For Ryan Kendall, it’s painful to recall the day he began conversion therapy. The 31-year-old was placed in what he says was abusive and traumatizing therapy sessions with a psychologist whose mission is to “convert” gay minors and adults to heterosexuality: Joseph Nicolosi, former president of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH).
“Nicolosi would talk to us about engaging in sports and trying to be a man’s man,” Kendall told VICE News of the sessions that began when he was just 14. “But most of it was fear and intimidation: Your family is going to reject you, this isn’t normal, you’re going to get AIDS and die before you’re 30.”
Nicolosi did not immediately respond to requests for comment from VICE News.
Kendall said he ran away from home at 16 and filed child abuse charges in order to have his parents’ custody revoked.
“But by that point, the damage was already done,” he said. “I’d been told I was going to die, was going to go to hell. It destroyed me and created a very toxic family environment.” Kendall has since repaired his relationship with family, though he says it took “about 15 years of suffering.”
He’s also now working with the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), a legal non-profit that aims to eradicate conversion therapy through its new campaign, #BornPerfect.
The campaign was launched Tuesday on the heels of NCLR’s recent successes in California and New Jersey, where the group helped pass state legislation banning conversion therapy for minors. Though most of the country’s medical associations have opposed conversion therapy for years, some licensed therapists still practice it.
A 1994 Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology article by Douglas Haldeman describes conversion therapy methods as including “electric shock, nausea-inducing drugs, hormone therapy, surgery,” and “visits to prostitutes and excessive bicycle riding.”
In 1998, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) issued a decision on conversion therapy, stating that it opposes any psychiatric treatment based upon on the assumption that being gay is a mental disorder.
The APA’s decision continued to state that such “reparative” therapies are ineffective and carry great risks, “including depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient.”
Studies have found a range of risk factors associated with parental disapproval or rejection of LGBT youth sexual orientation. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Homosexuality found that “parents who react non-supportively when their children disclose LGB sexual orientation may contribute to children’s increased odds of depression and hazardous substance use.”
“A parent who is putting their child through conversion therapy is often coming from a good place,” NCLR Staff Attorney Samantha Ames told VICE News, “Parents are so often scared and want to do the right thing for their children, and don’t always know what that is. So what we do is use legislation to educate the public.”
Yet if all major medical associations agree that conversion therapy is harmful, why don’t they take away the licenses of therapists that practice it?
NCLR told VICE News that it’s not that simple. “Therapists are primarily regulated by state licensing boards,” Ames told VICE News. “These boards don’t have the power to do anything about this unless we give them the legislation to do so. We hear from a lot of boards that they would love to take licenses away from people doing conversion therapy.”
Ames said NCLR’s legislation so far has focused on defining conversion therapy as “unprofessional conduct.”
“We’re saying, here’s a bit of law that you can use to define conversion therapy as unprofessional conduct. Then the state board, which gets notified when someone is accused of unprofessional conduct, can review their license and potentially revoke it,” Ames said.
Many faith leaders also oppose conversion therapy. On Friday, the ex-gay organization Restored Hope Network’s national conference begins in Happy Valley, Oregon. In response, over forty of Oregon’s faith leaders are holding a prayer breakfast and public meeting in order to condemn the practice.
“People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender have support within the faith community,” said Rev. Tara Wilkins in a press release about the event, “We, as leaders among Oregon’s faith community, agree strongly with mental health care professionals that these so called ‘conversion therapies’ are harmful, damaging and dangerous to the mental and spiritual well-being of LGBT Oregonians, their families, and our communities.”
Yet some large Christian organizations, like Focus On The Family (FOTF), still support conversion therapy. FOTF’s position statement states that homosexuality “violates God’s intentional design” and they believe “those who struggle with unwanted same-sex sexual temptation can choose to steward their impulses in a way that aligns with their faith convictions.”
But NARTH, founded by Nicolosi, is perhaps the most vocal opponent faced by those who seek to ban conversion therapy. The organization worked with conservative legal group Liberty Council to sue the state of California after it banned conversion therapy.
Michael Bussee was a founder of the notable Christian gay-conversion organization Exodus International in 1976. He then left the ex-gay movement in 1979 and married Gary Cooper, another Exodus member. Bussee now works with NCLR.
The ex-gay movement, myriad with people and organizations, is driven by a belief that homosexual behavior and desire can be eliminated. Bussee said that by calling themselves “ex” gays, they were basically trying to wish conversion into reality.
“I think we actually coined the term ‘ex-gay,’” Bussee wrote in his NCLR testimonial. “We took it as a statement of faith. If we said it, it would happen. If we believed it, we would get a miracle. But we didn’t. No one did.”
Bussee wrote that in the 40 years since joining Exodus International he has “never met a gay person who became heterosexual through conversion therapy or ex-gay programs.” Exodus International closed down in June 2013.
President Alan Chambers then issued a formal apology to the LGBT community, saying: “I am sorry for the pain and hurt that many of you have experienced. I am sorry some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents.”
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