In Texas, a Quiet Effort to Protect ‘Conversion Therapy’ Is Underway

Texas Republicans' support for "conversion therapy" is at odds with a national trend that has seen lawmakers ban the harmful practice.

[Photo: A young, queer person of color looking sad during a therapy session.]
While the research is clear, there remain limitations. Megan Mooney, president-elect of the Texas Psychological Association, said studies tend to “lump LGBT people together.” And while research indicates LGBTQ youth are more likely to have trauma, it’s not clear what role “conversion therapy” might play in that. Shutterstock

While legislators in many states have banned the practice of so-called conversion therapy, Texas state Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney) quietly filed a bill this month that would protect mental health providers who engage in practices motivated by their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

LGBTQ people and advocates view this as a thinly veiled attempt to legalize “conversion therapy,” a pseudoscientific practice that tries to make queer people straight or trans people cis. Efforts to protect health-care workers who want to discriminate against LGBTQ people as part of their religious beliefs are far from uncommon in state legislatures, especially those controlled by Republicans.

Sanford’s proposed legislation comes as legislators in 15 states and Washington, D.C. have banned the harmful practice of so-called conversion therapy. Legislative attempts to end “conversion therapy” had the backing of the federal government during the second Obama administration.

Sanford’s office did not respond to Rewire.News’ request for comment.

Sanford is an executive pastor at Cottonwood Creek Baptist Church in Allen, Texas. Working a second job isn’t surprising for Texas legislators, who are paid $7,200 annually and are in session only in odd-numbered years for 140 days.

Cottonwood Creek Baptist Church does not have a statement of their beliefs regarding LGBTQ people on its website, but the church links to a piece criticizing bans on so-called conversion therapy for transgender kids and a podcast by Christopher Yuan, a professor at Moody Bible Institute, who believes LGBTQ people should be celibate, although he’s expressed doubt about “conversion therapy.”

If Sanford’s support of the bill is influenced by his church, it wouldn’t be the first time. Sanford in 2017 introduced a non-binding resolution commemorating the church’s 135th anniversary. The resolution never received a vote.

Sanford has been the author of a variety of bills that limit reproductive rights or allow discrimination if justified by a religious belief, including a bill allowing medical providers to refuse to provide reproductive treatments or treatments for LGBTQ people and the “Lawyers for Fetuses” bill. He was one of several authors of HB 3859, which allows organizations that provide child welfare to require litmus tests and engage in religious education, said Currey Cook, counselor and Youth in Out-of-Home Care Project director at Lambda Legal.

Supporting “conversion therapy” isn’t new for Texas Republicans; the state GOP added the unscientific practice to its 2014 platform. Meanwhile, Texas Democrats have filed a bill to ban “conversion therapy,” although it doesn’t stand much chance in a Republican-dominated legislature.

‘Conversion therapy’ programs ‘lump LGBT people together’

While the practice is politically contentious, the science is clear. National and international medical organizations are unanimous in condemning the practice, including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, and 43 more, according to a list compiled by Florence Ashley, a transfeminine activist from Montreal. The main dissenters are fringe groups, such as the American College of Pediatrics, which promotes anti-LGBTQ misinformation while purporting to be a reputable medical organization, according to PFLAG.

That unanimous disapproval from mainstream organizations is based firmly in science, said Megan Mooney, president-elect of the Texas Psychological Association.

“This is not good therapy, this is not good treatment, [studies] have been unequivocal about that,” she told Rewire.News.

While the research is clear, there remain limitations. Mooney said studies tend to “lump LGBT people together.” And while research indicates LGBTQ youth are more likely to have trauma, it’s not clear what role “conversion therapy” might play in that. Mooney said psychologists define trauma more narrowly than psychological harm, so something psychologically damaging as “conversion therapy” might not be trauma in the strictest sense of the word.

While it’s common for media coverage to focus on so-called conversion therapy attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation, it’s also commonly performed on transgender people to make them conform to their sex assigned at birth. In fact, surveys cited by the Williams Institute indicate that 13 percent of transgender people were subject to “conversion therapy,” compared to 6.7 percent of LGB people.

Polls indicate “conversion therapy” has little public support, although they typically ask about gays and lesbians, leaving out other orientations and transgender people. There are no polls covering Texas, but a YouGov poll indicated that majorities of people in southern states (correctly) say that so-called conversion therapy is ineffective. The same poll found that across race, class, and partisan lines, people in the United States agreed.

The survey found that majorities of people who think gays and lesbians’ orientations are caused by their upbringing also believe that “conversion therapy” works. This mirrors the common “conversion therapy” strategy of trying to identify sexual abuse that can be blamed for the person’s gender or orientation. On the other hand, people who either said gays and lesbians were born that way or it was a choice were more likely to say that gays and lesbians shouldn’t go to “conversion therapy.”

‘It was really scary’

Carl Charles, a staff attorney at Lambda Legal, was one of those transgender people exposed to so-called conversion therapy—before he realized he was trans.

“It was really disorienting,” he told Rewire.News. “In large part because I didn’t really understand queer identity. I didn’t really feel I was that.”

To clarify for his parents his relationship with a friend, a girl, he emphasized she was a good friend and helped him find his identity. This inadvertently confirmed their fears that he was in some way queer. His father then took Charles to see a pastor, with little explanation of what was happening.

“It was really scary because the pastor did not really seem like [he had] too much care or consideration for me,” he said. “He mostly was trying to elicit from me that I was sexually abused by this person, which was bizarre since there was zero physical dynamic to our relationship.”

Charles said the term “conversion therapy” implies it happens in the practice of an otherwise reputable or seemingly reputable therapist, which isn’t always the case. The Williams Institute estimates that 57,000 youth will be subjected to “conversion therapy” by religious advisors, compared to 20,000 youth subjected to it by licensed medical professionals. In Colorado, where Democrats are trying to ban the practice, Catholic church decision-makers are creating a “conversion therapy” program that will skirt the ban.

“I think my slowness to recognize that was what had happened to me was it didn’t fit what I later experienced to be therapy,” Charles said.

The therapy went on for months. Eventually, Charles grew tired of repeatedly answering Michael, the conversion therapist, who wouldn’t accept his denials.

“My silence angered Michael,” he wrote in a 2015 piece for the Advocate. “He tried different ways of asking me the same questions, and when that didn’t elicit a response, he would attack my gender expression, my appearance.”

His father eventually gave up. Charles said he isn’t sure whether his father thought it wasn’t working or that it had already worked.

His mother wasn’t on board. Charles said his mother “cried the whole time” the one time she took him to a session, adding that it might have contributed to his parents’ later divorce. “A not insignificant part of my parents’ divorce was my mom not toeing the party line,” he said. “I don’t think she agreed.”

Susan Cottrell had a similar story from parents of a gay son with whom she worked.

The boy’s father “just had a bad feeling, the whole time the son was there,” she said. “I think it was only two sessions. The damage was so severe the relationship fractured. And the mother tells me, ‘I lament every day, I’m devastated that we did that, even for two sessions.’”

Cottrell is a founder of FreedHearts, which provides resources and runs online support groups for parents of queer children. They regularly hear from youth who fear being sent to “conversion therapy.”

“Our number one priority is to help parents decide not send their kids to conversion therapy,” she said. “If we can help them see the risks and the dangers and the damage they will do to their kid, that’s what we go for.”

Bill Prickett, an author, went to ex-gay groups of his own accord. When he tried to understand his sexuality in light of his faith in the early 1980s, the message he got was entirely negative.

“I didn’t find any books that were gay-affirming, gay-inclusive [that were] even Christian adjacent,” he told Rewire.News. “Again, I was coming from and living in a very conservative, evangelical bubble. Where I would look for books would be in Christian bookstores.”

From there he went to ex-gay groups and, as he was a pastor at the time, started leading them and speaking at conferences.

It didn’t last. After losing two friends, he was “physically exhausted.” He and his then-wife realized they had little in common outside the ministry, agreed to a trial separation, and later divorced. After nearly attempting suicide, he moved to southern California, started dating men, and put his faith aside.

“In my mind, I felt like that, if I was going to be this. In my mind, I obviously couldn’t be a Christian,” he said. “I just kind of walled that part of my life off.”

A few years later, he reconciled his faith and sexuality.

“I found a group of gay and lesbian Christians who met in a home,” he said. “I began going to that group. That really helped me, seeing people who were able to embrace who they are as a gay person and as a person of faith.”

Both Prickett and Cottrell agreed that a ban on conversion therapy, as 15 states and some municipalities have done, would help end the practice. According to the Williams Institute, existing bans would prevent 6,000 LGBT youth from receiving conversion therapy. Cottrell said a particular benefit was discrediting conversion therapy.

They both agreed that a ban wasn’t enough, both due to therapists practicing under the radar and “conversion therapy” being carried out by religious counselors rather than licensed therapists.

“I think we have this administration has created an atmosphere that is perfect for the growth of these groups,” Prickett said. “The foundation of ex-gay programs, ex-gay ministries, and conversion therapy, it’s all rooted in conservative, fundamentalist theology. It’s one thing to outlaw it. That doesn’t change the mindset that grows these groups, and that motivates a therapist to offer this to one of their patients.”

Despite his concerns about the growth of these groups in the Trump era, Prickett said conditions have improved for queer people of faith since the first time he was looking for support.

“It’s a great time for a person of faith who’s dealing with their sexual orientation,” he said. “There are a lot of resources and support out there.”