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Clash over gay conversion therapy at Council hearing

conversion therapy, gay news, Washington Blade

Supporters and opponents of a bill that would ban so-called conversion therapy in D.C. debated the measure on June 27. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.


Holidays can exacerbate depression among LGBT people

Greg Jones, gay news, Washington Blade

Dr. Gregory Jones (Photo courtesy of Gregory Jones)

Are LGBT Americans more susceptible to depression?

Numerous studies suggest discrimination, homophobia and even family rejection leave this population particularly vulnerable to this condition and other mental health disorders. And while there are no reliable statistics to indicate specific rates of depression among LGBT Americans, local mental health providers with whom the Washington Blade recently spoke said the holiday season can exacerbate symptoms.

“The holiday season has a lot of associations with family, togetherness and unfortunately many people in the LGBT community have experienced some family loss, whether it was the loss of relationships, being ostracized or not accepted,” Dr. Gregory Jones of District Psychotherapy Associates in D.C. told the Blade. More than 70 percent of his patients are LGBT. “So often times during the holiday season, people feel reminded of this.”

Dr. Marc Dalton, director of Dalton Psychiatric Services in D.C., noted family along with money and general hard times contribute to depression during the holidays. Like Jones, he said relationships with friends, family and significant others “can become more paramount” during this time of the year.

“Stress is more relevant when you have to leave and go back to your family,” Dalton said. “When you have trouble with family accepting you and understanding your lifestyle, the stress of bringing someone back into that environment and how they’re going to treat that person, how they are going to treat you together. It’s already stressful for someone in heterosexual relationships when they bring someone into the family and having to navigate those social waters.”

Dalton added family members with different political and religious beliefs can cause further stress. He and Jones both noted LGBT people are sometimes unable to visit relatives because they have either shunned or rejected them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

“I often times encourage them to kind of turn to family of choice, so they often then feel more susceptible to feelings of rejection from friends if they’re available,” Jones said. “It’s a time of year that is a mile-marker that most everyone can recognize, think back and reflect on their experiences. For those who do not have an ideal support system, the holidays can be tough.”

Depression affects estimated 17 million Americans

The American Psychological Association notes those with depression may exhibit a lack of interest and enjoyment from daily tasks, significant weight loss (or gain,) insomnia and a lack of energy and concentration. Some may experience persistent thoughts of death and even suicide.

The 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. Doctors Arnold Grossman of New York University and Anthony D’Augelli of Pennsylvania State University noted in a 2007 study in the American Association of Suicidology that nearly 50 percent of young transgender people have “seriously” considered suicide, and a quarter of them have attempted to take their own life.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates 17 million American adults live with depression during any given year-long period. Medications, psychotherapy and/or a combination of both treatments can prove effective in treating those with depression.

Stigma remains barrier to treatment

The Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 students, six teachers and administrators and the alleged gunman’s mother dead has sparked renewed calls to reform the country’s mental health system. Stigma, however, remains a significant barrier to those with depression and other mental health conditions from seeking treatment.

“People internalize that going into therapy or seeking mental health treatment is a sign of weakness,” Jones said. “I actually consider it a sign of strength. It’s knowing when to reach out and when things are beyond your scope of control and abilities.”

Access to mental health care providers can pose another challenge.

Those of a higher socio-economic status who live in D.C. and other urban areas may have better access to psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health providers. Those who rely upon an insurance company or public assistance for their health care, however, may not have as much access to affordable and competent mental health care professionals.

An additional hurdle those with depression and other conditions face is a lack of mental health providers who are comfortable treating their LGBT patients’ unique needs.

“Even though we’re trained in our particular medical school or if you’re a psychologist if you go through your Ph.D. studies or your clinical studies, some folks are still not good at it, are not ‘gay’ or LGBT-affirming,” Dalton said. “That’s really important for a lot of my friends who I’ve talked to. They really want that security.”


The D.C. Department of Mental Health’s website contains a list of local providers and other information for those who are suffering from depression and other mental health disorders. Whitman-Walker Health offers group therapy sessions and a variety of other services and treatment options to those with mental health-related issues.

The Trevor Project, the Mautner Project and the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists provide additional resources on suicide prevention and LGBT-specific information on other mental and general health-related issues.