Close to 30 supporters and opponents of a bill that would ban licensed mental health providers from performing gay conversion therapy for minors gave strongly worded and sometimes emotional testimony before a D.C. City Council hearing on June 27 that lasted nearly five hours.
Representatives of at least nine LGBT advocacy organizations, several mental health professionals and two men who described themselves as survivors of conversion therapy urged the Council to pass the Conversion Therapy for Minors Prohibition Amendment Act, which was introduced last year by Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3).
Supporters of the bill testified that therapy seeking to change someone’s sexual orientation from gay to straight doesn’t work, is especially harmful to minors and is strongly opposed by mainline organizations representing the medical and mental health professions.
“There is unanimous recognition by mainstream American medical and mental health professional associations that being gay is not an illness and that efforts to ‘change’ peoples’ sexual orientation are ineffective and dangerous,” said Lee Beers, a physician who serves as president of the D.C. Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The bill will curb harmful practices known to potentially produce lifelong damage to those who are subjected to them and help ensure the overall health and safety of LGBTQ youth,” Beers said in her testimony.
Eleven members of the 13-member Council have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, including Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), who chairs the Committee on Health that has jurisdiction over the measure.
Alexander told the Blade after the hearing that she plans to schedule a committee markup hearing in September to finalize the language of the bill and expects the full Council to pass the bill before the end of the year by an overwhelming margin.
Alexander and Council member and mayoral candidate David Catania (I-At-Large), who appeared at the hearing for about 30 minutes, were the only members of the six-member committee to attend the hearing. Alexander said conflicting schedules prevented the others from attending.
Knowing the measure enjoys strong support among Council members and by Mayor Vincent Gray, 12 people who testified against the measure urged Alexander and her Council colleagues to change course. They warned that the legislation would deny young people the right to choose to undergo what they called “Sexual Orientation Change Effort” therapy or SOCE.
Christopher Doyle, a licensed clinical professional counselor and director of the Bowie, Md., based International Healing Foundation, which performs conversion therapy, testified that he’s living proof that someone’s sexual orientation can be changed.
“Ten years ago, I experienced a dramatic change in my sexual orientation,” he told the hearing. “I am with you today because I once was a same-sex attracted man, and today, through good counseling, years of support groups, and healing non-sexual relationships with other men, I do not experience any homosexual feelings,” he said.
“Eight years ago, I met my wife, and today we have three beautiful children,” he told the hearing.
Nathan Gniewek, a current client of the International Healing Foundation, testified that he’s undergoing therapy to eliminate his “same-sex attractions.” He said the pending legislation to ban conversion therapy for minors would deny young people the freedom to choose such therapy.
In response to questions by Catania, Gniewek described his current status as a “work in progress,” adding that he is not homophobic and freely chose to change because “being gay didn’t work for me. It was just a choice.”
Catania told Gniewek the proposed legislation would not apply to him because it’s limited to people under the age of 18. Gniewek didn’t disclose his age but appeared to be in his late 20s.
Expressing concern that conversion therapy is based on the premise that homosexuality is bad, Catania pressed Gniewek on why he wants to change his sexual orientation if he doesn’t think same-sex attractions are wrong.
“Were you ever ashamed?” Catania asked him.
“In some respects,” Gniewek said.
“Do you understand that you are not inferior because you are gay?” Catania continued.
“Yes,” said Gniewek.
Doyle and Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the anti-gay Family Research Council along with other witnesses opposed to the bill, disputed claims by supporters of the legislation that conversion therapy doesn’t work. They said claims that the therapy is harmful were based only on “anecdotal” reports.
Dole said he filed two Freedom of Information Act requests with the D.C. Department of Health to find out whether complaints have been filed against therapists performing conversion therapy. He said a DOH official responded that no ethical complaints or grievances have been filed with the D.C. government concerning a client or patient claiming to be “mistreated, harmed, or coerced to undergo SOCE therapy from a licensed mental health practitioner in Washington, D.C.”
But Andrew “Bud” Brown, a gay man who identified himself as a survivor of conversation therapy, testified that he felt pressured into undergoing the therapy because of peer pressure from his family and his deeply religious upbringing. He said the therapy caused him to suffer depression and suicidal thoughts before he switched to another therapist who helped him accept “who I am.”
Brown said that he and others he met through his conversion therapy sessions were deeply in the closet and would never have come forward to file a complaint against their therapist with a governmental agency, even if they believe the therapy caused them harm.
“That would have been outing ourselves,” he said.
Rikin S. Mehta, senior deputy director of the D.C. Department of Health, who testified in support of the bill, told the committee the fact that no complaints have been filed with the city doesn’t mean that conversion therapy hasn’t caused minors to experience harm from the therapy.
“Our department has been, and continues to be, supportive of all legislation intended to protect children, minors and other vulnerable populations,” he told the committee.
“Please let me be clear about the practice of conversation therapy – it is harmful, it is dangerous and it is counterproductive,” he said. “Homosexuality is not a disease and it is not a mental health issue,” he said. “Therefore there is no scientific or medical basis for this therapy.”
Mehta’s testimony came after Brown, another gay man and a local therapist whose clients are mostly from the LGBT community testified that they personally experienced or – in the words of psychologist Gregory Jones – observed first-hand how conversion therapy caused LGBT people to suffer deep depression and contemplate suicide.
“I have conducted affirmative psychotherapy with hundreds of young adults struggling with sexuality and gender identity, and have also worked with numerous young adults who were forced to undergo conversion therapy by their parents, family, community, and/or religious community,” said Jones, a clinical psychologist licensed to practice in D.C.
Jones said he was also testifying on behalf of the Trevor Project, a national LGBT suicide prevention hotline. He told the committee that the American Psychological Association has advised parents and young people to avoid “sexual orientation change” efforts.
“Those who conduct conversion therapy utilize shame and psychological abuse to manipulate young people to internalize an extremely negative view of themselves and their sexuality,” Jones said. “I have witnessed first-hand the long-term impacts of conversion therapy upon those who were forced into this so-called treatment.”
Among the problems young people undergoing conversion therapy have faced, he said, are depression, poor self-esteem, low self-confidence, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, and self-harming behavior, including substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and attempts to commit suicide.
Doyle testified that the Sexual Orientation Change Effort therapy he oversees at the International Healing Foundation in Bowie leaves it up to the client, including minors, to decide the goals of the therapy they receive. He said if a client doesn’t wish to change his or her sexual orientation his organization supports that decision.
“Never have we allowed a family or parent, whose son or daughter was gay-identified, to force or coerce their child into a therapy to change sexual orientation,” he said.
Alison Gill, senior legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, testified that Sexual Orientation Change Effort therapy in almost all cases “does not include therapies that provide acceptance, support or understanding of LGBT identities.” She said SOCE or conversion therapy also fails to “facilitate coping, social support, or identity” and doesn’t address unlawful conduct or unsafe sexual practices.
“This legislation enacts professional standards for state-licensed mental health providers to clarify that sexual orientation change efforts are not an acceptable or responsible practice when applied to young people under age 18,” she said.
Others testifying in support of the bill included Saul Cruz, secretary of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance; Catherin Tuerk, former president, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG); Sam Wolfe, senior staff attorney, LGBTQ Rights Project, Southern Poverty Law Center; Gwendolyn Harter, Wanda Alston Foundation; Eugene Puryear, Statehood Green Party candidate for an at-large D.C. Council seat; Andrew Barnett, executive director, SMYAL; Rev. Graylan Hagler, senior pastor, Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ; Bishop Rainey Cheeks, Inner Light Ministries; Mary Elizabeth Tuggle, National Association of Social Workers; David Kaplan, chief professional officer, American Counseling Association; Sarah Ann Nguyen, D.C. Center for the LGBT Community; and Matthew Shurka, a gay man who told of his negative experiences with conversation therapy.
Alexander said the hearing record would remain open until July 11 and others wishing to submit written testimony on the bill may do so until that time.