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Michael J. O’LoughlinSeptember 01, 2023
This is artwork for a new podcast series titled “Dear Alana,” which explores the struggles of same-sex attraction, faith and conversion therapy through the life and death of Alana Chen, a devout Catholic woman who wrestled with all three. (OSV News photo/courtesy Tenderfoot TV)

When Simon Kent Fung read about the death of Alana Chen, a 24-year-old Colorado woman who died by suicide in 2019, he broke down in the coffee shop where he learned the news. The details of their lives were so similar, he said, that he began to understand elements of his own life with greater clarity after reading about hers. Both Ms. Chen and Mr. Fung had been fervently Catholic as young adults, discerned vocations to religious life and struggled to reconcile their homosexuality with church teaching.

Mr. Fung, 39, sensing the heartbreak that Alana’s mother, Joyce Calvo, must have been experiencing following her daughter’s death, reached out on social media to offer his condolences. A few months later, Ms. Calvo replied and the pair began communicating regularly. On sabbatical from his job in tech, Mr. Fung eventually moved to Colorado to document Ms. Chen’s story, including her devotion to the church and her eventual death. His findings are laid out in a new, limited-series podcast, “Dear, Alana.”

The series chronicles Ms. Chen’s involvement in her Boulder, Colo., Catholic community and with therapy that seemed to use some ideas common in conversion therapy. (More than 20 states have banned conversion therapy for minors. While Catholic teaching says that homosexual acts are sinful, it does not condemn a homosexual inclination and thus does not officially condone conversion therapy.)

[Related: Conversion therapy is still happening in Catholic spaces—and its effects on L.G.B.T. people can be devastating]

Mr. Fung said many Americans have little understanding of what conversion therapy looks like in practice, perhaps thinking of religiously tinged camps where people seeking to change their sexual orientation or children sent against their will, are subjected to untested and sometimes controversial practices.

“But the kinds of conversion therapy that I and Alana experienced, I think, are much more common today,” Mr. Fung told America.

When he was discerning a call to the priesthood, Mr. Fung told his then-spiritual director that he experienced same-sex attraction. The priest suggested that Mr. Fung see a therapist who had ties to an organization that promotes the idea that individuals could be healed from traumas that led to homosexual thoughts. The organization, National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, was co-founded by three therapists, two of whom were Catholic.

Alana Chen and Simon Fung had been fervently Catholic as young adults, discerned vocations to religious life and struggled to reconcile their homosexuality with church teaching.

“Conversion therapy as it’s practiced today looks more like talk therapy, one on one with a therapist who employs a lot of conversion therapy ideologies and narratives in order to help their clients ‘heal’ from their ‘deviant sexual identity,’” Mr. Fung said.

Following the closure of the conversion therapy group Exodus International in 2013, few Christian leaders today still explicitly endorse conversion therapy, Mr. Fung said. But the ideas that drive the practice are still promoted in some church circles, including Catholic spaces, especially when it comes to chastity and sexual morality.

Proponents of conversion therapy have “become more sophisticated in rebranding and reframing these practices, but they’re still very much happening,” Mr. Fung said.

During her teenage years, Ms. Chen kept detailed journals of her experience discerning a vocation to religious life, her struggles with her sexual orientation and her eventual desire to end her life. Her mother, Ms. Calvo, wrote an essay for the National Catholic Reporter in 2022 in which she said that several priests and sisters who had become close to Alana had encouraged her daughter “to conceal and suppress her sexual orientation.”

“The Catholic Church must have an honest reckoning about conversion therapy and its deadly impact on LGBTQ+ youth, as well as about the priests and nuns who are abusing their spiritual authority to promote it,” Ms. Calvo wrote.

“My hope is that we can all as a church approach the topic of homosexuality, and other complicated issues of our time, with a little bit more humility,” Mr. Fung said.

Church officials in Colorado, as well as some of the clergy and groups highlighted in the “Dear, Alana” podcast, have denied that they suggested Ms. Chen seek out conversion therapy. The Archdiocese of Denver said in a statement to N.C.R. last year: “If a person seeks to better understand the Church’s teachings on chastity, marriage, and sexual relations, then we try to lovingly share with them what Catholics believe is God’s design for human sexuality. A person is always free to accept or reject what the Church teaches, but it is not ‘conversion therapy’ or ‘religious abuse’ to teach about the beauty of a life of chastity.”

Mr. Fung said that despite his experiences with conversion therapy, he still considers himself Catholic. While reporting a story, like Ms. Chen’s, that portrays the church in a negative light has been difficult, Mr. Fung said he approached the project “like having a really hard conversation with your family.”

“The church is an incredibly important part of my identity,” Mr. Fung said. “In order for there to be healing, there needs to be an honest reckoning with the ways in which harm may have been caused, both intentionally and unintentionally.”

Like Ms. Chen, Mr. Fung said that as a young adult, he was drawn to Catholic communities that preached “a really compelling version of certainty,” especially around sexual morality. Those communities, he said, “offer shortcuts to certainty that bypass really difficult and complicated realities that young people are experiencing, and that’s where it can become dangerous.”

Through his reporting, Mr. Fung said he hopes church leaders will listen to the stories of L.G.B.T. Catholics, “so that we can, as a church, begin walking toward a deeper understanding of some of the challenges that young people are facing.”

“My hope is that we can all as a church approach the topic of homosexuality, and other complicated issues of our time, with a little bit more humility, and recognize that there is a world of experience that we have yet to discover,” he said.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Simon Kent Fung as 38 years old.

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