“Conversion therapy”: Therapy that isn’t
California is poised to play an important role in banning the dangerous practice of anti-gay “conversion therapy” for minors. The state Senate has already passed a ban, and as early as this week, the state Assembly will consider a bill that would prohibit mental health practitioners from trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender expression.
It is not as though the jury is still out on this kind of “therapy.” The consensus of leading professional associations is not only that conversion therapy doesn’t work; it is also potentially harmful. The American Psychological Assn., the American Counseling Assn. and the American Psychiatric Assn. all declared long ago that being gay, lesbian or bisexual is not a form of mental illness or defect, and they have issued statements criticizing the practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation.
Recently, even the president of Exodus, one of the most prominent national groups advocating conversion therapy, announced that he no longer believes a person’s sexual orientation can simply be changed. He also said he no longer supports so-called “reparative” therapy, which is based on a belief that same-sex attraction results from emotional traumas in childhood.
Mental health therapy is not a wholly standardized practice, but there are many research-based approaches for helping with the myriad mental health issues with which people struggle. In contrast, conversion therapy has no reputable research to support its use, no well-designed studies demonstrating its efficacy and no research-based protocols for administering it. Without these tools, it is difficult to even get a sense of what these therapists are doing to children. Techniques discussed publicly include the use of shame, verbal abuse, exposure to pornography and even aversion training with electric shock and nausea-inducing drugs. Not only can these techniques cause significant harm, their stated goal — changing a gay kid into a straight kid — cannot be achieved.
So why would professionals with advanced training and degrees offer such therapy? Our profession is no different from any other. Some mental health practitioners are bigoted, uneducated or self-loathing. In this case, these characteristics are commonly cloaked in the shroud of deeply held religious conviction.
It is easy to enjoy a chuckle when “formerly gay” therapists or advocates of conversion therapy are caught in gay bars or hire “rent boys” to carry their bags on holiday. We need to stop chuckling at these scandals and do something to stop the real and serious harm the proponents of these practices are doing. These “experts” will not stop selling this useless and harmful product until we ban it.
As evidenced by clinical accounts, as well as reported suicides, conversion therapy can be extremely harmful, especially to children. Having a mental health professional label a child’s sexual attractions as wrong and abnormal contributes to problems rather than alleviating them.
Many parents struggle to accept their children as they are, and this makes them vulnerable to the misrepresentations of therapists who offer false reassurances that “no child is really gay.” As long as there continues to be a market for these fraudulent treatments, they will be offered, and children will be harmed — unless the law is changed and parents are better educated about how to cope with a child who may be gay or gender nonconforming.
When I was a practicing psychologist in Florida, I helped patients, and at times their families, recover from this sort of therapeutic assault. The “treatments” administered in those cases left the individuals ashamed, confused and often alienated from their families. Most strikingly, many families ended up angry with the purported experts for leading them down a path that caused harm to their families and children.
Families struggling with revelations that their children are attracted to those of the same sex, or identify as another gender, do often need help. But the help they need is in understanding that there is nothing wrong with their children. Their child can grow up to be an astronaut, Olympic athlete, television star, lawyer, firefighter, teacher or whatever he or she wants to be. The family may need help in shifting its thinking or in finding available resources to smooth the child’s road. And the child may need help in identifying heroes and forging a path through sometimes difficult circumstances.
As a society, we need to step up and help protect these families from being harmed by therapists who claim to be experts, but are really just peddling hate.
Lara Embry is a clinical psychologist and a member of the board of Equality California. She is married to actress Jane Lynch.
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