Ex-gays descend upon D.C. to lobby against LGBTQ rights

Despite federal hate crimes data and academic research to the contrary, the “formers” question the existence of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
Image: Former LGBTQ-identifying people
Former LGBTQ-identifying people on the steps of California's Capitol in June 2018.Courtesy of Changed
By Gwen Aviles

A group of people from across the country who formerly identified as gay and transgender have descended upon Washington this week to share their stories and lobby against two proposed LGBTQ-rights bills.

The group is made up of 15 members of Church United and Changed, two California-based organizations that seek to provide community for, and protect the rights of, “formers” — individuals who formerly identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The bills the group is lobbying against are H.R. 5, better known as the Equality Act, and H.R. 3570, or the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act. Both have been supported by the country’s major LGBTQ advocacy organizations, though neither is expected to become law anytime soon.

The Equality Act, if passed, would update federal civil rights legislation to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education and federal programs. The Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act would classify conversion therapy — a medically debunked practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity — in exchange for monetary compensation as a fraudulent practice.

When asked what their lobbying efforts against these bills would entail, Elizabeth Woning, co-founder of Changed, said the group plans to “share our experiences and bring awareness to the fact that we exist.”

‘I don’t see the discrimination’

Despite federal hate crimes data and academic research to the contrary — along with countless anecdotal news stories — the “formers” question the existence of anti-LGBTQ discrimination and thus the necessity of such bills.

“I live in Portland [Oregon] and I don’t see the discrimination that LGBTQ people talk about,” Kathy Grace Duncan, a member of Changed who formerly identified as a transgender man, told NBC News. “They’re asking for certain rights in this legislation, but these are rights that they already have.”

Jim Domen, founder of Church United, identifies as formerly gay. He said, “Sexual behavior should not be a protected right.”

“Changing the Civil Rights Act would create a super class for anyone identifying as LGBTQ at the expense of people who are not,” Domen claimed. “The Equality Act treats sexual preference as an elevated class and would strip people of religious freedom.”

Domen added that unlike African Americans, who are among those protected against discrimination through federal civil rights law, LGBTQ people have not been subjected to systemic discrimination and abuse. This, he said, is evidenced by the fact that gays have achieved clout and success as scientists, authors and politicians.

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Ryan Thoreson, an LGBTQ researcher at Human Rights Watch, called the assertion of the “formers” unfounded and said the bills they’re lobbying against are “long overdue.”

“No one should be refused service, denied care or otherwise discriminated against because of their gender or sexuality,” Thoreson told NBC News. “This legislation affirms people’s gender and sexual identities and provides clear protections for those who’ve been routinely discriminated against in health care and adoption services, education, housing, etc.”

“Maybe this group of people doesn’t feel it’s been discriminated against when they identified as LGBTQ+, but whether a particular group feels like it’s discriminated against isn’t an indication of whether discrimination exists for other people,” Thoren added. “There’s a clear consensus from groups that work with LGBTQ+ people that this legislation will benefit them and help them live better lives.”

‘Conversion therapy doesn’t exist’

Domen and Duncan claim that sexual orientation and gender identity are choices, and individuals displeased with their current status can “overcome” it through therapy and religious support. This, however, is not a belief shared by the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association.

Though Domen and Duncan concede that conversion therapy — which has been discredited by major health organizations — is harmful, they don’t believe it is as widespread as it has been purported to be since they’ve “never met” anyone who has been subjected to conversion therapy. The two said they’re specifically against H.R. 3570 because the bill insinuates that it’s harmful for people to seek therapy to “overcome” their sexual orientation or gender identity, thus undermining the very existence of “formers.”

While they stressed that those in their organizations willingly seek to change their sexual orientation and gender identity, neither Domen nor Duncan could clearly explain how "conversion therapy," which they do not support, differs from an attempt to "overcome" one's sexual orientation or gender identity through therapy or religious guidance," which they do support.

“I’ve never been a part of a ministry program that promotes conversion therapy,” Duncan said. “I do think conversion therapy should be banned, but first we need to prove that it’s actually happening.”

“In discipleship programs like the ones I’ve participated in," he added, "we’ve looked at the root issue — ‘Why are you living like that?’ — and we’ve provided community and accountability against temptation.”

Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and public affairs at The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention nonprofit for LGBTQ youth, and a survivor of conversion therapy, said despite conversion therapy being as discredited and “useless a practice as snake oil,” it is nonetheless commonplace.

“It is still widely practiced at the expense of the mental and emotional health of LGBTQ people,” Brinton told NBC News.

Brinton cited research from UCLA’s Williams Institute that found more than 700,000 LGBTQ adults have been subjected to conversion therapy at some point in their life, and that an estimated 80,000 LGBTQ youth will be subjected to the practice in the coming years.

While members of Changed argue that H.R. 3570 would limit individuals’ choice of therapists and deprive LGBTQ people of finding someone who affirms their desire to be heterosexual or cisgender, Brinton argues this legislation limits choice for the greater good.

“Ultimately the bill protects against consumer fraud. Technically the bill places some limitations, but this is because the practice has been discredited and causes direct harm,” Brinton argued. “We also recognize that this is not a partisan issue, that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have voted for protections against conversion therapy, because it is that dangerous and can cause suicide ideation.”

Currently, 18 states and D.C. ban the practice of conversion therapy on minors.

‘We’re just trying to tell our stories’

The lobbyist efforts by Church United and Changed have ignited criticism from LGBTQ advocates, but Woning insists the organizations are “not actively trying to push against LGBTQ people.”

“We’re just trying to tell our stories,” Woning told NBC News. “These bills are based on the premise that LGBTQ people only have one option and that there are no other ways forward, when we know from our own lives that this is not true.”

Domen added that members of Changed “love LGBTQ people” and that his “heart breaks” when he hears they’ve been hurt.”

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