Paul Southwick testified before the House Health Committee that he had his first dose of gay conversion therapy as a student at George Fox University, after a personal conflict over his attraction to other men led to a panic attack.
Instead of receiving help to reduce his feelings of anxiety and depression, his counselor advised him to look at heterosexual pornography and work on changing his orientation.
He spent years cycling through the care of religiously-motivated counselors, including the Portland Fellowship, a group that seeks to “free people from homosexuality through Lord Jesus Christ,” and which Southwick said promises the ability to form healthy romantic relationships with a member of the opposite sex for those who graduate from its two-year program. He skipped the graduation ceremony, his same-sex attraction just as strong as ever, as well as the anxiety, depression and panic attacks that seemed only to intensify under the program as he failed to become straight.
“When you are in conversion therapy, you are taught that you have a sickness, a pathology, and that you need a cure. When the cure never comes, you are left even more anxious, hopeless and ashamed than when you started,” Southwick told lawmakers. “I have not forgotten the pain of the experiences, and I do not want any young LGBTQ people to spend any amount of time needlessly feeling like they have a sickness without a cure.”
Basic Rights Oregon is pushing legislation that would ban licensed professionals from conducting so-called “gay conversion” or “reparative therapy” on minors that actively seeks at the onset to change a client’s sexual orientation, typically from gay or bisexual to straight. House Bill 2307 would also protect transgender youth from therapies that aim to change or suppress the youth’s gender identity.
Dubbed by its proponents as the “Youth Mental Health Protection Act,” it mirrors a law that California Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2012. Similar legislation is being introduced by gay-rights advocates across the country, but Oregon could become just the second state to implement such a law legislatively. The New Jersey courts barred conversion therapies, ruling that they constituted fraud.
Brad Larsen Sanchez, a psychologist with the Oregon Psychological Association, stated unequivocally that his organization finds orientation conversion therapies to be unethical. “The research on reparative therapy is abysmal,” he told the committee. “Not only are these methods ineffective, they are harmful.”
The bill specifically does not hinder counseling that helps a client with acceptance, support and understanding of sexual orientation or gender identity, and it applies only to mental health professionals who are licensed by the state of Oregon -- not religious clergy.
Opposition to the bill is sparse. The Oregon Family Council, a fundamentalist Christian outfit that often opposes gay rights, raised concerns about the bill, but offered only muted testimony about the effects HB 2307 might have on religious freedom and the ability of certain Christian ministers to counsel parishioners against homosexuality based on the Bible.
“Would a counselor or licensed professional face penalties for treating a minor who seeks out their help for unwanted feelings?” asked Theresa Harke, who noted that in Oregon starting at age 15, adolescents can seek medical and psychological treatment without their parents’ consent.
Other national groups that have promoted gay conversion therapy, like the right-wing Focus on the Family, have chastised the American Psychiatric Association for supporting California’s ban on conversion therapy for minors, claiming they were “bowing to the forces of political correctness.”
The Republicans on the Health Committee, particularly Rep. Bill Kennemer of Oregon City, a retired psychologist, and Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend, a medical doctor, questioned whether these discredited treatments could already be grounds for a mental health professional to lose his or her license.
“Given that there’s consensus that this is not an ethical practice, wouldn’t it be setting them up for medical liability?” Buehler said. “If there’s a procedure that’s outside the standard of care, there’d be legal risk.”
Kennemer also wondered whether the boards that issue licenses for mental health professionals couldn’t police the practice internally, without legislation, and strip anyone of licensure if it’s practiced.
But Jason Zenobia told The Lund Report that he took the mental health counselor who tried to have him convert his sexual orientation to his licensing board, only to have them dismiss his case.
The therapist successfully argued that he was treating him for “ego-dystonic sexual orientation,” and that Zenobia had asked him for help becoming straight. Ego-dystonic sexual orientation is when one’s view of one’s self clashes with one’s sexual orientation, producing anxiety. The advisable treatment is one of acceptance, not conversion.
Samantha Ames, an attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, said her organization supports legislation in Oregon and elsewhere that provides clear language for licensing boards to snuff out the practice.
“They don’t have a clear-cut way to do anything about it. We’re giving them a clear-cut law,” Ames told The Lund Report.
HB 2307 may still need to be amended to clarify its legal language, but Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, is expected to move the bill to the House floor for a vote next month, after a Health Committee vote at a later hearing.