The Psychotherapist Association for
Gender & Sexual Diversity

GUEST OPINION

Therapists: Declare 'Ex-Gay Therapy' Unethical

Jim Walker
Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, May/June 2015

Last December Leelah Alcorn, a 17 year old trans girl, committed suicide by walking in front of a tractor-trailer in Ohio rather than suffer more invalidation and rejection by her parents. She blogged that she would rather die than be forced to do “conversion therapy.” Her suicide moved hundreds of thousands of people to sign online petitions against “conversion therapy.” Leelah’s memory was also invoked when more legislation protecting minors from those “therapies” was introduced earlier this year in different states.

Friends and colleagues asked me to sign the petitions. I’m a marriage and family therapist with a private practice in San Francisco and Oakland. I’ve been advocating for mental health associations to declare “conversion therapy” unethical and I’ve participated in passing legislation in California and New Jersey passed protecting minors from “conversion therapy.” We tried to make that legislation apply to minors and adults but at the time we couldn’t be sure to convince the key constituents of how harmful and unethical it was. No major health organization had declared “conversion therapy” unethical. Over the last ten years or so, major U.S. healthcare organizations have warned the public about the harms of “conversion therapy” but none has declared it unethical. Declaring something unethical in our professions is the “gold standard” of what’s harmful or not. Once professional associations declare something unethical, it’s taught to future generations of students in those professions that it must not be done, like having sex with your clients. The impact is much more far-reaching than professors saying something is harmful or not recommended.

Earlier this year that groundbreaking ethical event happened in the United Kingdom. Fourteen major British medical and psychological bodies issued a joint Memorandum of Understanding declaring “conversion therapy” unethical and harmful. That had never been done by any nation’s leading organizations. Major U.K. organizations from the Royal College of General Practitioners to the Association of Christian Counsellors to the National Health Service of England issued a joint declaration that “conversion therapy” is unethical and harmful. Janet Weisz, Chair of the UK Council for Psychotherapy, stated, “For a therapist to agree to try and “cure” or “reduce” same sex attraction would be unethical and potentially harmful. I am clear this practice has no place in the modern psychotherapy profession.”

A very small grassroots effort is now underway in the U.S. to issue a similar statement. Colleagues and I have been spreading the word among professional contacts nationally. Let’s get our healthcare organizations to jointly declare that “conversion therapy” is unethical. Please contact me if you have any support.

A memorandum from the major U.S. organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Counseling Association—to only mention a few--would greatly increase ethical awareness and responsibility among health providers and the general public. We could also use the process—as the British have done—to consolidate and enhance competency training in healthcare for GLBTQ patients and their families. It will also be much harder to teach “conversion therapy.” Would anyone’s life have been saved if a joint memorandum had already been issued in the U.S.? It’s not possible to say. But let’s pull together and issue a joint statement that “conversion therapy” is unethical and harmful. It’s time it happens in the U.S. too. It will ensure many protections for present and future generations of GLBT, queer, questioning and intersex Americans.

Over the last several years, we’ve seen U.S. legislative efforts against ex-gay practices be actively supported by major state psychological associations. Other state psychological and medical organizations have resisted supporting legislation. A few years ago, the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, the state’s largest mental health provider organization, wasn’t supportive of legislation protecting minors. The California Medical Association wasn’t either. Once a joint memorandum of understanding is issued by the national organizations of those state association, it will go very far indeed in being useful in protecting the public.

Only California, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have laws protecting minors from “conversion therapy.” Those laws only apply to licensed providers and only to patients who are minors. Similar legislation has failed in other states to be resurrected again. The National Center for Lesbian Rights recently started a national campaign called #BornPerfect to protect youth from those practices primarily through legislation. The Southern Poverty Law Center is currently litigating a case in the New Jersey courts showing “conversion therapy” is consumer fraud whether performed by a licensed therapist or not. The LGBTQ-Affirming Therapists Guild of Utah has been sponsoring meetings with “conversion therapists” to discuss best practices for people with same-sex attractions. That’s a beginning of a patchwork quilt of protections from those practices.

Once we have a joint statement declaring “conversion therapy” unethical all those efforts to reduce those practices everywhere in the U.S.—for minors and adults--will be hugely enhanced. Please contact me and join us. A joint statement won’t stop conversion therapy from happening, but it will go further in educating the public and it will advance efforts showing it to be harmful and unethical. It’ll reinforce awareness rippling around the world of what’s healthy treatment for people who aren’t cisgendered and who aren’t attracted to the other sex. Please give us your support.

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