LGBTQ advocates in the U.S. hope that a move by the British government to end the "abhorrent practice" of so-called gay conversion therapy, announced on Tuesday, will affect legislation on this side of the Atlantic.
“If a nation can say we’re not going to do this to LGBTQ people anymore, a state can do it,” said Sam Brinton, a survivor of conversion therapy and the head of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth. “Let’s lead by example.”
Conversion therapy, also known as "reparative therapy" or "ex-gay therapy," is a medically defunct practice that aims to change one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Currently, talk therapy is the most commonly used technique, but some practitioners have also combined this with "aversion treatments," such as induced vomiting or electric shocks.
Approximately 700,000 LGBTQ adults have undergone conversion therapy at some point in their lives, according to a January 2018 UCLA study, and the report estimates tens of thousands of LGBTQ youth currently between 13 and 17 will undergo this controversial therapy from a licensed health care professional, religious adviser or spiritual leader before they turn 18.
A majority of Americans (63 percent) believe the therapy is unable to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight, according to a 2014 YouGov poll, and in 2015 President Barack Obama announced his support for a ban. A long list of health associations have also spoken out against the practice, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Conversion therapy is a weapon pointed at the core of anyone’s identity,” said Antonio Ruberto Jr., senior director of behavioral health at New York’s LGBT Community Center and a licensed social worker. “You’re telling them what they’re feeling is wrong.”
Conversion therapy’s legality is determined by individual states in the U.S. Currently, 13 states and the District of Columbia protect LGBTQ youth under age 18 from conversion therapy by preventing licensed mental health service professionals from conducting it (while New York is not considered one of the 13 states, it does bar health insurers from covering the treatment for minors). Almost 20 other states are considering similar laws. The UCLA report found 6,000 additional LGBTQ youth would have been subjected to the treatment had their states not banned the practice.
“We are seeing a wave of action on conversion therapy by legislators from both parties,” said Brinton, who experienced both verbal and physical forms of the treatment as a child. “This is not a partisan issue.”
The state-level legislation that has been passed in the U.S. does not prevent religious leaders from subjecting minors to conversion therapy. Brinton, who oversees The Trevor Project’s effort to introduce anti-conversion therapy laws, said legally banning licensed mental health professionals from using the therapy formally debunks the science and therefore discourages spiritual advisers and families from using it.
Lawyers from Liberty Counsel, a litigation and policy organization that has been deemed anti-LGBTQ by the Southern Poverty Law Center, have unsuccessfully challenged conversion therapy bans in California and New Jersey. Even though scientific proof does not exist, the organization’s founder and chairman, Mat Staver, told NBC News he believes therapy can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Staver said the bans will not hold up in court, and he wants to see the issue go to the Supreme Court.
“This is a private meeting between a person and professional,” Staver said. “They have the right to choose the object of their counseling and counselor.”
The U.K. government created the £4.5 million ($5.9 million) LGBT Action Plan, which includes an appointed LGBTQ health adviser, anti-bullying programs for schools and cracking down on LGBTQ hate crimes, after a nationwide survey demonstrated that British LGBTQ people still suffer in society.
The Trevor Project runs a confidential 24/7 helpline, a text service and online chat for LGBTQ youth in crisis. The helpline can be reached at 1-866-488-7386 and the text by sending “Trevor” to 1-202-304-1200.