kind of psychiatric care without our knowledge, I just couldn’t understand that,” he said.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the LGBTQ Catholic group DignityUSA, told HuffPost that what Magali’s parents say happened to their daughter violates their parental rights. She also said it shows how conversion therapy continues to be imposed on minors in an irresponsible way.
U.S. Catholic schools have developed a wide array of tactics for handling LGBTQ identity among students, Duddy-Burke said. Some have allowed student clubs that work on making school culture inclusive to the extent that the administration feels comfortable. Other Catholic schools actively discourage students from expressing LGBTQ identity, she said. Duddy-Burke said she’s heard of school officials recommending conversion therapists to parents but hasn’t heard of students being subjected to conversion therapy at the school itself.
Overall, it’s nearly impossible for a Catholic school to be completely affirming, she said, and she believes students “sense that conditional acceptance.”
“Many Catholic institutions have no idea how to address LGBTQ issues, among students or employees, given the tensions that exist in our church and society on this,” Duddy-Burke said. “They have a lot to learn, and we hope they will see this crisis as an opportunity to hear from students, parents and people who have expertise in LGBTQ Catholic issues.”
Samuel Garrett-Pate, a spokesperson for Equality California, told HuffPost that Magali’s story shows that too many Californians are still subjected to psychological abuse by those who are supposed to be caring for their emotional and psychological well-being.
“So-called ‘conversion therapy’ doesn’t work, isn’t needed and causes lifelong psychological damage,” Garrett-Pate said. “It’s a harmful, ineffective solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Magali is now finishing her senior year at another high school. Her parents say they’ve placed the teen in therapy and are actively trying to counter some of the negative messaging she received at Bishop Amat about her sexual orientation.
Tapia-Rodriguez said she understands that, as a private school, Bishop Amat can set its own standards about same-sex relationships among students. But she said she wishes the school had called her and said, “Your daughter’s views and beliefs are different than what we believe here.”
Instead, she said, “they kept her, they kept taking our money and took it upon themselves to counsel her and make her feel like shit.”