Gay conversion therapy is abuse

The White House support for a ban doesn't go far enough

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 10, 2015 6:13PM (EDT)

       (<a href=''>Lindsay Douglas</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Lindsay Douglas via Shutterstock)

When the White House this week responded to a petition for a sweeping ban on gay conversion therapy with a resounding affirmation of a "dedication to protecting America’s youth" and support for an end to the practice, it was a grand and hopeful move toward finally eradicating a deeply unsound form of counseling. But other recent events have shown just how very far we still have to go — and why stricter regulation is so urgently needed.

On Wednesday, the same goddam day the Obama administration was expressing the need to end a practice that the American Psychological Association, World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Counseling Association have all opposed, Republicans in the Colorado state Senate rejected a Democratic sponsored bill to ban conversion therapy. In a statement, Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs asserted, "I am hesitant to use the heavy hand of government to take away the dignity of choice in cases where individuals want this therapy. Additionally, I was unconvinced about the need for legislation on what can be an internally moderated practice, as we heard testimony from psychological organizations that are free to set their own ethical standards of practice." Similar proposed bans died on the table last year in Hawaii, Maryland, Virginia and Minnesota, although legislation is moving forward again in Minnesota. Other states are currently mulling bans, including, surprisingly, Texas, where the state Republican party just last year "recognized the legitimacy and value of counseling which offers reparative therapy." But right now only California, New Jersey and the District of Columbia outright ban the practice. And in Oklahoma in February, State Rep. Sally Kern introduced a Freedom to Obtain Conversion Therapy Act that would assert "The people of this state have the right to seek and obtain counseling or conversion therapy from a mental health provider in order to control or end any unwanted sexual attraction, and no state agency shall infringe upon that right. Parents may obtain such counseling or therapy for their children under eighteen (18) years of age without interference by the state."

Let's remember that when people (Republicans) talk about "the dignity of choice," they are talking about something that is being done to minors. They are talking about parents making their children undergo "treatment" from people opposed to their orientation. Look, if you're a grownup and you want to not be gay, good luck. But if you're a parent, you should never be allowed to attempt to force your child to change his or her orientation. As the American Academy of Pediatrics said way back in 1993, "Counseling may be helpful for young people who are uncertain about their sexual orientation or for those who are uncertain about how to express their sexuality and might profit from an attempt at clarification through a counseling or psychotherapeutic initiative. Therapy directed specifically at changing sexual orientation is contraindicated, since it can provoke guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in orientation."

Never forget that the whole White House Petition was inspired by the December suicide of 17 year-old transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, whose parents had taken her to Christian therapists, and who told her that "I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help." As Fallon Fox wrote in Time in January, that's not choice, that's child abuse. "We cannot allow religious beliefs to cross the line of medicine and abuse our youth," Fox wrote. And in Buzzfeed Thursday, Patrick Strudwick wrote of his horrendous experience as an adult undercover reporter with a reparative therapist in the UK. This is a uniformly terrible and unjust practice.

Two years ago, of the country's biggest "ex gay" ministries, Exodus International, dramatically shut down when president Alan Chambers issued a public apology for "years of undue suffering and judgment at the hands of the organization and the Church as a whole." And until the barbaric conversion therapy movement is decisively debunked and shut down, we have more years of suffering ahead, for more young and vulnerable individuals. As Samantha Ames of the National Center for Lesbian Rights told Vice in its report on the practice, it's "an industry that if profiting off the harm and sometimes death of kids."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Exodus International Gay Conversion Therapy Leelah Alcorn Lgbt