When Curtis Galloway shares what it was like to undergo conversion therapy with a religious counselor, it breaks your heart.
In the fall of 2010, as a teenager, Curtis came out to his mother and father in their small southern Illinois town. His parents were concerned. They sought out a counselor who shared their religious beliefs and said he could help Curtis overcome being gay. Over the course of seven sessions, the counselor coached Curtis to be ashamed of his identity while blaming his sexual orientation in part on his father for his busy work schedule and in part on his mother for being “too emotionally close” with her son. In just a few weeks, this counselor “was able to completely destroy my family,” Curtis recounted to St. Louis magazine.
The darkest parts of the history of sexual orientation change efforts can often read like a horror story: medication, shock therapy, and worse. The latest wave of these efforts involves the use of talk therapy to try to convince LGBT people to be straight or cisgender. Despite over a century of such attempts, there is no proven way to alter an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Many families are at a loss when their child comes out as LGBT (or even questions their sexual orientation or gender identity). Helping their child navigate such a process is often daunting. Parents may feel they lack the skills and experience to support their child. Doing so may even conflict with deeply held religious or cultural beliefs.
And the stakes are high. This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on the health and safety of the 1.3 million adolescents nationwide who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Among the many devastating findings are that 40 percent of LGB youth reported having seriously considered suicide, with 29 percent having attempted suicide in the past 12 months. This is a nationwide crisis: Nearly one-third of our LGB youth tried to kill themselves last year.
Therapists who engage in conversion therapy prey on these vulnerable families. They market their “services” to trusting parents while failing to disclose the complete lack of any evidence that a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity can be changed and the profoundly harmful consequences of attempting to do so.
For 43 years, the American Psychiatric Association has stated that being LGBT is not a disorder or mental illness. And in response to a 2007 survey of the research on conversion therapy, the American Psychological Association reported that “such efforts have serious potential to harm young people because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”
Additionally, all the major medical and mental health organizations in the country, representing nearly half a million mental health professionals, including those groups and the National Association of Social Workers, have clearly stated that being LGBT is not a disease that can be “cured.” So when state licensed mental health professionals attempt to earn money off of vulnerable families by promising a “cure” for their child, they not only peddle bad science, but they also pose a real harm to children and families.
Illinois is one of five states and a handful of cities with laws protecting children and families from these deceptive and damaging practices. The Illinois Youth Mental Health Protection Act was signed into law August 20, 2015, and went into effect January 1 of this year. Sponsored in their respective legislative chambers by Rep. Kelly Cassidy and Sen. Daniel Biss, it received bipartisan support in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
The law prohibits state-licensed mental health providers from engaging in conversion therapy with minors. It further prohibits anyone “in the conduct of trade or commerce” to advertise services in exchange for money that present the false notion that being LGBT is a mental illness.
Despite its common-sense nature — based in strong scientific research aimed at protecting children and families and preventing commercial fraud — this law was challenged this month in federal court by five Illinois pastors. We at Equality Illinois are confident the law will be upheld, just as similar laws in California and New Jersey were upheld by courts in those states. When arguing in support of the bill in the Illinois Senate, Biss highlighted the fact that the law “doesn’t address religious or nonlicensed professionals.” It simply prevents state-licensed mental health professionals from offering treatments debunked by science and unsupported by the mental health professional community. And it prevents commercial actors from profiting from the false and harmful idea that being LGBT is a disease.
While we are confident the Youth Mental Health Protection Act will be upheld in the courts, we believe we should focus on ensuring that youth and families are protected from conversion therapy nationwide. In his Senate floor defense of the bill, Biss rightly called out the practice as “abuse” adding that "the truth of the matter is not everyone survives it.” Children are shamed and harmed. Families are torn apart. And in the case of Leelah Alcorn, the transgender teen who committed suicide in 2014 after being subjected to conversion therapy, they may not even come out alive.
Curtis Galloway was luckier than Leelah Alcorn. His parents realized the harm the conversion therapy was doing to their son — and to their family — and they abandoned it. They told Curtis they realized the therapy was wrong and that they loved him just the way he is.
No child should have to go through what Curtis Galloway, Leelah Alcorn, and countless others have gone through. With the support of good science and with deep love for our children, we look forward to the day when not a single child and not a single family is subjected to the injustice of conversion therapy.