If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and that is exactly what a proposed bill banning conversion therapy in Erie County, NY communicates to citizens about sexuality and gender identity. Patrick Burke, a county legislator and a supporter of LGBTQ rights and protections crafted the bill, Prevention of Emotional Neglect and Childhood Endangerment, which creates the clever acronym, P.E.N.C.E., as in Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a supporter of conversion therapy. These so called “reparative therapies” have been around for a long time. They have sought (and failed) to “cure” lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth and adults. Worse yet, they have caused much harm in the lives of people who underwent these treatments. But are anti-conversion therapy bills enough to protect the public from these dangerous practices?
Conversion Therapy Battle Lines
The 2016 Republican Party platform included a section that asserts parents have the right to decide what kind of treatment or therapy their minor children can receive. This was not an innocent random insert into a decidedly right-leaning platform, and it was not simply the outgrowth of an anti-LGBTQ agenda promoted by folks like Mike Pence and the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins. This was a battle cry in reaction to state laws banning conversion therapy for minors in liberal-leaning states like New Jersey, Oregon, and California. It also served as a Republican rebuke to President Obama, who spoke out publicly against conversion therapy after the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl. In her suicide note Leelah revealed she had been forced to receive religious-based conversion treatment in order to destroy her gender identity, much like folks like me were bullied into praying away the gay.
Whenever a lawmaker stands up for the rights of LGBTQ people, I am thrilled. We need legislative protections and elected protectors. Thank you Patrick Burke! Still I do not see these laws that ban conversion therapy for minors as the silver bullet in protecting people—young and old—from the harm of reparative therapy.
In a recent piece by Steve Blum writing for Vice, I spoke out against conversion therapy and warned that these bills banning its practice do not stop most groups and people who offer it, namely churches, conservative Christian institutions, Christian counselors, and pastors.
Peterson Toscano, a playwright who survived ex-gay therapy and is now outspoken against the practice, believes Pence's anti-gay views could embolden leaders who run conversion programs. That said, Toscano doesn't believe banning the practice will work. "These laws affect trained therapists who are giving secular therapy. So what happens at the alter, what happens at the counseling session, what happens at the Christian camp—that typically isn't affected by any of these laws."
Every major medical association has denounced conversion therapy, particularly in regards to lesbian and gay people. The professionally trained therapists are not the ones who offer these “services” to their gay and lesbian clients. Rather it is the Christian counselor, the youth paster, and the senior minister who provide conversion treatments under the umbrella of pastoral counseling which is protected by the separation of church and state. It is not called therapy—rather it is seen as ministry. Laws like the PENCE bill proposed by Patrick Burke in no way affect the treatment of gay and lesbian youth in churches, in Christian counseling centers, and in the Christian camps that often have as their unstated mission the intent recruit and convert gay and lesbian kids and turn them into straight shooting soldiers in the army of the Lord.
Not only gay youth affected
Similarly therapists and ministers who offer reparative therapy to adults are not affected by these laws, which are aimed at protecting minors. Adults have the right to do whatever silly thing they want to do with their sexuality. And the reality is that the vast majority of people who have been through ex-gay ministries and conversion therapists’ offices since the early 1980’s have been adults who elected to undergo these harmful treatments. Like most of these troubled souls, I too felt I was more valuable to the world and safer if I were masculine and straight. The conditions were such that my cowardice and need for acceptance led me to 17 years of ex-gay madness that ended up hurting me and lots of other people.
Bisexuals and conversion therapy have not been discussed much publicly. Both liberal gays and Conservative anti-gays are often invested in denying the reality of bisexuality. Like in some gay and lesbian spaces where bisexuals are invalidated and told they need to just come out gay already, bisexuals in conservative churches are simply told to behave straight and forget about their gay selves altogether.
Much like in every area of life though the queer people most affected by conversion therapy, are transgender and non-binary (genderqueer) people. While it is rare (but not unheard of) today for professionally trained therapists to counsel a gay or lesbian youth to pursue a straight life, it is still common to find secular therapists that insist clients need to conform to the sex they were assigned at birth. Trans conversion therapy is something that is alive and well. It has devastating affects.
Trans Conversion Therapy
My friend, Diana, a trans equality activist in New England, informed me of the 2015 US Transgender Survey. Professionals counseling a person away from being transgender is so common that the researchers included it in the survey. The respondents reveal the devastating effects.
Participants who had a professional try to stop them from being transgender were:
- Far more likely to currently be experiencing serious psychological distress (47%) than those who did not have the experience (34%).
- More likely to have attempted suicide (58%) than those who did not have the experience (39%).
- Nearly three times as likely to have run away from home (22%) than those who did not have the experience (8%).
- More likely to have ever experienced homelessness (46%) than those who did not have the experience (29%).
- More likely to have ever done sex work (18%) than those who did not have the experience (11%).
With such disastrous results, I understand the need to legally ban these types of conversion treatment programs. Laws banning conversion therapy send a powerful signal to the public about the dangers of tampering with someone’s sexuality and gender identity, but they come with a legal risk. These laws ultimately can be challenged by conservatives in federal courts leading to a Supreme Court decision. If we have a Conservative-leaning Supreme Court, it may well strike down these laws and embolden anti-LGBTQ therapists and ministers even more.
Besides legal bans—what we can and must do
But we are not helpless to counter these conversion therapies. As my friend Ruth Ann, a trained therapist in the UK reminds me, what is needed is informed consent. The more parents who pursue conversion therapy for their children, and the potential recipients of these treatments know about the risks and dangers that come with them, the more likely they will avoid these practices.
Parents often operate out of fear of what might happen to their LGBTQ child. These parents live with misinformation about the vibrant, healthy, and happy lives that many LGBTQ live. They hear about hate crimes, diseases, suicide, and possible erosions of rights; they assume that is the whole picture. As they learn of other stories, and discover the diversity of LGBTQ lives, including LGBTQ people of faith, their fears will be assuaged and they can replace their fears with positive images of their child’s future.
As conversion therapy survivors tell their stories—why they or their parents pursued conversion therapy, what was it like, how it damaged them and their relationships—people pursuing these treatments will reconsider.
If you have survived conversion therapy in whatever form, use art, YouTube, a chat with a local pastor, or social media to tell your story as you feel able and free to do so. With informed consent, people often make better, healthier choices.
Beyond Conversion Therapy
While I am concerned the conversion therapists might feel they have been given another chance to do their business on LGBTQ youth and adults, I am far more alarmed about the potential rolling back of legal rights and protections for LGBTQ people. State and local as well as federal efforts to undermine LGBTQ access to housing, employment, health care, marriage rights, adoption, and immigration need to be closely monitored and assertively rebuffed by lawmakers and citizens regardless of party affiliation.
Sadly these fights may well distract many of us from other areas where our attention in needed: prison reform, energy policy, eradicating homelessness and poverty, supporting for LGBTQ seniors, improving policing practices, and a host of other issues. These are days we need to be focused and disciplined, supportive of each other, willing to take on what we are able to do, asserting our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.