By Angela D. Giampolo, original article appears in Philadelphia Gay News
Conversion therapy is a dangerous practice that employs a range of pseudo-scientific treatments (and that’s putting it nicely!) aiming to “convert” people from queer to straight. Conversion therapy has been a source of intense controversy in the United States and around the world, and is highly criticized by virtually all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations. People who have undergone conversion therapy have reported increased anxiety, depression and, in some cases, suicidal ideation. These devastating consequences are why LGBT advocates around the country, including our very own state Rep. Brian Sims and Sen. Anthony H. Williams, here in Pennsylvania, are dedicated to ending conversion therapy and defending the rights of individuals harmed by it.
Last month, Williams and Sims announced a plan to introduce a complementary, bipartisan bill in the state House to ban conversion therapy for minors. Williams introduce a companion measure in the Senate earlier this year. This most recent bill came about in January through Sims’ collaboration with Ed Coffin of the Peace Advocacy Network and Monique Walker, a counselor at The Attic Youth Center.
“It was something that we had been talking about for quite a long time, given the lack of LGBT civil rights in Pennsylvania,” Sims said at a press conference announcing the legislation. Sims and Williams said they expect their respective bills to be addressed in next year’s legislative session.
Once the American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, conversion therapy lost support. Most critical readings of the scientific literature suggest that gay conversion therapy — and other attempts to reorient same-sex love and attraction — simply do not work. Instead, they can cause serious harm. Not only do these treatments prove unsuccessful, but there are also no professional standards or guidelines for how they are conducted. Early treatments in the 1960s and ’70s included aversion therapy, such as shocking patients or giving them nausea-inducing drugs while showing them same-sex erotica, according to a 2004 article in the British Medical Journal. Today, methods include psychoanalysis, estrogen treatments to reduce libido in men and even electroconvulsive therapy, in which an electric shock is used to induce a seizure, with possible side effects such as memory loss, suicidal thoughts and depression.
If successful, Pennsylvania will be the third state to ban conversion therapy, after California and New Jersey.
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1172 into law last year, making the state the first in the nation to pass legislation banning conversion therapy for minors. Like the Pennsylvania bill, the California legislation bans mental-health providers from engaging in conversion-therapy practices and states that providers who do not abide by the ban will be subject to disciplinary action. This bill, like Pennsylvania’s, does not target religious counselors or groups practicing conversion therapy, in an attempt to steer clear of religious pushback for First Amendment rights. In December, Liberty Counsel, on behalf of litigious members of the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuals, among other plaintiffs, was granted an injunction by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the court in August went on to uphold the new law. The case could proceed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In New Jersey, four former clients of a counseling group sued for deceptive practices, arguing that they paid thousands for therapies that did not rid them of same-sex attractions. Supporters of conversion therapy have framed the debate as a parental-rights issue, however even Republican Gov. Christie said the health risks of the practice outweigh such concerns. Massachusetts and New York are also considering similar legislation.
However, just because Pennsylvania’s bill shadows the already-successful California legislation doesn’t mean this is going to be easy for us. Unlike in California and New Jersey, Pennsylvania has both a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled state legislature, which could greatly affect the bill’s chances for passage.
The bill would seek to prohibit licensed therapists from trying to change a child’s sexual orientation by attempting to alter their behaviors, gender expression or sexual attraction to the same sex. The main issue to address, as with all legislation that seeks to stop a particular behavior/practice, is enforcement. What recourse will there be against licensed physiotherapists and counselors who continue to engage in conversion therapy and how will this be monitored by the state? Will the recourse be disciplinary sanctions through the professional licensing board or criminal penalties? Unfortunately, the bill still lacks the necessary language to outline the consequences of continuing these practices.
The uncivilized discriminatory practice of conversion therapy is not helping anyone and is counterintuitive to decades of science and medical research. It is alarming that things like this still happen in a country that prides itself on its diversity. State by state, we need to push for legislation like this. Conversion therapy is antiquated and offensive and does not represent contemporary American values.