Congresswoman Jackie Speier

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LGBT conversion quackery must go

December 20, 2012

The Bay Area Reporter
Guest Opinion by Jackie Speier

Chaim Levin was a teenager when a rabbi referred him to a counselor who was going to help him "turn straight." His counselor instructed him to strip naked while saying negative things about himself, and then touch himself. Another exercise simulated a locker room scene where Benjamin Unger, another young man, was blindfolded and others dribbled basketballs and yelled out anti-gay slurs. This is the way to help children "struggling with unwanted same-sex sexual attractions" according to the group Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, or JONAH, which charges families up to $10,000 a year to convert young people from gay to straight.

LGBT conversion or so-called reparative therapies like the ones Levin and Unger experienced are junk science based on the lie that homosexuality, bisexuality, transgender, and gender nonconforming are mental illnesses or disorders that need to be treated and corrected. The American Psychiatric Association stopped listing homosexuality as a mental disorder nearly 40 years ago, and recently, the group formally revised its diagnostic manual to reflect that being transgender is also not a disorder.

Therapists and counselors who promise they can change an individual's sexual orientation are no better than snake oil salesmen who guarantee overnight weight loss or risk-free high-yield stocks. The American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association have each concluded that efforts to change sexual orientation are both ineffective and harmful. Conversion practices have been called psychologically and emotionally abusive, causing confusion, depression, guilt, helplessness, and suicidal thoughts and actions.

It is the role of government to protect young people from fraudulent or unsafe practices like LGBT conversion quackery, the same way we protect consumers from other harmful products and services.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Food and Drug Administration serve as federal regulators that ensure the products and drugs we consume are safe and effective. When I found out that there were harmful levels of a toxin called cadmium in children's glasses sold at McDonald's, I contacted the CPSC. In turn, CPSC encouraged McDonald's to recall all 12 million glasses and McDonald s agreed to do so within days.

When I became aware that thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and nonconforming young people are being harmed each year by so-called therapists who seek to convert or repair their sexual orientation, I looked to California's SB 1172 as a model solution. The federal government can't recall a therapist's license for engaging minors in harmful and abusive practices, but state governments can.

I introduced the Stop Harming Our Kids (SHOK) resolution to encourage other states to follow California's lead and take efforts to prohibit state licensed therapists from engaging minors in non-scientific and abusive practices. Legislators in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are already considering similar protections in their states.

Sheldon Bruck and Jerry Spencer, both survivors of conversion therapy, joined me and other advocates to introduce the SHOK resolution a few weeks ago. Their stories, which you can read on the Southern Poverty Law Center's website, are devastating illustrations of the abuse and shame that we can and must spare LGBT youth.

This year the Human Rights Campaign surveyed over 10,000 LGBT youth and found that the largest problem they faced was non-acceptance from their families. Many feel pressure to change who they are.

Groups like JONAH and others that promise to "pray away the gay" have made gay conversion a multi-million dollar industry in the United States. One group spent more than a quarter million dollars a year on its Exodus Youth program to "change" teenagers from gay to straight.

JONAH is now the subject of a first-of-its kind lawsuit filed this month by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Levin, Unger, two other young men, and two of their mothers are suing JONAH for fraud. The boys were falsely promised that they could become straight if they worked hard enough.

The SHOK resolution is designed to encourage states to weed out fraudulent efforts by professional licensees who seek insurance reimbursements for subjecting children to dangerous quackery.

I am also investigating whether taxpayer funds have been spent through Medicaid or TRICARE to reimburse health care professionals practicing conversion therapy. TRICARE is the health care program for retired veterans and their families.

In my cursory investigation, I have found two instances of so-called mental health professionals that advertise these services and appear to be eligible for federal dollars. I have sent letters of inquiry to the administrators of both federal health care programs to determine if these instances reflect systemic weaknesses that allow federal taxpayer dollars to go to harmful, illegitimate medical services.

To fully investigate whether Medicaid or TRICARE funds were spent to reimburse harmful conversion and ex-gay practices, I need to hear from the people who have survived these practices and were eligible for federal programs like Medicaid and TRICARE.

Please call my office if you or someone you know was misled by a Medicaid or TRICARE provider into believing their techniques could cure people of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or nonconforming.

No one should feel ashamed of their sexual orientation and no taxpayer funds should support efforts to cure or repair nonexistent disorders.

To provide information, call Congresswoman Jackie Speier's local office at (650) 342-0300. Speier, a Democrat, represents the 12th District, which includes parts of San Francisco and San Mateo counties.

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