Gay conversion “therapy” elicits strong views in state Senate hearing

Marko Liias Credit: John Stang

“My wife was conned into believing that a gay man could be turned straight,” says Klint Kendrick. As a teenager growing up in a religious and conservative household, with two parents in the military, he turned to “conversion therapy” in an attempt to subdue his homosexuality.

“I thought God, my family and my society wanted me to be straight,” he said. Kendrick went on to marry a woman and start a family. Now divorced, with four kids, Kendrick ultimately realized he was gay.

“My ex-wife and my four children,” he said, “are as much a victim of this kind of therapy as I was.”

“Sexual orientation change efforts”— which attempt to turn gay people straight — would be largely banned under a bill making its way through the state Legislature. On Thursday, the Senate Health Care Committee heard a round of emotional testimony about the bill, which would forbid licensed health care providers from performing such treatment on minors.

Supporters of the legislation say the efforts lacks medical merit and can traumatize adolescents. Opponents say that the treatment can be helpful in some cases and that the legislation would trample the rights of parents and patients and infringe on religious freedoms.

Both proponents of the bill and critics derided unethical, abusive treatment methods like ice baths and showing kids pornography. Therapists who testified against the bill distinguished between such practices and their own work.

Leading up the effort behind the legislation is former representative and current Sen. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo. It passed a House vote last week 94-0. Thursday's hearing offered opponents what could be their last best chance to convince the Senate to stop the bill. With some conservative Republicans wielding influence in the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, its chances are unclear despite the unanimous House vote.

California and New Jersey have passed similar laws. Both face legal appeals despite court rulings in their favor. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the California law, but implementation of the conversion treatment ban is on hold while opponents seek a review by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The bill only applies to licensed health care providers — like doctors and psychotherapists — and would not affect religious practices or non-licensed faith-based counselors. Licensed providers are not prohibited from discussing sexual orientation change therapy, so long as they are not actively performing the treatment.

The American Psychological Association opposes the treatment, saying there is no evidence that it works and that there is some indication that it can harm adults. Ethical constraints have made it difficult to study whether the treatment adversely affects kids. For families concerned about their children’s sexual orientation, the association recommends “affirmative treatment” focused on acceptance and anxiety-reduction.

“Generally none of the proponents of this treatment have ever evaluated it,” says Judith Glassgold, the APA’s associate executive director for public interest. Glassgold chaired a committee for the association in 2009 that issued a report on sexual orientation change efforts. The report said homosexuality is a normal variation on human behavior and advises parents to avoid change efforts.

“People shouldn’t seek out treatments that aren’t proven to be effective,” Glassgold says.

Robin Goodspeed has a different view. A self-described ex-lesbian, who lives in Wyoming, she said she became heterosexual in 2007 after a "life-changing experience." For 20 years, she said, therapists encouraged her to accept her homosexuality. “This bill says that people like me, an ex-homosexual, don’t exist,” she said during her testimony. “This bill says that change is not possible.”

“What if a young person wants to change?” she asked.

The Psychology Association's Glassgold says change efforts aren’t the right choice for people in that situation. “With all due respect to the patient,” she says, “this treatment won’t help them change.”

David Pickup disagrees. A licensed family therapist with practices in California, Pickup says that he experienced homosexual feelings that stemmed from sexual and emotional abuse. “Reparative therapy helped save my life,” he said, using an alternative term for sexual orientation change treatment. Through his practice, he now provides the therapy to kids and adults and he believes there is evidence to prove that it works. “We’re taking away a client's right, these people identify as heterosexual.”

Pickup said that shocking stories about unethical treatments did not align with the services he provides. “If some of these egregious abuses happen by a therapist, they should have their licenses taken away and be prosecuted,” he said. “We do not do that.”

The Washington state Department of Health looked back 11 years and could not find any complaints against licensed health care providers that were related to sexual orientation change efforts. “Just because we didn’t receive a complaint, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” Kristi Weeks of the department’s legal services office told the committee.

Some supporters of the bill said that kids were unlikely to come forward. “What 14-year-old knows how to file a complaint,” said Carey Morris, a lobbyist for the Washington Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

Adding to the controversy surrounding the bill are concerns about religious freedom. “This bill and the First Amendment don’t get along very well,” said Joseph Fuiten, a pastor at Cedar Park Assembly of God, which runs an evangelical school system in western Washington. The bill explicitly exempts non-licensed church counselors. But Fuiten said his church has pastors who are also licensed and added that they would be “prohibited by law from providing therapy that would help a client reduce or eliminate same-sex attraction.”

Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, expressed concerns about lawmakers interfering with doctor-patient and parent-child relationships.

Pickup, the reparative therapist, said those concerns were well-founded. “It’s taking away a client’s right and a parent’s authority,” he said. “Under this law you can’t even sign a release form.”

For Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, who co-sponsored the bill, questions about the harm the therapy might cause trumps those concerns. “I believe this is an issue of dignity,” she said “and this is an issue where we need to make sure our kids are getting positive messages.”

Kendrick, the divorcee with four children, continued his treatment as an adult and said he felt horrible and worthless when he had feelings of attraction for other men. At one point he tried unsuccessfully to kill himself.

"Ultimately [the conversion treatment] didn't work," he said. "It really messed with my head."

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

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