OLYMPIA – Doctors and licensed therapists in Washington could soon be barred from trying to turn gay teens straight through techniques known as “conversion therapy.”
A bill would label such therapies, also known as sexual orientation change efforts or reparative therapy, as unprofessional conduct if used on people under 18. It passed the House overwhelmingly last week and generated passionate testimony in a Senate committee Thursday.
Supporters said the techniques, which are discouraged by many professional medical organizations and can include shock therapy and ice baths, don’t work and leave long-term psychological scars. Daniel Cords, of Seattle, said his conservative religious parents put him in conversion therapy for years; it didn’t change his sexual orientation but did leave him depressed and suicidal.
“I do not trust therapists,” Cords said. “I’d rather be dumped in spiders.”
Opponents of the bill, however, say it goes too far and interferes with churches who are following their religious teachings in trying to help convert gay youths. Although it has exemptions for religious counselors who aren’t licensed health care professionals, Joseph Fuiten of the Cedar Park Assembly Church in Bothell said it will gag licensed counselors in churches like his who support the practice.
“This forbids counselors from sharing one perspective on a controversial issue,” Fuiten said. “This bill and the First Amendment don’t get along very well.”
Robin Goodspeed, who described herself as an “ex-homosexual, ex-lesbian,” said she was told she was born homosexual and couldn’t change, but did through therapy. “This bill says people like me and other ex-homosexuals don’t exist. What if a young person wants to change and finds hope in my story?” she asked.
But Dave Thompson, an ordained minister and author, said he went through conversion therapy that didn’t work, and it has been abandoned by some groups that previously practiced it. “Could each of you change your sexual orientation?” he asked members of the Senate Health Care Committee.
Under the bill, any state-licensed health care provider who performs sexual orientation change efforts on a patient under 18 could be charged with unprofessional conduct. That would include any practices that tried to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender expressions, or to reduce sexual or romantic attractions toward someone of the same sex.
Under an amendment by Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, the original bill was changed to add exclusions for non-licensed counselors for churches and religious denominations. With that change, the bill passed the House on a 94-4 vote.
Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, asked if the Department of Health, which handles about 10,000 complaints of misconduct for all the professions it oversees, has had any complaints about some of the techniques that could easily be considered abusive. Not within the last 11 years, according to anyone in the agency’s memory, said Kristi Weeks, attorney for the department.
“That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,” Weeks said.
Said Cords, “What 14-year-old knows how to file a complaint? What 20-year-old knows how to file a complaint?”
California and New Jersey have similar laws. The committee could vote next week whether to send the bill to the full Senate.