Just How Effective Are Bans Against LGBT ‘Conversion Therapy’?

Some activists say proposed legislation doesn't address all the ways so-called conversion therapy is actually practiced.

Some activists say proposed legislation doesn't address all the ways so-called conversion therapy is actually practiced. Shutterstock

Alyssa Chiampi, 20, arrived at Western Oregon University determined to figure out who she was and what she wanted out of life. Up to that point, she says, her religious upbringing in Medford, Oregon, four hours away had given her a narrow view of sexuality and identity.

“Being raised very Christian, conservative, my only thought about the LGBT community was they were weird, wrong, gross—because of who they were,” she told Rewire.

Last year, while still a freshman at WOU, she determined that she was pansexual and started getting involved in student leadership organizations and advocacy groups, including the Triangle Alliance, an LGBTQI advocacy group. Privately, she struggled to reconcile her newfound sexual identity with her identity as a faithful Christian. A few months ago, she came out to her sister, who outed her to her mother without her consent. Her mother then asked her to meet with a therapist in her hometown who could “fix” her.

Chiampi was one of the 22 people, including mental health professionals as well as other survivors, who testified before the Oregon legislature earlier this year in favor of proposed legislation that would ban licensed therapists from using their practices to try and change, “cure,” or “fix” minors who identify as LGBTQ. The Oregon legislation, which passed out of the state house of representatives last week and is now before the senate, is one of 17 bills currently before state legislatures that would ban so-called conversion therapy. (One bill, which died in Oklahoma’s legislature this spring, sought to prevent it from being banned.) Most are similar to the Oregon law, and to those passed in California, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., in recent years: They specifically address licensed therapists who treat minors, using the state’s licensing boards as enforcers.

Activists are heartened by the trend. Still, some point out that the the raft of laws legislatures are currently considering don’t address all the ways conversion therapy is actually practiced—which can include “treatment” for dependent patients over the age of 18, or from members of the clergy or other non-licensed individuals.

Chiampi, for example, believes she visited a licensed therapist, meaning that he or she would be subject to a ban on converting minors like the kind before the Oregon legislature. However, she was 20 when the visit took place. Many people in their late teens and early 20s are at least partially financially dependent on their parents, a fact reflected in financial aid policy (college students must use their parents’ information on financial aid paperwork until they turn 24 or get married), health-care policy (which allows adults 26 or younger to get coverage under their parents’ insurance), and a host of survivor stories like Chiampi’s, in which young adults are sent to conversion therapists or treatment centers at their parents’ behest and on their parents’ dime.

Most of the current legislation, though, does not protect LGBTQ individuals older than 18—with the exception of a Minnesota bill that includes language about vulnerable adults, such as people with developmental disabilities or others deemed by the state to be incapable of making their own medical decisions.

Chiampi says she hadn’t felt ready to come out to her mom yet, specifically because she suspected her mother would want to try to “fix” her. She recalls telling her mother as a teenager that her best friend had come out as gay, and her mother refused to let him come to the house anymore, saying, “There are classes for that.”

When Chiampi came home for holiday break last December, her fears were confirmed. Her mother told her she’d found a therapist in Medford who could help her “change” her sexual identity, and insisted she attend one session, adding that if she wanted to continue, she’d find a therapist closer to Monmouth—where Western Oregon University is located—and pay for the services. But if she didn’t want to continue after that session, that would be that.

Chiampi obliged. She says one of the first things her therapist told her was that marriage, religious or not, is traditionally seen as occurring between a man and a woman. “I hadn’t even mentioned marriage or wanting to get married,” Chiampi says.

Chiampi acknowledges that most of the survivors who testified alongside her this year—mostly older individuals who told stories about abusive practices they experienced 10-to-20 years ago or more—had more “dramatic” experiences than she did. Still, she was distressed by the experience, and recognized that she had the advantage of living apart from her family while others do not.

“If I was capable of coming out when I was in high school and living at home I could guarantee that I would still be in conversion therapy today,” Chiampi said during her February testimony. “I know teenagers in my hometown of Medford who battle depression and anxiety like I did. These are young people who are still closeted and who refuse to come out because their parents will take them to this unnecessary and life-damaging therapy.”

The practice of conversion therapy has been decried by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association, all of which have published statements and providers’ guides noting a link to increased anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. “Homosexuality” was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1973.

The rising tide of recent bills is due in part to a high court decision last July relating to California’s ban, says Sam Ames, coordinator of the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Born Perfect campaign. The Ninth Circuit Court ruled that conversion therapy bans do not interfere with therapists’ free speech rights, and the Supreme Court declined to review the case, opening the doors for other states to follow.

Sometimes, the bans are encouraged or endorsed by therapists themselves, who are seeking more regulation for their colleagues. “In California, we worked with mental health professionals and mental health organizations, and it was the mental health industry asking to be regulated,” said Ames.

But often, the people offering “conversion therapy” aren’t licensed therapists—meaning that the state licensing board’s enforcement would have no effect on them. With that in mind, some people who have experienced conversion therapy are utilizing other methods to demand justice. For example, the global organization JONAH International (also known as Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) employs clergy rather than medical professionals. They’re currently being sued by six plaintiffs under consumer protection fraud laws.

Among other things, says Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Sam Wolfe, JONAH advertised claims about the percentage of program graduates “cured” of homosexuality, but doesn’t actually keep in touch with them to determine whether any identify as straight or report good mental health. Two of the six plaintiffs in the lawsuit were underage and one was 18 at the time they were sent to the center; two more are mothers who paid for the treatment. Wolfe says the families in question were misled about the means through which JONAH would “counsel” their sons—that they didn’t realize their sons would allegedly be asked to, according to the court filing, strip nude in front of other clients, beat their mothers in effigy, and undergo other sexually intrusive, abusive practices. The case goes to trial in June.

The JONAH case is the first civil suit to target a conversion therapy provider. JONAH is based in New Jersey—one of the first jurisdictions to pass a conversion therapy ban—but the suit was filed in 2012, before that law passed. And, again, even if it had been in place, it would not have applied to JONAH, which does not appear to employ any licensed therapists.

“We’re hopeful, obviously, for a successful outcome at trial in June,” Wolfe said. “We’re hoping this can set the stage for other lawsuits against conversion therapists and send a message to parents and therapists and communities.”

Ames says that so far, she knows of no instances of counselors losing their licenses or being otherwise professionally disciplined specifically for practicing conversion therapy—partly because the first laws only made their way through the courts or went into effect very recently. (Richard A. Cohen, the founder of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and the author of several books still used by JONAH and other conversion therapy providers, was permanently expelled from the American Counseling Association in 2002 for multiple ethics violations, but conversion therapy does not appear to have been at the heart of the complaint.)

“Furthermore, the onus is often on already vulnerable youth to report and file claims, which can be difficult in unsupportive families, in the face of trauma, or simply because the process can be daunting,” Ames told Rewire. “For all these reasons, it can take time. But I anticipate we’ll start seeing our first complaints within the next year.”

In the meantime, the Southern Poverty Law Center has begun tracking and mapping conversion therapy sites nationwide. The only site listed so far in Oregon is the Portland Fellowship, which employs clergy rather than licensed therapists. The country-wide map also includes ministers, life coaches, and religiously affiliated centers like JONAH, as well as some licensed therapists associated with “ex-gay” organizations. For the most part, popular and professional backlash against conversion therapy may have driven other individual, licensed counselors who practice it into semi-stealth mode and led them to rely on referrals rather than explicit branding.

Still, advocates acknowledge that parents determined to “fix” their children may still be able to find therapists willing to do so. The Fellowship’s “resources” page, for example, lists three websites for Portland-area therapists who are licensed and do say they will work with minor clients. Chiampi declined to name the therapist she visited—in part because of the rift the visit has created in her family since she’s spoken out about her experience—but thinks her mother found the clinic through a web search, or possibly through a referral. Sites like FindChristianCounselor.com, which connects people with licensed counselors using personal information, offers “gay and lesbian recovery counseling” as a menu item on its referral search page. Focus on the Family also has a counselor search tool, with “homosexual issues” and “transgender issues” available as menu options, and the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality will provide therapy referrals via email. (Psychology Today has a searchable database for licensed therapists, and only this month began to remove listings for counselors that offer conversion therapy.)

Ames and Wolfe fully acknowledge that the proposed bans won’t put an immediate end to all forms of conversion therapy as it’s practiced. Still, they say, what the legislation lacks in across-the-board enforcement power, it makes up for in raising awareness.

Many members of the public don’t realize the practice is ongoing, says Chiampi. She noted that many of the people she testified alongside had undergone conversion therapy more than 15 or 20 years ago. “A lot of people think this isn’t still happening,” she told Rewire.

To that end, Wolfe said, “The legislation doesn’t do everything, but it does quite a lot. There’s definitely a strong public education effort [in] legislative practices.”

Ames, too, says legislation has to be just one part of a bigger strategy.

“The way we end this now is not just through laws, although that’s important. It’s not just through lawsuits, although that’s important,” Ames said. “It’s through empowerment and education. It’s getting the word out to parents to let them know they cannot put their child through this without knowing the risks, and letting youth know that they are not alone.”

“People are seeing this as heinous, a human rights issue,” Ames said. “We’re building momentum to finally put into our past the practices that have plagued the LGBT community for years.”