Advocacy Groups Seek Ban on Sexual Orientation Change Therapy for Children

Legislative leaders and members of gay rights groups testified at the State House to put a stop to the practices.

Gay rights advocacy groups and legislative officials took a stand on Beacon Hill on Tuesday against a hotly debated therapy practice that subscribes to the belief that doctors can change a person’s sexual orientation with enough intervention.

Members of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), MassEquality, and Fenway Health stood behind a bill sponsored by State Representative Carl Sciortino, D-Medford, in an attempt to ban the practices in Massachusetts and keep so-called “conversion therapy” from being used on children. “[It] is a disgraceful chapter in our society’s mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people,” said Ben Klein, the senior attorney for GLAD, an advocacy group that fights discrimination based on gender identity and expression. “It’s been proven ineffective, it defies modern medicine, and it inflicts serious psychological harm on young people.”

If passed, the bill would prohibit any licensed healthcare professional in the state from using techniques or therapies that would otherwise try change the ‘‘sexual orientation or gender identity’’ of anyone under 18 years old. If a licensed physician or professional in the field were found in violation of the proposed legislation, he or she could face a statewide suspension of their practice or have their license revoked.

The ban would apply to social workers, psychiatric nurses, mental health, and human services professionals, licensed marriage and family therapists, rehabilitation counselors, and educational psychologists, according to language in the proposal.

Testimony in support of the bill was heard during a meeting of the legislature’s Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Tuesday afternoon.

According to officials from GLAD, the practice of “conversion therapy” dates to the mid-twentieth century when homosexuality was considered a mental disorder and homosexual conduct was criminalized. Mental health professionals thought that by subjecting patients to treatments like shock therapy, and in some cases, castration, they could “cure” their sexual preference.

A report by the American Psychological Association Task Force on “Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation,” states that efforts to change someone’s sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve major risks of harm to an individual both mentally and physically, contrary to the claims from professionals who subscribe to the practice.

While the Task Force that compiled the report looked at overall use of various techniques employed by some organizations and doctors, when it came to the use in children, the report specifically concluded that:

Same-sex sexual attractions, behavior, and orientations per se are normal and positive variants of human sexuality—in other words, they do not indicate either mental or developmental disorders…There is no research demonstrating that providing [conversion therapy] to children or adolescents has an impact on adult sexual orientation. The few studies of children with gender identity disorder found no evidence that psychotherapy provided to those children had an impact on adult sexual orientation. There is currently no evidence that teaching or reinforcing stereotyped gender-normative behavior in childhood or adolescence can alter sexual orientation. We have concerns that such interventions may increase self-stigma and minority stress and ultimately increase the distress of children and adolescents

In June, one of the more prominent groups known for their efforts to try to “cure” gay people, Exodus International, closed their doors and issued an apology for causing “trauma” to their patients over the years, reaffirming what groups like GLAD already know. “GLAD strongly supports this bill, which we believe is a significant step to creating a better, more affirming world for LGBT youth,” said Klein in his statements before the committee on Tuesday.  “Passage of this bill will send an important message that sexual orientation and gender identity do not need changing. Being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is normal and healthy.”