Conversion therapy has made headlines recently after President Obama called for an end to the controversial practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation.
A petition with more than 121,000 signatures has called for a federal ban on the practice, also referred to as reparative therapy or aversion therapy. The petition was inspired by Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender teen from Ohio who committed suicide in December.
Several states are considering legislation, including Washington, where the state House passed a bill last week to ban conversion therapy for minors by a vote of 60-37. The revised bill has gone back to the Senate.
Gabi Clayton, a mental health counselor in Olympia, said conversion therapy is traumatizing and unethical. She has heard horror stories of people undergoing electroshock treatment, for example, and suffering psychological damage that lasts a lifetime.
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Clayton has become an advocate for the gay community in the 20 years since her son, Bill, took his own life at age 17 after he was assaulted in a hate crime. She said Bill had love and support from his family when he came out at age 14.
“I don’t believe you can change sexual orientation,” said Clayton, who is hopeful the state’s ban on conversion therapy will pass. “There are some people who say the therapy works, but I don’t believe them.”
Leslie, a transgender woman from Olympia, was subjected to the therapy while living as a teenage boy in Texas.
For about four years, Leslie was forced by her father to attend secret therapy sessions in the basement of a Baptist church. The sessions were referred to as “Sunday school” and consisted of men berating Leslie as she sat in a chair in a dark room under a spotlight, she said.
“I just had to endure sitting in a chair with guys yelling Scriptures and insults,” said Leslie, now 60. She asked that her last name be withheld for personal safety reasons.
The goal of the therapy sessions, she said, was to instill shame.
“They’d go on and on about how disgusting it is to be pretending to be female when your body is obviously male,” Leslie said. “It was mostly shaming me and ridiculing me with Scriptures. ... There was no religion to it. It was just hate.”
She added: “All it ever did was make me bitter.”
She ran away from home at age 17, and years later, she moved to Olympia. Leslie started hormone therapy a couple of years ago, and said the support from the local transgender community has helped.
Leslie said she signed the petition to ban conversion therapy as soon as she saw it. However, her personal experience with the therapy is still raw and painful more than four decades later.
“I’m still angry about what was done to me,” Leslie said.
The American Counseling Association rejects conversion therapy as a treatment option and reports there is no research that shows the therapy to be effective.
But organizations such as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality report that “the right to seek therapy to change one’s sexual adaptation should be considered self-evident and inalienable.” Also on the organization’s website: “We believe that clients have the right to claim a gay identity, or to diminish their homosexuality and to develop their heterosexual potential.”