The legislator asked, “Ma’am, what evidence do you have to support your claim that all or most LGBT people were abused as children?” The witness replied, “Well, there are a number of high-profile gay celebrities that have recently admitted they were abused. Have you seen Milo Yiannopoulos, who recently admitted this in a press conference?”
This is an actual exchange that took place Tuesday at the Colorado State Capitol, where I was honored to testify in support of House Bill 17-1156, which seeks to make it illegal for licensed psychologists and psychotherapists to practice so-called reparative therapy on minors in the state of Colorado. Similar pieces of legislation have been challenged and ultimately upheld in states across the nation, including New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois, Oregon, and Vermont. I was one of almost a dozen LGBT+ people tapped to support this bill put forward by by Rep. Paul Rosenthal, a gay legislator who has supported this legislation for three years in a row.
As an LGBT+ Christian who has experienced the damaging effects of conversion therapy, I entered the chamber today with a sense of urgency, knowing that what I experienced during my undergrad years at the conservative Moody Bible Institute was nothing compared to the severe damage that so many other LGBT+ people have incurred as a result of extreme versions of reparative therapy. I believe in the importance of this bill because I believe in protecting children from being forced into therapies that perpetuate the lie that they are somehow flawed or disordered because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Though I spend a majority of my life working at the intersections of conservative faith communities and the LGBT+ community, I wasn’t prepared for the kinds of things I heard during the testimony of our opposition. Besides the stunning reference to the alt-right xenophobe Yiannopoulos, a number of other shocking statements were made that made me realize just how much more work was left to do. One of the most deplorable remarks came from Jeff Johnston of the fundamentalist Christian organization Focus on the Family, who said during his testimony, “Therapy isn’t a science, but an art.”
And we are supposed to believe that this man and this organization are out to protect the well-being of our children? Someone who believes not in the science of psychotherapy — which overwhelmingly concludes that reparative therapy is ineffective in “treating” homosexuality — but who believes in the art of therapy? In what world does that statement make sense? And yet it perfectly sums up the case of conversion therapy advocates.
There is simply no question about the usefulness of attempts to heal or change one's sexual orientation or gender identity. Every major medical, psychological, education, and social work association outright condemns such treatments as unethical for licensed mental health practitioners. Numerous peer-reviewed studies have been published that show that conversion therapy is ineffective at best, harmful at worst to a majority of young people subjected to it. Rosenthal’s bill simply relies on the expertise of medical and mental health professionals to make the case that licensed therapists should not be practicing this type of treatment on minors.
This bill doesn’t say that religious communities can’t embrace and promote their own versions of conversion therapy, or that consenting adults cannot seek out treatment to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. Only that mental health professionals cannot subject minors to the shame-inducing practices of reparative therapy.
As a person of deep faith and an LGBT+ person, I can testify to the dangers of attempts to change one's sexual orientation or gender identity. After being subjected to over a year of such therapies myself, I have had to spend years working to overcome the fear, shame, and despair that were caused by my treatment. After spending the past five years of my life working within the LGBT+ Christian community, I have heard thousands upon thousands of stories of young people being forced into therapies, camps, and other programs in an attempt to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.
There is no question as to whether or not conversion therapy is ineffective and destructive to our youth. This is an issue about the fundamental human rights of LGBT+ youth to be allowed to grow and develop into their own sexual or gender identity without being forced into therapies that seek to make them live lives that are inauthentic to who they truly have been created to be.
And yet massive conservative religious organizations are organizing across the country to continue to perpetuate false and disproven ideas about sexuality and gender that threaten the safety and development of youth in nearly every state in the nation. Appealing to religious beliefs, claims of alt-right celebrities, rare experiences of individuals who identify as “ex-gay,” and reducing psychotherapy to mere “art,” these organizations are working hard to ensure that reparative therapy is available to every LGBT+ youth.
Colorado House Bill 17-1156 passed the committee on Tuesday with a mere 7-6 vote and will make its way to the floor later this year, where you can believe that its opponents will be present in full force, advocating for the continued legitimacy of reparative therapy. As LGBT+ people, we cannot sit by idly and watch. These practices are still legal in 44 states across the nation and have been proven to directly contribute to increased suicide rates, depression, and other mental health damage in LGBT+ youth.
May we all be awakened to the vast amount of work that lies ahead and the wide range of threats facing our community, and may we be poised to fight, with every ounce of energy we have, any and all attempts to perpetuate the degradation and oppression of sexual and gender minorities across this nation.
Note: The quotes in this piece are not direct but rendered to the best of the author's memory. To listen to the testimony from the hearing, click here. To read a transcript of Robertson's testimony before the committee, click here.
BRANDAN ROBERTSON is an author, thought-leader, and activist working at the intersections of spirituality, sexuality, and social renewal. He is the executive director of Nomad Partnerships, a nonprofit working to foster spiritual and social evolution and promote the human rights of sexual and gender minorities.