Should Washington be next state to ban 'gay conversion' therapy?

SEATTLE -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced earlier this week that his state will become the second in the nation to ban therapy designed to make gay teens straight. Now, a Washington legislator is considering whether such a law should be passed here.

"Conversion" or "reparative" therapy aims to change teens from homosexual to heterosexual. While sexual orientation change efforts have been practiced for over a century, they have gained popularity in recent decades among conservative Christian groups, such as Exodus International and the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH).

In 1998, the American Psychological Association stated its position opposing any psychiatric treatment, such as reparative or conversion therapy, which assumes homosexuality is a mental disorder and a patient should strive to change their sexual orientation. The APA statement reads: "The potential risks of reparative therapy are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient."

Washington State Rep. Marko Liias of Mukilteo said legislators should support this widely accepted view from the medical community.

"There are kids out there being subjected to these treatments that are potentially harmful and I think it's our responsibility to do something about it," Liias said.

Liias said he only knows of two licensed health professionals in the state of Washington who advertise conversion therapy services but believes many more people may be providing counseling on changing one's sexuality in unregulated settings such as religious communities.

No bill banning conversion therapy has been filed in Washington to date, but, after California banned the practice, Liias sponsored legislation earlier this year directing the Department of Health to establish a work group to review and make recommendations on the practice of sexual orientation change efforts on minors to identify potential harms of this kind of therapy and develop recommendations.

"When California passed a ban it raised an issue I thought Washington should address," Liias said. "I wanted to open the door to banning it but really start by having mental health experts at public health make recommendations to legislators on how to protect teens."

Liias' bill failed to pass the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services but the representative said he plans to lead further discussions on gay conversion therapy this fall. When the 2014 legislative session begins he may again ask public health to investigate the issue or try to ban the practice.

"I think it's time to take a fresh look at the issue," Liias said. "Having another state ban it - particularly one with a conservative governor - makes me want to see if we should take the step to actually prohibit it."

But such bans have faced legal scrutiny. NARTH and the Liberty Counsel - a non-profit law firm and ministry providing legal assistance in defense of "Christian religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, and the traditional family" - have sought an injunction against California's ban and recently announced plans to do the same in New Jersey.

Joseph Backholm, director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, said the government should let parents decide what form of therapy is best for their child.

"The idea that a group of legislators would be in a better position to know what is good for a child than the parents is an offensive proposition," Backholm said. "It's an uncomfortable precedent even if you agree with this particular conclusion."

In cases where a parent might want their teen to attend reparative therapy against their wishes, Backholm said that conflict should be settled within the family, not by the government.

"Let them work it out," he said. "Parents and children have conflicts over all sorts of things. If a child is being abused or neglected in some way the state can intervene. Absent that finding its troubling that the government would intrude into the parent child relationship."

Backholm said lawmakers should question the APA's position on gay conversion therapy because he believes the association has ignored successful cases of sexual orientation change.

"The fact that some people used to be gay and are no longer gay is troubling to them," he said. "I personally know a lot of people who that has been their experience."

Still, Liias may find support among his local legislators. Rep. Jamie Pedersen of Seattle said he feels banning conversion therapy falls under the primary medical principle "do no harm."

"The rights of the parents have to be balanced against the rights of the kids," Pedersen said. "As kids get closer to adulthood and have a firmer sense of who they are the weight you give to the rights of the parents tends to decrease. The default ought to be not to try to change something - leave the person alone who doesn't believe he or she has a sickness."

Still, Pedersen said he has reservations about legislators regulating the medical community.

"My personal view is that it's a horrible practice and I don't see any place for it - but I'm not a mental health professional," Pedersen said. "What I liked about Liias' bill is it started by grounding us in the research before we moved to a conclusion about what to do with it."

Dr. David Breland runs a transgender health clinic at Seattle Children's Hospital. He said he would never recommend reparative therapy to his patients or their families.

"A lot of the youth I see who are LGBT suffer from depression and substance abuse because society is saying they're different and shouldn't be the way they are," Breland said. "Sending them to reparative therapy is devaluing who they are. I could see that increasing the self-loathing that can lead to depression, suicide and substance abuse."

Breland said the practice is especially harmful to adolescents.

"It's one thing to have an adult go through this process but an adolescent's brain is still developing and I think it could have a profound effect on that individual as they do reach adulthood," he said.

Linda Robertson, a Bellevue mother, said her son became severely depressed and even suicidal after seeing a counselor who believed Ryan could change his sexuality and began reading conversion texts like Jeff Konrad's "You don't Have to be Gay."

"We didn't force him into reparative therapy but he wanted so badly to please God," Robertson said. "In our church community that was really the only option if you were going to follow Christ."

Ryan later started abusing drugs like cocaine and told his mother it was because he could not stand the pain of choosing between being loved by God and being gay.

"It created this false hope that if he only prayed hard enough that he would become straight," Robertson said. "He felt incredibly betrayed by God. He did his part but God hadn't kept his promise to what all of these people said he would do."

Ryan died from an accidental drug overdose in 2009 when he was 19 years old.

"Addiction killed Ryan but these messages directly contributed his decision to start using," Robertson said. "If we could choose again we would protect him from any negative messaging and reinforce that he is exactly who God intended him to be."