Health

Conversion Therapy Is Dangerous and Deadly. How Is It Still Legal?

Despite increasing bipartisan support for putting an end to the horrific practice, 30 states and the federal government have continued to resist litigating it out of existence.

by Deana Bianco
May 19 2020, 1:00pm

Photo by Zackary Drucker for The Gender Spectrum Collection

Last December, 24-year-old Alana Chen died by suicide in Boulder, Colorado. According to Alana's family, Alana wanted to be a nun as a teenager, and she volunteered to receive conversion therapy counseling from both a reverend and a therapist from Catholic Charities’ Sacred Heart Counseling after coming out as a lesbian in 2013.

“(The church) told her it was a mental disorder,” Alana's mother, Joyce Calvo-Chen, told Colorado Hometown Weekly. “And that it could be fixed and changed, and she could be ‘saved.’ They told her it was a mortal sin to be thinking of other women.” According to her mother, the church members Alana spoke with about her sexuality asked her not to tell anyone, including her family, about her attraction to women, and, instead, that she should attend confession.

As Alana told The Denver Post in an August 2019 article about the harmful effects of conversion therapy, “The church’s counsel is what led me to be hospitalized [for self-harm in 2016]. I’ve now basically completely lost my faith. I don’t know what I believe about God, but I think if there is a God, he doesn’t need me talking to him anymore.” (A spokesman from the Archdiocese of Denver has denied the church's use of conversion therapy on Alana.)

Conversion therapy is the often-religion-oriented practice of trying to change LGBTQ people's gender, gender expression, and/or sexual orientation. The most common type is talk therapy, but more extreme practices, according to the American Medical Association, include “aversion treatments such as inducing nausea, vomiting, or paralysis; providing electric shocks; or having the individual snap an elastic band around the wrist when the individual became aroused by same-sex erotic images or thoughts.”

Conversion therapy is linked to drug use, self-harm, homelessness, and depression. According to a 2019 Trevor Project national survey on LGBTQ youth mental health, 42 percent of LGBTQ youth who underwent conversion therapy reported a suicide attempt in the prior year. Despite this, according to The Williams Institute of UCLA, 16,000 people will undergo conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional by age 18 in states where it is legal, and approximately 57,000 minors will undergo conversion therapy counseling from a religious or spiritual advisor.

Dev Cuny, an ambassador for the Born Perfect Campaign, which seeks to end conversion therapy, told VICE about their experience undergoing a six-hour conversion therapy session in college. “I was held down and physically handled in an abusive way," they said. "The scariest part... was how the minister was holding my head and screaming right in my face at the demons.”

Sam Brinton, head of advocacy at The Trevor Project and a conversion therapy survivor, has been open about both the mental and physical abuse they experienced as a minor during the sessions. Their counselor told them that they were the only gay person left alive because all the others had died from AIDS, and that they were “an abomination in the eyes of God.” During therapy sessions, Brinton has said they were restrained to a table and were forced to watch videos of men holding hands, hugging and having sex while the counselor applied ice, electricity, and heat to their skin and stuck needles to their fingers.

Conversion therapy has been deemed dangerous by the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Psychiatric Association. In November, the AMA announced it will support legislation banning conversion therapy. In a press release, AMA board member William E. Kobler stated, “It is clear to the AMA that the conversion therapy needs to end in the United States, given the risk of deliberate harm to LGBTQ people.”

In 2015, President Barack Obama called for an end to conversion therapy after a 17-year-old transgender girl, Leelah Alcorn, died by suicide after she underwent Christian-based conversion therapy that denied and tried to alter her gender. Even though the president condemned the practice, it was not banned on a federal level. Despite the horrific costs of conversion therapy, both states and the federal government have continued to resist litigating it out of existence; in 2020, it remains legal in a national sense—and is likely to remain so.

There have been unsuccessful attempts since 2015 to pass federal legislation banning conversion therapy. One notes that, since medical and mental health organizations have determined there is no evidence that conversion therapy is effective, it would be an “unfair or deceptive” commercial transaction.

In the absence of federal legislation, anti–conversion therapy bills have been passed on a state and city level—but the bills do not restrict conversion therapy done on a free or volunteer basis. 20 states have banned conversion therapy on minors, and there is proposed legislation to outlaw the treatment on minors in states including Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Texas, and Ohio.

Brinton told VICE that the states offer a promising avenue for restricting conversion therapy. “The best way we've found to restrict conversion therapy so far is to have it be declared unprofessional and unethical conduct that would subject a mental health professional to discipline by their licensing board,” they said. "Because professional licensing boards are governed by the state, this becomes, in many ways, a state issue.”

Most of the early states that restricted conversion therapy did so through Democratic Party efforts, but, this year, the issue turned into a bipartisan effort. On January 7, Senate Bill 85, which would ban conversion therapy, was introduced in Kentucky. Republican Senator Alice Forgy Kerr, the bill's lead sponsor, became interested in conversion therapy after watching Boy Erased, a 2018 film based on Garrard Conley’s memoir about his experience with conversion therapy. “I watched it and I was horrified,” she said in an interview. “This kind of therapy is really conversion torture.” Senator Kerr’s concern about the teenage suicide rate in the country, especially in the LGBTQ community, inspired the legislature.

“There are a lot of well-meaning parents out there who say they're doing the best possible thing for their child, because nobody wants their son or daughter to have to grow up in something that is counterculture,” explained Senator Kerr, who is Christian. “But this is not the answer. This is religion gone bad.”

20RS SB 85 would prevent licensed mental health professionals, which includes ordained ministers or the denominational equivalent that are licensed under the Kentucky Board of Licensure for Pastoral Counselors, from practicing conversion therapy in exchange for money. As to why the bill is limited to those groups, Senator Kerr mentioned the First Amendment. “[Pastors and youth ministers] have every opportunity to sit down with their parishionersto freely discuss their beliefs as long as no money changes hands, she said. "Because of the First Amendment, nothing is going to change that.”

Utah banned conversion therapy for minors on January 22, with support from both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and LGBTQ advocates. The Republican governor of Utah, Gary Herbert, said in a statement, “The stories of youth who have endured these so-called therapies are heart-rending. I’m grateful that we have found a way forward that will ban conversion therapy forever in our state.”

On March 3, Virginia became the 20th state to ban conversion therapy for minors, making it the first southern state to do so. In Florida, bills have been introduced to ban conversion therapy, but they have died in committee. In turn, cities and counties have passed laws to ban conversion therapy on minors, and on April 8, the Tallahassee City Commission in Florida unanimously passed a conversion therapy ban on vulnerable adults (those under guardianship) and children within the city’s limits.

Even when ostensible progress has been made on state and local levels, the First Amendment protections Kerr mentioned may open conversion therapy bans to scrutiny from the Supreme Court. On February 19, Iowa was poised to ban conversion therapy on minors with Republican-supported House Study Bill 698. The bill was shut down because of disagreements on the language in the bill. Republican Representative Joe Mitchell told VICE, “LGBTQ legislation should be a bipartisan effort [...] which is why we decided to introduce the bill. We were proud to introduce this legislation regarding banning conversion therapy, considering it was the first bill of its kind in the state of Iowa. Ultimately, the bill did not pass through the subcommittee because there were holes in the legislation that all sides saw.”

These "holes" are not without precedent, even in liberal cities and states. Bipartisan interest in conversion therapy bans can be seen as an optimistic sign for banning conversion therapy at a state level. However, the legislature isn't comprehensive—the state and local efforts still don't address conversion therapy done on a volunteer basis from unpaid counselors who are protected by the First Amendment. On September 12, 2019, in a surprising reversal, conversion therapy opponents called on New York City to overturn its 2017 ban for minors, and, uniquely, adults. By incorporating restrictions on adults, the activists said, the ban offered additional opportunities for conversion therapy supporters to lock in a Supreme Court ruling protecting the practice on First Amendment grounds.

The need for the city’s localized ban was seemingly lessened in January 2019 when New York State passed a law making conversion therapy on minors illegal. Shortly later that month, Dovid Schwartz, a psychotherapist and member of the Chabad-Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish community, filed a federal lawsuit against New York City for violating his freedom of speech and encroaching on his and his patients' religious faith. Schwartz was represented by the anti-gay Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is classified by Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. The ADF notoriously represented the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, a business owned by devout Christians, when it was sued by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission for refusing to make a cake for the marriage of a gay couple. That case made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the cake shop based on First Amendment free speech and religious freedom rights.

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said he hoped that, by repealing the city’s ban, Schwartz’s lawsuit would not follow a similar path to an anti-LGBTQ ruling—that repealing the law will prevent Schwartz’s case from making its way to the Supreme Court, where it could set a precedent that makes banning conversion therapy even harder in the future. In a Medium article, Johnson wrote that he only supported the repeal of the 2017 conversion therapy bill because New York State had a law that banned conversion therapy on minors. Repealing the conversion therapy ban in New York City, he wrote, “is the best path to protect the LGBTQ community.”

While some of the most egregious practices can be addressed at the state level, it remains to be seen how effective these bans will be when they only apply to licensed professionals—on a volunteer level, given the First Amendment concerns, the future of conversion therapy is unclear.

Alana Chen, who received conversion therapy through her church, was counseled by these sorts of volunteers. After Alana's death, her family created The Alana Faith Chen Foundation, which provides mental health support to LGBTQ people. (According to research done by San Francisco State University, LGBTQ minors who were rejected by their family or caregivers were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide.)

The alternatives to conversion therapy: Clear, proven, and LGBTQ-affirmative forms of mental health care, which is crucial for not only LGBTQ people in general, but especially survivors of conversion therapy. “Conversion therapy survivors benefit from being accepted and affirmed for who they are," Brinton said. "It's sad—sometimes the nature of a survivor’s experience with conversion therapy makes it harder to trust mental health care providers. But for those who are comfortable with it, trauma-informed, LGBTQ-affirming therapy can be a lifesaver.”

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