Gay Conversion Therapy Faces Little Risk of Ban

While opposition to so-called gay conversion therapy is growing nationally, Texas is not likely to restrict its use. State Rep. Celia Israel says she'd be happy just to get a hearing on her bill that would ban the practice for minors.

 Graphic by Todd Wiseman

The suicide of a 17-year-old Ohio transgender girl whose parents sent her to a therapist to "convert" her has refocused national attention on so-called gay conversion therapy. But despite calls to end it from President Obama, gay rights groups and medical associations, the controversial practice isn't likely to face a statewide ban in Texas. 

Obama took a decisive stance against gay reparative therapy last week in response to a petition calling for a ban and citing the death of Leelah Alcorn, the Ohio teen who left a desperate suicide note late last year and apparently walked into traffic.  

Those practicing gay conversion therapy, also called reparative therapy, say it removes homosexual feelings. Critics say the practice is usually intertwined with religious teachings condemning homosexuality, and often sought by parents for their children. The American Psychiatric Association has condemned it, and experts say it can cause mental harm to individuals. 

State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, has filed House Bill 3495, which would ban the practice for minors in Texas, but she acknowledges that just getting a hearing before the House State Affairs Committee would be a big accomplishment.

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“I don’t know that we’ll be able to pass the House and the Senate and go on to the governor’s desk, but there is some value in having a public hearing about this practice,” Israel said. “If a family decided to take their kid to therapy, there is no need for a therapist to suggest there is anything wrong with that child. To put that on a kid is the worst thing you can do."

Last summer, the Texas Republican Party made national news for backing gay reparative therapy in its platform

"All these messages serve to increase internalized homophobia and internalized transphobia, which are predictive of negative mental health symptoms such as anxiety, depression and increased in suicidality,” said Colt Keo-Meier, a licensed psychologist in Houston specializing in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender health. “Reparative therapy either just doesn’t work or increases the harm and the trauma to an already vulnerable population.”

David Pickup, who practices reparative therapy in California and Texas, said he was upset by the president’s words last week and feels reparative therapy has been mischaracterized. 

“Words hurt sometimes, and some of our clients have been upset about his public condemnation of these things — it has really hurt their feelings,” Pickup said. “Reparative therapy is there for people who believe that for them, homosexual impulses arise not because of something genetic but because of emotional and sexual abuse.”

Pickup said claims that reparative therapy includes electroshock, is forced, attempts to shame people or increases suicide are “absurd.” He said bans on reparative therapy for minors, in place in New Jersey, the District of Columbia and California, harm children. 

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“Some children in California, who everyone knows have been sexually abused by same-sex pedophiles, they can’t go into an office anymore and get help to eliminate and reduce their homosexual feelings,” Pickup said.

Legislation banning reparative therapy has been filed or considered in at least 18 other states. 

Jeff Lutes, a counselor in Austin who is against reparative therapy, described the counseling he has heard from people who have undergone this therapy as “archaic.”

“Over the years we’ve heard really strange things, like snapping a rubber band on your wrist every time you had a desire for someone of the same sex,” said Lutes, who has organized two conferences in the past for people who’ve gone through conversion therapy. “Reparative therapy is based on a heterosexist idea — and by that I mean the assumption that being heterosexual is preferable and superior to being anything else.”