Exclusive: Conversion therapy still practiced in nearly every U.S. state

High school students rally at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 21, 2019, to urge lawmakers to protect LGBTQ Minnesotans and youth from the effects of conversion therapy. Photo credit: Jim MoneAP

Conversion therapy, a practice aimed at changing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, has been widely viewed with skepticism and is banned in 22 states and the District of Columbia. But there are still more than 1,300 practitioners in the United States offering conversion therapy, according to a new report shared exclusively with TIME.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., who introduced a bill in June to ban conversion therapy at the federal level, said it was shocking that we still see so many different conversion therapy programs across the United States. All these projects are fraudulent. Conversion therapy has no scientific or medical basis. This is a huge scam.

The new report comes from The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ youth. Lead author Casey Pick, director of legal and policy at The Trevor Project, said she believes this is one of the most comprehensive efforts to document the prevalence of conversion therapy in the United States. She spent five years combing through publicly available online lists for conversion therapists responding to the widespread misconception that the debunked practice was outdated.

The goal of a conversion therapist is usually to change a client’s sexual orientation or gender identity so that they identify as heterosexual or cisgender. This practice has been condemned by many organizations specializing in psychiatry, health and human rights, as it has proven to be both ineffective and dangerous. Research shows that people who undergo conversion therapy are at increased risk for mental health problems, including depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse and suicidal behavior.

Dr. Amir Ahuja, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s LGBTQ+ Caucus, wrote in a statement to TIME that there is no evidence-based reason for sexual conversion therapy. Engaging in conversion therapy violates a doctor’s ethics and oath.

Nearly half of U.S. states prohibit licensed mental health providers, such as therapists and psychiatrists, from providing conversion therapy to minors. (The Supreme Court recently rejected a challenge to the Washington state ban.) Still, a recent study concluded that more than 10 percent of people in the United States who identify as sexual or gender minorities have undergone conversion therapy, Previous research from The Trevor Project showed that approximately 17% of LGBTQ youth have experienced or been threatened with this condition.

After Curtis Lopez-Galloway came out as gay at 16, his parents began taking him to see a Christian counselor, who turned out to be a conversion therapist. The counselor discouraged him from spending time with friends who were supportive of his sexual orientation and fueled his parents’ concerns about the risks their son might face as a homosexual. What my therapist did in therapy was terrible, but it wasn’t the part that really bothered me and left me mentally confused, Lopez-Galloway said. That’s what happened at home because of what he did.

Lopez-Galloway has since built a support network for other conversion therapy survivors and helped pass a ban in his home state of Illinois. The new report on The Trevor Project is important because people need to know it’s still happening, he said. Even though we have these laws on the books, it’s still not enough.

Pick and her team found that there are at least 1,320 conversion therapy practitioners currently working in the United States. She found therapists in every state except Hawaii and Vermont. Even in many areas where licensed mental health providers cannot legally provide conversion therapy to minors, Peake found examples of professionals, including those licensed counselors, therapists and other mental health providers conduct business there.

However, more than half of the practitioners identified in the report provide conversion therapy through religious organizations. (About 100 religiously affiliated practitioners in the report also hold licenses to provide mental health or medical care.) Religious freedom protections mean they are largely exempt from state-level bans, although some plaintiffs have also sued Religious conversion therapy practitioners commit fraud.

Peake noted that there may be more people offering clandestine conversion therapy. She and her team limited their search to publicly available online listings, excluding sources such as private social media groups and practitioners who advertise solely through word-of-mouth. Since many practitioners have stopped using terms like conversion therapy and reparative therapy because of the ban, they are also looking for people to advertise using other keywords, such as unwanted same-sex attraction. Practitioners were only included in reports if multiple researchers from Picks’ team agreed that they were explicitly involved in the practice.

While reports suggest bans have not completely stopped conversion therapy, Peake said she hopes to see more bans implemented in the coming years. While most current laws only apply to licensed providers working with minors, she believes they have a trickle-down effect.

The ban sends a powerful message: [conversion therapy] Peake said there was no government approval to prove it was legal or scientific. This is an important message to convey.

write to Jamie Ducharme, email: jamie.ducharme@time.com.

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