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Free Lance-Star: Commentary: Conversion therapy is judgmental, harmful Print


Created:  Saturday, January 31, 2015 12:00AM


Motion pictures, like all other types of art, present reality in a way that is not usually perceived. "Dallas Buyers Club" brought to the screen the tragic life of a transgendered woman named Rayon, played by Jared Leto, who is addicted to drugs and dying of AIDS. A number of films have portrayed transgender individuals, but none has matched the depth of the character and her heartbreaking life as portrayed in this film.

The recent suicide of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, a transgendered adolescent, has brought into our consciousness the emotional trauma, harassment and discrimination transgendered youth face each day.

A 2007 study found that nearly half of the sample of 55 transgendered youth reported having suicidal ideation and one quarter reported suicide attempts.

The American Psychological Association defines transgender as "an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth." The history of the diagnosis and treatment of transgender individuals runs parallel to the diagnosis and treatment of homosexuality.

When the American Psychiatric Association published the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1952, the "bible" used by mental health professionals to diagnose psychiatric disorders, homosexuality was defined as a psychiatric disorder. Although there was no scientific evidence to support the diagnosis, it remained in the DSM until 1973. At that time, the board of directors of APA voted to eliminate homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder, and at a general membership meeting in 1974, 58 percent of the members voted in support of the deletion.

The newly revised DSM–5 has taken similar steps regarding transgender. The term gender identity disorder was first introduced in the DSM–III in 1980 and has now been replaced with gender dysphoria. The same scientific and political powers, which advocated for the removal of the diagnosis of homosexuality, have supported reducing the stigma associated with being transgendered by eliminating gender identity disorder from the DSM.


Numerous articles have been written about Leelah's cries for help throughout her short life, and one of the most disturbing facts surrounding her depression and suicide was the use of reparative or sexual orientation conversion therapy, a counseling or psychotherapeutic approach employed to eliminate or suppress homosexuality. The American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American School Counselor Association, the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of Social Workers together, representing more than 480,000 mental health professionals, have all taken the position that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and thus is not something that needs to or can be "cured." In addition, they have released studies and statements with various statistics demonstrating the damage that comes from such therapy, such as increased incidences of self-mutilation, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

Although homosexuality and gender identity disorder are no longer considered psychiatric disorders, a number of groups have strongly argued for the use of reparative and sexual orientation conversion therapy. The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality is one of those groups composed of mental health professionals committed to the use of conversion therapy.

In addition, certain religious groups, such as the Jewish organization Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing and the Christian group the Family Research Council strongly support this procedure.

The District of Columbia Council in December voted to ban the use of conversion therapy with minors. A Christian group, Voice of the Voiceless, has vowed to take legal action to reverse the ban. California was the first state to ban this unscientific procedure in 2012, and New Jersey followed suit in 2013.

In June 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the California law, which had been brought by Liberty Counsel, a group affiliated with Liberty University in Lynchburg. As the Virginia General Assembly began its session, Del. Patrick A. Hope (D–Arlington) introduced HB 1385, "Sexual orientation change efforts; prohibited," which would have made it illegal for any health care professional to engage in conversion therapy with any individual under 18 years of age. This bill would have had no financial consequences to the taxpayers of the commonwealth. It never made it out of the subcommittee.

The basic principle underlying psychotherapy is the belief on the part of the therapist that no matter what a client says, the therapist will have unconditional positive regard for the client. The therapist makes no judgments and accepts the client for who he or she is. Conversion therapy does not adhere to this major principle and can not claim to be therapeutic. Banning conversion therapy will send a strong message that we will not permit one of our youth to become a statistic simply because we failed to listen to scientific evidence but rather allowed antiquated beliefs to drive social and mental health policies.

Denis Nissim–Sabat is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Mary Washington.