Do No Harm

The battle over therapy to change sexual orientation continues beyond California.
by Julia Haskins

If a person wants to change his or her sexual orientation, does a licensed therapist have a right to help?

It’s a question that tests the boundaries of ethics and science in the field of mental health, highlighted in California’s recent law banning all forms of “conversion” therapy for minors in the state. Several lawsuits are already in the works against the law, including one from ex-gay heavy hitter NARTH, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality.

Opponents of the ban argue that the law will take away a person’s right to come to terms with his or her real sexual orientation. But the nature of conversion therapy has the American Psychological Association and other big names in psychology wary of its controversial claims. The APA hasdisavowed conversion therapy since as early as 1997.

“Psychotherapeutic modalities to convert or ‘repair’ homosexuality are based on developmental theories whose scientific validity is questionable,” reads a statement by the APA from 2000, expressing a position the organization has maintained.

The report continues: “Furthermore, anecdotal reports of ‘cures’ are counterbalanced by anecdotal claims of psychological harm. In the last four decades, ‘reparative’ therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure. Until there is such research available, APA recommends that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation, keeping in mind the medical dictum to ‘First, do no harm.’”

A better solution might be to teach licensed professionals about LGBT sensitivity rather than issuing an across-the-board ban on conversion therapy, says Jack Drescher, M.D., a psychiatrist and expert in the consequences of conversion therapy.

“Passing legislation to prevent a questionable practice seems a rather heavy-handed and inefficient way to reduce these practices among licensed professionals,” he says in an emailed statement, “like using a hammer when you would be better served by using more delicate surgical instruments.”

But for some it’s a moot point. If a therapist can convince an LGBT patient that he or she can opt out of shameful feelings related to their sexual orientation, this blames the person, rather than holding society accountable for creating an unwelcoming environment for many LGBT people.

For this reason, the Southern Poverty Law Center is defending the stance that conversion therapy is harmful. In May, the Center and the Beth Allen Law firm of Portland, Ore., issued complaints about a psychiatrist in the city who used conversion therapy techniques on a 22-year-old gay college student who came to him for treatment for depression and anxiety. The psychiatrist reportedly told the young man he didn’t believe he was gay and that if he were, his love life would always be dissatisfying.

“We really see how these issues create a terrible environment,” says Sam Wolfe, a staff attorney for the SPLC’s LGBT Rights Project.

As the battle heats up in other states considering similar laws, like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the SPLC promises even more action. Several ex-gay organizations have made it on to the SPLC’s infamous “hate map” list, which cites groups across the country that presumably attack or target an entire class of people.

Conversion therapy is a personal matter for Wolfe, who was exposed to the process during college. He says he approached it with an open mind, but once he learned more about the theories behind it, he didn’t feel it was a valid practice.

“It was very eye-opening because exploring the theories and trying it out really helped me [see] that conversion therapy doesn’t work and that it’s a bunch of junk,” he says. “But it was revolutionary in some ways because it was the first time I associated with other gay people and had other gay friends, and that in itself opened up a lot of possibilities and helped me become self-affirming and accepting of myself.”

Whatever happens, Wolfe says he is hopeful that more education will help people understand what conversion therapy really entails.

“The California law is an initial success story,” he says. “The laws may build on that or manifest in slightly different ways, but hopefully what this is bringing about is greater awareness generally that conversion therapy is not based on any legitimate science, that the techniques that are used by conversion therapists to convert people from gay to straight are quackery. They just don’t work.”

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© 2012 Medill Equal Media Project
Medill School of Journalism | Northwestern University
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