Gay Man Fights Back Against Conversion Therapy in Portland

By Diane Anderson-Minshall

Originally published on Advocate.com May 13 2012 11:40 AM ET

Just as California legislators begin debating a bill that would ban the use of “ex-gay” conversion therapy on children (and make adults sign a waiver of informed consent if they seek it themselves), the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Beth Allen law firm are going after a Portland, Ore., psychiatrist using coversion therapy. The SPLC also launched an online tool that informs users of conversion therapists near them and offers people a safe place to share their stories about this unethical therapy. SPLC and Beth Allen sent a complaint recently to two professional psychiatric associations, Oregon Psychiatric Association and the American Psychiatric Association, charging that the Portland psychiatrist unethically subjected Max Hirsh, a 22-year-old University of Oregon student, to conversion therapy.

Hirsh reportedly began seeing the Portland doctor for treatment for depression in February 2011 and discontinued therapy the following August after determining the doctor subjected him to conversion therapy, a long-since debunked form of therapy directed at changing sexual orientation. The practice has been highly criticized by all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological, and professional counseling organizations (who also don't view being gay or bisexual as a mental disorder needing treatment), though some medical professionals continue to use it.

“This is an appalling violation of physician ethics, as well as a breach of a client’s trust,” said Christine P. Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “LGBT people who seek therapy are vulnerable to these covert attempts by doctors to fix what is not broken. We are calling upon the OPA and APA to take steps to end the practice of conversion therapy by its members.”

The American Psychiatric Association warned over a decade ago, “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." Despite these and other warnings, the practice of conversion therapy remains essentially unregulated.

The SPLC has created an interactive map, which notes the locations of nearly 70 therapists who advertise the practice of conversion therapy in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

Hirsh, who is gay, eventually discontinued therapy after his sexual orientation became the primary focus of the therapy sessions. He says his psychiatrist "focused intensely on Hirsh’s relationship with his father and even asserted that he didn't believe Hirsh was gay … and told him that if he were indeed gay, then Hirsh would need to accept that his love life would always be dissatisfying." He also told Hirsh he didn't "seem gay."

“No one should have to undergo conversion therapy,” Hirsh said. “Ethical doctors respect their patients, but by telling me he didn’t think I was gay and by reinforcing negative stereotypes about gay people, my psychiatrist was deeply disrespectful of who I am.”

"One of the most disturbing patterns we see in reparative therapy is therapists pushing their own ideology at the expense of the patients' mental health," said Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out “This can often traumatize a patient because they see the therapist as an expert who is supposed to help, not cause further harm."

SPLC's new interactive conversion therapy map and a copy of Hirsh's complaint can be found here.