(SS) Gay rights and mental health advocates in South Florida are trying to come up with new ways to fight conversion therapy, the practice of mental health counseling aimed at “curing” teenagers with unwanted feelings of homosexuality or questions about their gender identity.
Reeling from a recent federal ruling that cleared the way for psychologists in the southeastern U.S. to offer counseling, opponents are openly questioning whether the legal momentum has shifted so far to the right that court battles are doomed to fail.
Critics of conversion therapy and counseling say it’s damaging to the mental health of youths seeking counseling, leading to feelings of guilt, self-harm and suicide.
But the prospects for local and statewide bans appear dim, especially in the wake of a Supreme Court decision siding with church groups over anti-COVID restrictions in New York.
With conversion therapy bans against the ropes, advocates say they are left with two options:
- One is to keep the issue out of the high court until its more conservative justices are replaced.
- The other is to find another approach to stop therapists who think homosexuality and transgenderism are disorders that can be cured in willing patients — a position rejected by the American Psychiatric Association and other mental health groups.
“There is no evidence that changing someone’s identity is possible,” said Palm Beach psychologist Rachel Needle. “Many youths grow up believing there’s something wrong with them. As therapists, our goal should be to help them in accepting their orientation and identity.”
Despite resistance from groups like the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association, conversion therapy and counseling finds advocates in religious-based “ex-gay” movements.
Jerry Stephenson, a former Baptist minister who underwent various conversion therapies before coming out of the closet permanently in 1992, said such therapies are always religious at their core, even though the Boca Raton decision cited free speech, not freedom of religion, as its basis.
“It’s still religion, no matter how you look at it,” he said. “It’s therapy from an evangelical fundamentalist Christian viewpoint. I tried desperately to change. If they wanted me to stand on my head, I would stand on my head. ... I ran to my altar and said, ‘God, I will never look at another man.’ It just didn’t work.”
Stephenson took a job in the early 1990s as associate pastor of the First Baptist Church of Key West, an assignment he likened to evangelizing “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Instead, he emerged confident in both his homosexuality and Christianity.
“My salvation has nothing to do with my sexual orientation,” he said.
Boca Raton’s controversial prohibition on the equally controversial practice was enacted in 2017, followed quickly by a countywide ban, but a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the laws a week before Thanksgiving, arguing that they imposed unlawful restrictions on the First Amendment rights of the therapists offering the treatment and the teenagers seeking it.
Until that ruling, courts at all levels sided with the professional opinion and advocacy against conversion therapy.
The Liberty Counsel, legal advocates for religious freedom, praised the decision as a vindication of the rights of counselors to offer treatment that was in keeping with their principles.
“This case is the beginning of the end of similar unconstitutional counseling bans around the country,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which represented the two Boca Raton psychologists who challenged the therapy ban.
Rand Hoch, founder and president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council and a co-author of the anti-conversion-therapy law, said he has little confidence the current Supreme Court will put the mental health of gay teenagers above the First Amendment rights of mental health counselors who endorse and offer the therapy.
For now, the conversion therapy ruling affects the states covered by the 11th circuit: Florida, Georgia and Alabama. In Florida, 22 municipalities ban the therapy, including Boca Raton, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Gainesville, Tallahassee and Tampa.
Attorneys representing the cities did not respond to requests for comment this week.
Hoch said the therapy’s opponents have a window to get the case re-heard without taking it to a higher court.
The recent decision was made by a three-judge panel comprising two Trump appointees and one, the dissenting vote, appointed by former President Obama.
Hoch is asking the city and county to press for an “en banc” hearing, putting the issue in front of all 12 judges in the circuit. Half of those judges were appointed by Trump. Four were appointed by Obama, one by former President George W. Bush and one by former President Bill Clinton.
Scott McCoy, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the recent decision is the first to go against one of these ordinances.
He said in California and in New Jersey federal courts upheld the constitutionality of similar ordinances that were challenged under similar arguments. “This decision from the 11th circuit is a total outlier,” he said. “We think that they got it fundamentally wrong. They clearly went in a direction that every other court that has considered this has not gone.”
Hoch argues that the therapy has harmful effects that should outweigh the First Amendment issues, an argument that prevailed in previous challenges.
“Before these laws passed, I would get calls from kids whose parents are putting them through this [conversion therapy],” Hoch said. “And then the calls would stop. And that’s when I would get really concerned. My mind would immediately go to, ‘Oh my, did we lose another kid?’”
“I know Liberty Counsel is dying to get this case before the Supreme Court,” he said. “We are looking for judges who will apply the law and apply the precedent as it exists.”
Wayne Besen, founder of “Truth Wins Out,” a national nonprofit group established to advocate against the “ex-gay” movement, said the therapy’s opponents need to find new ways to fight if the conversion therapy bans are permanently struck down.
“It would behoove us to reconsider our strategy in favor of one that recognizes conversion therapy as a fraud on the consumer,” he said. “They are marketing a product that doesn’t exist and making a promise on which they cannot deliver.”
Staff writer Andrew Boryga of the Sun-Sentinel contributed to this report.