Lawmaker fights teen conversion therapy


Angela Conners

Lawmaker fights teen conversion therapy

By Assistant Metro Editor

At age 11, Patrick McAlvey realized he was attracted to other boys, but he felt pressure from his religious community to seek out a therapist to change his same-sex attraction.

“At an early age, [my therapist] armed me with the information that who I was was wrong, that it could change and that it should change,” McAlvey said. “It was really damaging information to believe was true. All through middle school and high school, it was really the focus of my life to achieve this change that I was told was necessary.”

McAlvey underwent what is known as conversion therapy, which attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. The therapy first emerged in the early 1900s and has been highly controversial since, in part because parents can give consent for their underage children to undergo the counseling, said Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, an Illinois nonprofit that fights homophobia.

To counter forced participation in conversion therapy in Illinois, Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) introduced the Conversion Therapy Prohibition bill to the Illinois House of Representatives on Feb. 23. If passed, the bill would prohibit Illinois doctors and therapists from using counseling practices on minors intended to change sexual orientation,regardless of parental consent.

The measure has been well-received by many, including Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network, who said conversion therapy masks prejudice and should be considered child abuse. Thayer said psychologists and therapists who practice conversion therapy rely on the false belief that they can change a person’s sexual orientation through administering electroshock therapy or ice baths accompanied by pornographic images of the same sex, forcing patients to associate their sexual attractions with pain.

“Conversion therapy has been a part of a right-wing political agenda to demonize gay people and to somehow promote the idea that gay people are disordered or diseased, when it’s actually the homophobic attitudes that are the disease,” Thayer said.

While organizations such as the Gay Liberation Network reject conversion therapy, some believe it has medical value. Dr. Jeffrey Keefe, a psychologist and member of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, said conversion therapy is simply a service available to people who are unhappy with their sexual orientation.

While Keefe said he has witnessed successful conversions, Besen said there is no evidence that conversion therapy works.

“Malpractice begins with a misdiagnosis, and that is that people are gay because of distant parents, sexual abuse or rape,” Besen said. “That has nothing to do with homosexuality any more than it has to do with heterosexuality. There is zero evidence to support it, yet it is the center of conversion therapy.”

Keefe said he looks at a patient’s history and family relationships to treat same-sex attraction because he believes it is a psychological disorder, not a biological one.

Conversion therapy stems from the misconception that being gay is an illness that needs to be cured, Thayer said. The American Psychological Association and the Psychiatric Association have condemned the therapy as dangerous and a phony cure, according to a Feb. 23 GLN press release.

“To try and portray this as legitimate counseling is absurd and bizarre,” Besen said. “It’s faith healing and people can make a decision if they want to send their children to a faith healer and damage them that way, but they certainly shouldn’t pretend they are doing anything therapeutic or medical because that’s not true.”

After a decade of therapy sessions that included bizarre questions and activities, such as being held for hours by his therapist and enduring lessons that taught him being gay was wrong and his life would be unfulfilling if he did not change, McAlvey said he was at the most desperate point of his life when he realized the therapy was not working.

“It was a long process and at times really scary,” McAlvey said. “[My therapist] told me at a young age that everyone who was gay was unhappy and addicted to drugs, alcohol and random sex. It’s hard not to hate yourself and to feel like your life maybe isn’t worth living.”

Keefe acknowledged conversion therapy can be dangerous. If patients get discouraged if therapy is not working for them, that can lead to depression and even suicide, he said. Still, Keefe said he does not favor Cassidy’s proposal because it infringes on the rights of the individual.

California and New Jersey have recently enacted statutes to protect children from being forced into such therapy. The Conversion Therapy Prohibition bill identifies conversion therapy as a form of child abuse and the source of depression and suicide in patients.

McAlvey, now 28 and a recruiter for Google, said he is still healing from the therapy sessions he endured as a child and young adult, but legislation like the Conversion Therapy Act and sharing his story allow him to help others who have endured similar situations. He said mental health care providers should be held to a higher standard.

“When you’re a minor, you rely on those around you who are presented as professionals to determine a lot of your world views and how you view yourself,” McAlvey said. “In order to protect children, I think it is the right move to make to ensure that mental health professionals aren’t able to move forward with therapies that are non-scientific and are proven to be harmful.”