Activists And Suicide Prevention Groups Seek Bans On Conversion Therapy For Minors

Apr 26, 2019
Originally published on April 26, 2019 9:01 pm

Peter Nunn is 32 and he's happy. He lives just outside Atlanta with his husband Monte, his dog Amelie, and their cat Hollow.

The dining room is decorated with a photo gallery wall of family — his husband dancing with his mother at their wedding and pictures of the couple. But it took a long time and work to get to a place where Nunn said he accepted and loved himself.

As a gay man, Nunn said, his father tried to change him.

"When I was 15, my parents found a men's workout magazine that I had and drew their own conclusions," he said. "My dad told me we were going to go on a trip and didn't tell me where we were going."

On the way to their mystery destination, Nunn's father turned to him.

"He said he was going to take me to a therapy center to deal with whatever weird sexual stuff I had going on," Nunn said. "If it didn't work, he was going to send me to military school to make a man out of me."

In that moment, everything he knew felt threatened: his relationship with his parents, his home, his social circle. He said that every day for two weeks at a therapy center in Iowa, licensed mental health professionals told him that what he was feeling was sinful, that he needed to change or his soul was in jeopardy, that he was broken.

Conversion therapy is something that at its core is telling somebody that there's something fundamentally broken with them and not only can it be fixed, it needs to be fixed. - Peter Nunn

What Nunn was going through was conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy. It is a widely discredited practice aimed at changing a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. In most of the country, the therapy is still legal for minors. But advocacy groups are trying to change that by pushing legislation in statehouses across the country to ban licensed mental health professionals from practicing conversion therapy on minors. So far 16 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have banned the practice. Colorado is expected to sign a ban into law soon.

And Nunn is trying to help get it passed in Georgia where House Bill 580 was recently introduced. He's supporting the bill to help other young people avoid the trauma he lived through.

Peter Nunn (right) and his husband Monte Nunn live just outside Atlanta with their pets.
Peter Nunn for NPR

"Conversion therapy is something that at its core is telling somebody that there's something fundamentally broken with them and not only can it be fixed, it needs to be fixed," Nunn said in his living room. "That's a lot of trauma, especially for somebody that's 15 years old or 10 years old or however old."

Suicide as a side effect

At 15, Nunn was convinced he needed to be "fixed." When he wasn't, he tried to take his life in the woods behind a friend's house. A note in his pocket said, "God forgive me."

His suicide attempt is an all-too-frequent side effect of conversion therapy. LGBT youth are already much more likely to try to take their life than their peers are. But kids whose parents try to change their sexual orientation attempt suicide at more than double the rate of their LGBT peers; the suicide rate is nearly triple among young people who also deal with intervention from "therapists and religious leaders."

Matthew Wilson, a Democratic state representative in Georgia, introduced the legislation in a majority Republican State House.

"I specifically asked just for a hearing this year, no vote, so that we could use this year as an educational moment to really raise awareness about the need for this and how there really is no controversy here, people really aren't opposing this, at least not in Georgia," he said.

The bill has the same language as other bills that have passed or introduced. It would bar mental health professionals in the state from practicing conversion therapy on minors. When people turn 18, they can put themselves through conversion therapy. If passed, the law wouldn't interfere with clergy and religious counseling.

"There's been an outcry, not just from the victims and the LGBTQ community," Wilson said. "But from the medical professionals who say this is not medicine and not only is it not medicine but the harm is very real and lasts a lifetime."

Medical and mental health professions decry practice

Nearly 700,000 adults have gone through conversion therapy, some half of them as minors, according to a 2018 study from The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

A number of medical and mental health associations list the practice as something that doesn't work and is harmful. The American Psychological Association says conversion therapy has "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."

The American Psychiatric Association says ethical practitioners shouldn't try to change someone's sexuality because of their responsibility to do no harm. In a position statement in 2000, the association wrote that, after four decades, practitioners of "reparative" therapy, "have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure," meanwhile there are "anecdotal claims of psychological harm."

So national organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and The Trevor Project are trying to get this legislation passed in all 50 states.

Conversion therapy can be a lot of different things

"Sometimes this takes the form of religious prayer. This is where you get the 'pray the gay away' kind of concept," said Sam Brinton, the head of advocacy and government affairs for the Trevor Project. "Sometimes this takes the form of talk therapy where a person may be sitting on a couch and thinking that their mother was overbearing or their father was distant and this is what made them gay ... and then in some rare cases, there is a version of this therapy where people try to attach a negative stimulus to an action."

Brinton went through the most extreme version, electroshock therapy so that they would hate "any connection that I had to my homosexuality."

All of these practices can lead to depression, self-harm and, in some cases, suicide.

"It's really important that we recognize that parents are actually being lied to here," Brinton said. "So although I want to support a parent's ability to raise their child as they see fit, we still have protections in this country that protect youth from harm despite any objections of the parent. And we also have laws that make sure that parents shouldn't be lied to or defrauded by these snake oil salesmen."

One of the most well-known national organizations providing conversion therapy, Exodus International, disbanded after the president, Alan Chambers, disavowed the therapy in 2012 and apologized for any harm or pain it had caused. John Paulk, a known advocate of conversion therapy and of the "ex-gay" movement, came out in 2013 and disavowed the therapy.

But not everyone is on board with legislation to ban the practice. Liberty Counsel, an evangelical Christian group, is trying to stop the bans through the courts.

"The counselors that we work with, they try to respect the wishes of the client and the client is that minor. It's not the parents, it's the client and that's who they have the responsibility to," said Mat Staver, the head of Liberty Counsel. "And some of those particular clients want to be affirmed in these attractions. Others want to overcome those attractions or live with them but ultimately not engage in certain desires that they may have. So they work with those clients on an individual basis."

Staver says conversion therapy bans are a violation of free speech for counselors and a minor's right to "self-autonomy." He takes issue with the term "conversion therapy" calling it a politicized term used to conjure up dangerous images of what goes on in this type of counseling.

"There's no other area in counseling where the government has barged into the private counseling room and this should be no exception," he said. "And it's just a matter of time before the High Court expressly overrules all these cases and all these laws."

Recently, the Supreme Court declined to take a case that would have challenged the conversion therapy ban in New Jersey.

Advocates of the ban say that if a practice is deemed harmful or abusive to children in other cases, the state does intervene.

Embracing the journey

The depth of that harm is something Greg and Lynn McDonald, of Johns Creek, Ga., say they didn't understand when they found out their son, Greg, was gay. They describe themselves as conservative Christians and were worried that their son was committing a sin.

Greg McDonald Jr. (left) sits with his fiancé Jon Jost. McDonald's parents considered sending him to counseling when they were concerned he was gay. Now they support a ban on conversion therapy.
Leila Fadel / NPR

"We thought that Greg somehow missed something along the way and that if he had someone to walk with and talk with in regards to it, he'd see and desire to be heterosexual," Lynn McDonald said.

So, at that time, when their 34-year-old son was 17, they met with a counselor about conversion therapy, which is legal in Michigan where they lived at the time and in Georgia. If it had been illegal, things might have been different.

"It would have made me really pause to know that it's illegal to do that to a minor," Greg said.

Their son refused conversion therapy, and they didn't force him. It took a few years, but Greg and Lynn say that they realized they couldn't change him and that, as Christians, they shouldn't try to change him. They found that answer, they said, in the Bible.

"As a Christian not only am I not supposed to shun my child, I'm actually supposed to love my child and not only supposed to, I'm commanded to." Lynn McDonald said. "It's the greatest commandment."

Today, they say, they're ashamed that they ever considered conversion therapy. But when they found out their son was gay, they didn't know how to handle it and they felt isolated in their community. It's why they started a nonprofit, Embracing the Journey, aimed at helping other conservative Christians who feel alone as parents of LGBTQ kids.

They are supporters of a conversion therapy ban.

"Before anybody even thinks about sending their son or daughter to one of these places," Lynn McDonald said, "they have to be so educated in understanding what this can do to your child for the rest of their lives what kind of pain that can bring."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There are now 16 American states that have banned conversion therapy. Its practitioners aim to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. For the people who are supposed to be changed, conversion therapy is linked to higher rates of depression and suicide, which helps to explain why more than a dozen states are considering legislation to outlaw it on top of the states that already have done so. One of those states is Georgia, and NPR's Leila Fadel went there.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Peter Nunn lives just outside Atlanta.

PETER NUNN: Hi, I'm Peter.

FADEL: Hi, Peter.

NUNN: Nice to meet you. This is Amelie. She's just...

FADEL: Hi.

NUNN: ...Excited.

FADEL: He and his husband Monte have a dog named Amelie and a cat, Hollow. Peter's dining room is adorned with smiling pictures of his family.

NUNN: I love photos.

FADEL: Is this your mom?

NUNN: That's my mom and Monte dancing at our wedding.

FADEL: But it took a lot of work and time to get to this happy place.

NUNN: When I was 15, my parents found a men's workout magazine that I had and drew their own conclusions. They didn't talk to me about it. My dad told me we were going to go on a trip. He didn't tell me where we were going.

FADEL: On the way there, his father turned to him.

NUNN: He said he was going to take me to a therapy center to deal with whatever weird sexual stuff I had going on and that if it didn't work, he was going to send me to military school to make a man out of me.

FADEL: Every day for two weeks, licensed mental health professionals told him that what he was feeling was sinful, and he was broken.

NUNN: The whole thing was focused on, you know, my eternal soul was at danger here. So at this point, I would do anything they asked me to do or believe anything they asked me to believe so that I could be fixed.

FADEL: Did you believe that?

NUNN: A hundred percent.

FADEL: Did you want to be fixed?

NUNN: I wanted to be fixed 100%.

FADEL: Back home, he told his parents it worked. But it didn't, and he felt like a failure. When he was 16, he tried to take his own life while at a friend's house.

NUNN: I took a bunch of pills in the woods behind their house with a note in my pocket.

FADEL: The note said, God, forgive me. Peter Nunn's suicide attempt after conversion therapy is all too common. Already LGBT youth are more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. That nearly triples among those who've been through some type of counselling to change their sexual orientation. That's why Georgia state representative Matthew Wilson is trying to pass legislation to ban it. As in more than a dozen other states, if passed, the law would stop licensed mental health professionals from trying to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors.

MATTHEW WILSON: I specifically asked just for a hearing this year - no vote - so that we could use this year as an educational moment to really raise awareness about the need for this.

FADEL: He says it's about saving vulnerable children.

WILSON: There's been an outcry - not just from the victims and the LGBTQ community but from the medical professionals who say this is not medicine. And not only is it not medicine, but the harm is very real and lasts a lifetime.

FADEL: Many medical associations say the practice does not work and is harmful. National organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the advocacy group The Trevor Project are trying to get this legislation passed in all 50 states. But Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian group that opposes LGBTQ rights, wants to stop the bans. Mat Staver heads Liberty Counsel.

MAT STAVER: The counselors that we work with - they try to respect the wishes of the client. And the client is that minor. It's not the parents. It's the client.

FADEL: Staver says it's about an individual patient's autonomy, even if they're minors, and that a ban on conversion therapy violates the free speech of counselors.

STAVER: There's no other area of counseling where the government has barged into the private counseling room, and this should be no exception.

FADEL: Recently, the Supreme Court declined to take a case that would have challenged the conversion therapy ban in New Jersey. And advocates of the ban say if a practice is deemed harmful or abusive to children in other cases, the state does intervene. The depth of that harm is something Greg and Lynn McDonald say they didn't understand when they found out their son, Greg Jr., was gay. They describe themselves as conservative Christians and were worried that their son was committing a sin.

LYNN MCDONALD: We thought that Greg somehow missed something along the way and that if he had someone to walk with and talk with in regards to it, he'd see and desire, you know, to be heterosexual.

FADEL: So they met with a counselor about conversion therapy, which is legal. But Greg Sr. said if there'd been a ban...

GREG MCDONALD: It would have made me really pause to know that it's illegal to do that to a minor.

FADEL: It took years, but Greg and Lynn say they realized they couldn't change their son. The Bible, they say, teaches them to love.

L MCDONALD: Before anybody even thinks about sending their son or daughter to one of these places, they have to be so educated in understanding what this can do to...

G MCDONALD: Yeah.

L MCDONALD: ...Your child for the rest of their lives - what kind of pain that could bring.

FADEL: Today they say they're ashamed that they ever considered conversion therapy. And they want to be a resource for other conservative Christians who feel alone as parents of LGBTQ kids.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.