Long shot: Gay conversion therapy. Longer shot: Passing a bill about it.

A state legislator hopes to set the stage for future passage of a bill to examine a controversial practice.
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Marko Liias

A state legislator hopes to set the stage for future passage of a bill to examine a controversial practice.

A small underground of "gay conversion therapy" practitioners apparently exists in the Pacific Northwest.

Should the practice be studied? And should it be regulated?

Representatives from several state psychology, psychiatric and social work associations testified Thursday in favor of a bill to set up a task force to examine those issues. Gay conversion therapy is a psychological effort to turn a gay or lesbian into a straight person. It primarily targets gay, bisexual or confused boys, said one witness, Seattle psychologist Douglas Haldeman, a University of Washington professor who represented the Washington State Psychological Association.

"These beliefs are discredited by all the major health organizations. ... I've never seen a case where (gay conversion therapy) has worked," said Haldeman, who has worked with numerous people who went through such therapies as teens.

Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, introduced the bill in February. He is one of the five openly gay members of the House. The bill's 14 co-sponsors include the other four — Reps. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, and Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines.

The Washington House Appropriations subcommittee on health and human services held Thursday's hearing.

Liias noted that many national medical, psychological and social work associations contend "gay-to-straight conversion" is ineffective and can cause lasting psychological and emotional damage to the teens. Haldeman said, "It's a major problem for people who go through it because you can end up scarred."

The bill would create a 15-member panel of predominantly mental health experts to study the matter as it pertains to children 18 and younger, with a report due in December. The panel would try to include a gay conversion practitioner.

Liias acknowledged the bill, which would take $108,000 to implement, does not stand much of a chance this session. But he wants to lay the groundwork for future legislative sessions, including familiarizing legislators about the topic. "It's a tough conversation to have," Liias said. "I want to get it started."

A 2012 California law banning the use of therapy to change the sexual orientation of minors was appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has placed a hold on the law until it rules on the appeal. No other states have legislated on this subject. "It's important for Washington to explore these issues," Haldeman said.

Liias said, "It's a tough question on how we would regulate that." Many nuances would have to be addressed, especially if spiritual counselors are involved in gay conversion therapy, he said.

Haldeman said it is difficult to say how extensively gay conversion therapy is conducted in Washington because most practitioners are "underground." He is aware of a couple mental health professionals — he did not know their names — who have been handling gay-to-straight conversions. And it is practiced in some religious circles.

Almost all gay-to-straight conversion therapies are intense counseling sessions. Electric shocks were used decades ago, with gay porn and electrodes being combined. Meanwhile, straight porn would be used with positive reinforcement. Haldeman said he is unaware of electric shocks being used in the Northwest, with that treatment being rumored to still be used elsewhere.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8