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The Palm Beach County Human Rights Council (PBCHRC) has been campaigning in cities throughout South Florida to ban the practice of conversion therapy, a collection of therapeutic methods aimed at “correcting” or changing an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity.

So far PBCHRC has been able to encourage city commissions to enact such bans without opposition in many cities including Delray Beach, Lake Worth, Miami Beach and Wilton Manors.

However, on June 13 PBCHRC presented to the Wellington Village council in order to enact a similar ban on conversion therapy, only this time the organization was met with significant opposition from two speakers against the ban.

“A ban on conversion therapy on unwanted homosexual feelings or gender dysphoria would, in fact, be child abuse,” David Pickup, a licensed marriage and family therapist told the commissioners. “How can you take away the rights of children and their parents to their freedom of speech?”

In a forum-style debate in front of the Wellington Village council, Pickup, joined by family therapist Julia Hamilton, presented arguments against a ban on conversion therapy opposite Rachel Needle, a state licensed psychologist who works with PBCHRC.

The attempt to ban conversion therapy city by city came after State Senator Jeff Clemens introduced bills to prohibit conversion therapy statewide for the past two consecutive legislative sessions, but the Florida Senate refused to take action on either bill. Clemens plans to reintroduce the bill in the 2018 legislative session.

Since a statewide ban has failed to be enacted, PBCHRC alongside advocacy groups Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights has been enacting bans city by city, being met with minimal opposition in progressive South Florida. However, Wellington presented the first major opposition, which may be an example of what is to come as the ban propositions travel to less progressive cities.

While the Wellington council ultimately voted in favor of the ban in a 3-2 vote, the decision was made more difficult by the conflicting points given by Needle, Hamilton and Pickup.

Hamilton at one point served as the president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). She stated during the commission that methods such as shock therapy were archaic and were not used in conversion therapy — referred to by her and her colleagues as “reparative therapy,” which conflicted with pro-ban messages from PBCHRC and Needle.

Conversion therapy has been used on LGBT patients for several decades, but the practice gained popularity in the late 20th century, when Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, the co-founder of NARTH, popularized the practice.

In an email to SFGN Hamilton stated that no patients are forced into conversion therapy on their own, but seek treatment of their own free will.

“Professional therapy is [voluntary],” Hamilton wrote. “Teenagers cannot be forced into changing against their will. That is not only unethical, but also impossible. Every therapist knows that the client, not the therapist, sets the goals for therapy … clients determine the path for their lives.”

PBCHRC Vice President Carly Cass disagrees and said in a statement that many underage LGBT youths are administered conversion therapy against their will by parents or guardians.

“Minors are frequently forced into conversion therapy by parents who find it impossible to accept the fact that their children identify as gay or lesbian,” Cass said. “This so-called therapy has been often shown to be extremely harmful.”

Needle, a licensed psychologist and PBCHRC spokesperson shared a number of effects conversion therapy patients may experience, which include shame, guilt, depression, decreased self-esteem, increased self-hatred, feelings of anger and betrayal, loss of friends, social withdrawal, problems with sexual and emotional intimacy, hostility and blame toward parents, high risk behaviors, confusion, self-harm, substance abuse and suicidal ideation.

“From the research we do have, there is enough to show including qualitatively that reparative or conversion therapy can lead to a number of mental health issues in a minor,” Needle said. “Attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation (or gender identity) can have a devastating impact on a minor. These change efforts are guided by people’s bias and judgments.”

Hamilton and Pickup consider a ban on reparative therapy not only to be a moral infringement on the rights of parents and LGBT youth, but also pointed out that it presents a legal dilemma.

“Cities do not have jurisdiction over licensed therapists,” Dr. Hamilton wrote. “The state of Florida licenses and regulates psychological and medical professionals … the state of Florida has determined that therapists are permitted to offer therapy to minors with unwanted homosexual attractions, just as they can offer therapy to anyone distressed about any life situation.”

“The state has not passed this unlawful ban on therapy for minors,” Hamilton continued. “This ban is unconstitutional and did not even make it out of the committee in Florida.”

There have been several court challenges to the constitutionality of banning conversion therapy, but all have failed. According to PBCHRC, there have been four instances, the most recent taking place on May 1, 2017, of the U.S. Supreme court declining to hear challenges to the constitutionality laws banning conversion therapy for minors.

“Conversion therapy is an extremely dangerous and fraudulent practice that claims to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center said. “This bogus practice is premised on the lie that LGBTQ individuals have a ‘condition’ that needs to be cured. The commission has sent a message to LGBTQ youth: ‘you are perfect the way you are and do not need to be ‘fixed.’’”

Apart from legality, the practice of conversion or reparative therapy has been deemed harmful and ineffective by the American Psychological Association, which adopted the “Resolution on Appropriate Affirmative Responses to Sexual Orientation Distress and Change Efforts” in 2009. This resolution found that conversion therapy relied on anti-LGBT bigotry and a distortion of scientific data.

“The American Psychological Association has linked conversion therapy to depression, substance abuse, and even suicide, and these risks are particularly acute for youth,” Carolyn Reyes, Youth Policy Counsel and Coordinator of NCLR’s BornPerfect Campaign to end conversion therapy said. “We applaud the efforts to ensure that children are protected from these harms and that their families aren’t duped by trusted professionals to whom they turn for support during a vulnerable time.”

According to Hamilton, all of these claims state that children are harmed and distressed as a result of the therapists and therapy that they have undergone, and that said therapists, not reparative therapy, should be held accountable for such results.

“If a licensed therapist is abusing a client, there are already laws in place to protect such clients. Those therapists can be brought up on charges. Therapists do not use aversive techniques — they use [talk] therapy. Shock treatments are only performed in hospital settings by medical doctors for specific conditions, such as depression, mania, etc. — NOT by counselors and therapists and NOT for unwanted homosexual attractions (sic).”

Hamilton said that reparative therapy is not dangerous, but can be useful to address many issues apart from ‘fixing’ unwanted same-sex attractions or gender dysphoria.

“Therapy is aimed at resolving past hurts if there are any past hurts,” Hamilton wrote. “Additionally, therapy might address insecurities, feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety, etc. seeking to help a client become better connected to himself or herself, more secure, more confident, less depressed, etc.”

According to Needle, however, therapy dealing with those types of issues, or even issues with sexuality or gender identity would not be prohibited under a conversion therapy ban. Patients would still be allowed to discuss a number of issues pertaining to their sexuality or identity, therapists would just be unable to administer therapy aimed at converting the sexuality of an underage LGBT individual.

“Banning this type of ‘therapy’ does not mean those individuals struggling with their identity or orientation cannot seek therapy mental health services,” Needle said. “Minors can still see a mental health therapist, those therapists just can’t suggest they can ‘convert’ them or change their sexual attractions or orientation.”

While there are mixed messages and conflicting statements on both sides of the issue, both parties agreed that there is a shortage of data to pull conclusions on the practice of conversion therapy from.

“The research [on conversion therapy] is lacking and much of what does exist is methodologically flawed,” Needle said.

Much of the existing conclusions on conversion therapy are based on personal testimonies or limited studies. The limited information available, however, does suggest that the practice of conversion therapy does more harm than good.

The Columbia Law School reviewed the existing studies on conversion therapy and concluded that “there is no credible evidence that sexual orientation can be changed through therapeutic intervention.”

This conclusion was drawn, as admitted by the Law School, from 47 studies that were, “limited by the difficulty of empirically assessing a person’s sexual orientation.”

Of the 47 studies, 12 found that conversion therapy is ineffective or harmful, one showed that the practice could succeed, and the remaining 34 studies failed to determine an empirical conclusion.

“Taken together,” the Law School reports. “The overwhelming consensus among psychologists and psychiatrists who have studied conversion therapy or treated patients who are struggling with their sexual orientation is that therapeutic intervention cannot change sexual orientation.”

There is definitely a need to for more studies on the issue, even if to provide solid evidence that conversion therapy is, in fact, harmful to patients. In all of the commission hearings, however, PBCHRC has stated that the intention of the ban is not simply to discontinue a potentially harmful therapeutic practice but to support and protect each community’s youth population.

“I think banning conversion therapy sends an important message to the general public and to the minors we are trying to protect — there is nothing wrong with your sexual orientation or gender identity,” Needle said.