Garrard Conley, the author of the memoir-turned-movie, Boy Erased, said of his experience with conversion therapy, “I came to therapy thinking that my sexuality didn’t matter, but it turned out that every part of my personality was intimately connected. Cutting one piece damaged the rest.” Conley’s account of his experience with gay conversion therapy summarizes why many states have banned the controversial practice and others are poised to do so.
Conversion therapy, also known as reparation therapy, claims to “cure” same-sex orientation. The therapy uses methods that encompass prayer, hypnosis, and group discussions (and once used aversive techniques that included electric shock and nausea-inducing drugs paired with same-sex visual stimuli) in an effort to change a patient’s fundamental sexual orientation. For years, mental health practitioners have argued against the use of conversion therapies. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has said that such therapies lack scientific credibility; other professionals have criticized conversion therapy for favoring a predetermined outcome over the client’s well-being. Worse, these therapies are not only ineffective – they are, in fact, harmful. Teaching clients that their sexual orientation or gender identity is wrong can foster feelings of depression and anxiety as well as suicidal thoughts. Growing awareness of the harm that can be caused by conversion therapy has shifted attitudes toward the controversial treatment. In 2015, President Obama declared his support for banning conversion therapy altogether.
Despite the broad medical consensus on the harms wrought by conversion therapy, the practice has not been outlawed entirely. Currently, fourteen states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington) and the District of Columbia ban licensed mental health professionals from practicing conversion therapy intended to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors. However, the practice may be on the verge of wider condemnation. A record number of states have introduced bills banning conversion therapy. Currently, 24 states are considering some sort of ban, and individual cities and counties within states that do not otherwise prohibit conversion therapy have enacted bans. For example, several cities in Pennsylvania (including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, and Bethlehem) and jurisdictions in Florida (including Tampa, Miami, and Broward County) have banned the practice. Some conservative advocates have argued that the therapy should not be banned because every therapy client has a right to pursue his or her own goals regardless of outcome, but conversion therapy may well join the short list of banned therapeutic practices.
Kathleen Davies is a Staff Writer for GetLegal.com. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and has practiced law and taught legal writing and advocacy.