First do no harm.
It’s the dictum of every health care provider, and it’s why Washington’s Senate passed a bill last week banning therapists from trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation.
Conversion therapy uses a variety of behavioral, cognitive and psychoanalytic practices with the aim of eliminating a person’s same-sex attraction or a gender identity at odds with sex defined at birth.
Senate Bill 5722, which would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth from the discredited practice of conversion therapy, passed the chamber with a 32-16 vote. It now heads to the House where we hope it meets the same success.
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If it passes and Gov. Jay Inslee signs it, as expected, Washington would join California, Connecticut, Nevada, New Jersey, the District of Columbia, Oregon, Illinois, Vermont, New York, New Mexico and Rhode Island.
Conversion therapy, or “ex-gay” therapy, is based on the false premise that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression is something that needs curing. But portraying homosexuality as a mental illness, a developmental disorder or an abomination is not only antiquated, it can be downright dangerous.
The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association all oppose conversion therapy. That means there are no guidelines when it comes to best practices.
“Therapeutic” conversion techniques run the gamut from “praying the gay away” to using aversion tactics such as electric shock therapy or inducing nausea while showing homoerotic images.
Many practitioners have close ties to religious institutions and organizations. Under this measure, if they violate the law, they could be subject to sanctions ranging from fines to license revocation or suspension.
In 2016, Danny Cords of Seattle told McClatchy he was 14 when his parents started him on a three-year program to snuff out his homosexual urges. One of the aversion techniques involved placing a rock in his shoe. The pain was there to remind him “not to think about gay things.”
“None of it worked, not even for a second,” said Cords. “We should all be ashamed that it’s legal.”
And yet several South Sound senators voted against banning the practice. Steve O’ Ban, R-Tacoma, defended conversion therapy on the Senate floor: “I have talked with those who have benefited from the type of counseling that would be prohibited.” He also said he didn’t want to put limits on “parents seeking a certain type of counseling from a licensed counselor.”
There’s a stark difference between attempting to change a teen and supporting the person through counseling because he or she may feel isolated and insecure about their sexuality.
According to the American Psychological Association: “Therapy directed at specifically changing sexual orientation … can provoke guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in orientation.”
The APA says parents who seek conversion therapy for their children risk compounding the stigmatization already inflicted on them in school, their community and social media.
Health care providers are united on this front: Young people who experience family rejection based on sexual orientation or gender identity are more than eight times more likely to report attempted suicides, more than five times more likely to report depression, and are more likely to use illegal drugs, engage in unprotected sex or be homeless.
In 1973 the American Psychological Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. The World Psychiatric Association considers same-sex attraction, orientation and behavior as normal variants of human sexuality. It’s time the rest of the world caught up.
On the national level, the Oasis Youth and Rainbow Centers of Tacoma are among dozens of LGBTQ advocacy organizations who’ve urged states for years to ban this damaging, quasi-therapeutic practice.
Six Republicans joined 26 Democrats in passing SB5722. The South Sound senators who opposed it were Jan Angel, Randi Becker, Phil Fortunato, Mark Miloscia, Hans Zeiger and O’Ban.
When we asked Miloscia, R-Federal Way, to explain his no vote, he declined to answer, pointing to other members of the Republican caucus whom he said were “more engaged” on the topic.
There should be no issue more engaging than protecting Washington’s youth against a medically refuted practice that would do them harm.