“Alana was the sensitive, quiet and empathetic child. She loved to write poetry, play guitar and make her own clothes. She was an amazing writer, singer and artist. As a mother, I saw teenage Alana grow in devotion and piety. While her other siblings lost interest in the church, she would attend daily Mass as often as she could, serve the homeless under bridges in Boulder, lead worship for Catholic middle school youth groups and go on a mission trip to Rwanda. People at the parish called her ‘a saint.’”
That is how Joyce Calvo remembers her daughter, Alana Chen, who died by suicide in December 2019. Her death followed years of emotional, spiritual, and mental abuse by Catholic ministers because of Chen’s sexual orientation. In a recent article published in the National Catholic Reporter, Calvo shares memories of her daughter, while at the same time urging Catholic leadership to care for LGBTQ youth instead of condemning them to a fate of shame and despair.
Calvo includes excerpts of her daughter’s journals, concluding “that priests and other representatives of the church encouraged her to conceal and suppress her sexual orientation.” When she was 13, Alana met Fr. David Nix at a summer camp, and he became her “spiritual director” without her parent’s permission or knowledge. (More details of Chen’s story were recounted in previous Bondings 2.0 reports here and here.)
“Nix told her not to tell anyone, especially her parents, who he believed would affirm her identity,” Calvo explains. “Instead, he invited her to meet with him regularly. He gave her disturbing articles vilifying gay people and asked her to share intimate personal details about her sexual feelings. He insisted she could change her orientation. And that this would make her worthy to be a nun.”
Alana was instructed to “date boys, change the way she dressed and quit her Frisbee team to avoid gay teammates.” She was directed to multiple religious groups whose messaging correlates with conversion therapy practices. While conversion therapy is banned in Calvo’s state of Colorado, she warns that this law does not apply to pastoral counseling and spiritual direction.
The daughter eventually left the church and sought help from treatment centers “but Alana could not heal from the shame, abandonment and rumors that were told that hurt her so deeply,” Calvo says. “In spite of support from her friends and family, Alana suffered from acute post-traumatic stress and depression, and could not step into a Catholic church without having a panic attack.”
Alana wrote in her journal about the “despair at being unable to change and grief at being abandoned” by her faith community. “Why couldn’t they love all of me?” she writes, “I’m so tired of being afraid of going to hell.”
“Alana died by suicide on Dec. 8, 2019,” Calvo states. “As I write this, I am still in disbelief that my precious girl is never coming back. I won’t hear her sweet singing or watch her compete in a tournament. I weep at how her soul was tortured in the name of God.”
Calvo urges readers to “stop rejecting LGBTQ+ children” and stresses that “there is no justification for harming LGBTQ youth.” She hopes her story-telling and advocacy “will alert Catholic parents to beware the devastating impact the church can have on their LGBTQ+ children” and “persuade people speaking for the church to abandon their misguided and dangerous attempts to alter what God has made.”
Alana’s life and story have touched many lives, especially those within the LGBTQ community. Calvo says:
“Like Alana, these people felt rejected and abandoned by the church simply for being who they are — for an aspect of themselves that is not chosen, and over which they have no control. I believe we are created in the image and likeness of God, therefore Alana was created and loved perfectly as she was.”
May those of us in the LGBTQ Catholic community remember Alana and pray for her guidance in the effort to save vulnerable youth from religious manipulation, abuse, and trauma. May we all challenge church officials who seek to demonize and condemn our God-given identities. And may we build our faith communities to be ones that affirm the life, love and dignity of our young people.
—Elise Dubravec (she/her), New Ways Ministry, January 21, 2022