The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Conversion therapy, aimed at changing sexual orientation, has been widely deemed ineffective and potentially harmful by nearly every medical professional organization — yet it’s still legal in most of the country, including Virginia.
Efforts to outlaw its use on minors by licensed professionals over the past five years have been stymied by Virginia’s General Assembly, where a bill has consistently failed to get past committees on party-line votes.
But Virginia’s regulatory boards might be able to achieve the same result without the General Assembly’s action.
The Department of Health Professions held a conversion therapy workgroup meeting Friday to consider potential regulations that its different boards — such as the Board of Medicine and Board of Psychology — could enact to prohibit conversion therapy on those under 18 by a clinician licensed by the state.
The idea of prohibiting the practice through regulations was brought up by some legislators during General Assembly sessions, said Dr. David Brown, director of the Department of Health Professions, prompting the work group’s formation.
The heads of the boards largely agreed that regulations are necessary, and the next step will be to discuss the proposed language during their respective board meetings over the next several months.
Conversion therapy is defined as treating a patient in an attempt to intentionally change his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. In the past it included practices such as electric-shock therapy, which Herb Stewart, chair of the Board of Psychology, said, “can only be described as torture.”
Today, it is a form of counseling and psychotherapy aimed at eliminating patients’ sexual desires. It is also referred to as “sexual-orientation change efforts.”
And those on both sides of the debate have vehement opinions on the practice.
More than two dozen people spoke during a public comment period that lasted more than 90 minutes at Friday’s meeting, sharing personal stories of how conversion therapy helped them or how it, in many cases, did boundless harm that took years or decades to heal.
Some, particularly those aligned with faith organizations, claim that conversion therapy is a form of free speech, and that prohibiting its practice is denying religious counselors the ability to “affirm natural sexual expressions,” as one opponent of banning the practice said.
“My position is: embracing the idea that LGBTQ+ identity is a category of humanity is where the real harm is done,” said Sean Maguire, director of grassroots for the Family Foundation. “Don’t take away the freedom of religious counselors to share the truth about what they deeply believe is the truth of human nature.”
But opponents of the practice pointed to the fact that numerous professional organizations state that conversion therapy is medically useless and, in some cases, dangerous. Many gave personal testimonies of their experience.
“Conversion therapy broke my identity down to nothing,” said Adam Trimmer, who was treated with the therapy as a teen. He said he attempted suicide and that it took him years to get past the resulting damage.
“Nobody should ever have to go through therapy because of therapy,” he said.
The members of the work group, who represented an array of state licensing boards, all said the testimonies they heard from both sides were compelling.
“But it’s incredibly important to separate emotion from science,” said Dr. Kevin O’Connor, president of the Board of Medicine. “It’s also important to understand that being gay or lesbian isn’t a disease that needs correcting.”
Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, spoke twice during Friday’s meeting, reminding the workgroup “where the General Assembly stands,” on the issue, since a bill banning the therapy has been consistently killed.
She said that an unintended consequence of prohibiting conversion therapy through regulation could be that parents don’t bring their kids to professionals for help. Some parents believe homosexuality is a sin, she said, and they need more options.
Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, who has introduced legislation to ban conversion therapy on minors in four of the past five General Assembly sessions, pointed out that the bills’ failure reflects the makeup of the committees and subcommittees, and that it is not a reflection of the General Assembly.
He reiterated that the regulations are just for children and adolescents, not adults, and that the state should make a concerted effort to protect children.
Several heads of various boards reported that they have not received any complaints related to conversion therapy, and Chase pointed to that as a reason why regulations are not needed.
But Elaine Yeatts, senior policy analyst for the Department of Health Professions, said minors are not likely to make complaints.
“I think it’s probably unrealistic to expect that you may be getting complaints from a child or even an adolescent,” she said. “And in many cases, they have been brought to this therapy by an adult, and the adult is not likely to be filing a complaint.”
The work group members also reiterated that regulations would not prevent church leaders from counseling members of their congregations — it would simply stop someone with a license to practice from using that license to attempt to change a patient’s sexual orientation.
Though work group members largely agreed that regulations are necessary, some expressed concerns that the regulations could prevent providers from offering counseling on identity exploration entirely.
They discussed the wording of the proposed regulations to make it clear that the prohibition would be specifically on a practitioner aiming to change their patient’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
“This is a vulnerable population that is likely not to report, and it is a practice which is demonstrably harmful,” O’Connor said. “It doesn’t limit access to therapies if the parents choose to seek that therapy. It’s simply not licensed by our licensing boards.”
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