‘We can’t change what we never chose:’ A second state board agrees to ban conversion therapy

By: - February 11, 2019 5:09 am

Adam Trimmer, 29, watches his mom speak against conversion therapy during a Board of Counseling hearing earlier this year. (Katie O’Connor/ Virginia Mercury)

Paulette Trimmer was excited when her 18-year-old son’s counselor asked her to sit in on a therapy session. She was proud. She thought it was a good sign.

“I didn’t have a clue that I was going into a den of wolves,” she told the Virginia Board of Counseling on Friday.

Her son, Adam Trimmer, went through conversion therapy at age 18 after surviving a suicide attempt. His parents were with him in the hospital when his youth pastor — a man the family trusted — approached them and claimed to be able to help their son.

But help translated into conversion therapy and an attempt to change Adam’s sexual orientation, putting him through emotional and mental trauma that has taken him years to confront, he said.

“I grew to despise my parents, especially my mother, who I was being taught to see as an overbearing figure in my life that caused me to develop ‘unwanted same-sex attractions,'” he told the Board of Counseling.

On Friday, the board decided to issue a guidance document and create regulations prohibiting its licensees from practicing conversion therapy on minors, lest they risk “a finding of misconduct and disciplinary action” from the board.

In October, a work group convened by the Department of Health Professions considered actions that its various boards could put in place to ban conversion therapy for those under 18 by a clinician licensed by the state, after several attempts to do so through legislation failed in the General Assembly.

The Board of Psychology was the first to start the process of banning the practice during a January meeting.

Both boards have decided to issue guidance documents because they typically become effective faster, whereas changing regulations can take 18 to 24 months, said Elaine Yeatts, senior policy analyst for the Department of Health Professions. The guidance documents still must go through a public comment period, though.

Only one member of the Board of Counseling voted against issuing the guidance document. During the meeting, board member Terry Tinsley said he is concerned about the “labeling” around the word “conversion,” and about “the impact on the faith community.”

But the rest of the board disagreed.

“I feel like it’s 30 years overdue,” said board member John Brendel. Conversion therapy has been widely condemned as ineffective and potentially harmful by nearly every medical professional organization.

Tinsley also voted against starting the regulatory process, along with board member Barry Alvarez, who suggested it would be more appropriate for the board to wait until after the guidance document’s public comment period concluded.

During the Board of Counseling’s meeting, no one spoke in favor of conversion therapy, while four people described its harmful effects.

Casey Pick, senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs with the Trevor Project, speaks to the Board of Counseling last week. (Katie O’Connor/ Virginia Mercury)

Casey Pick, an Alexandria resident and senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs for The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit aimed at suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, spoke about her own experiences. She found a conversion therapy website online when she was 14 and “distressed by the feelings” she was developing for a female friend.

“Based on what I found there, I wondered if my parents’ divorce, my mother’s career or the sports that I played since I was 5 were to blame,” she said. “That’s the evil of conversion therapy: that it not only makes you afraid to love somebody of the same sex, it makes you unable to wholly love or trust anything — your family, your hobbies and most of all yourself.

“We can’t change what we never chose.”

In an emotional testimony, Paulette Trimmer told the board about her experience in that counseling session with her son. The counselor told her: “This is not about you, this is about what you caused,” she said.

It took a decade for Adam Trimmer to talk to his mom about that experience. Only last year, after watching the film, “Love, Simon,” were they able to start the conversation and truly begin mending their relationship.

“It’s always just been the big white elephant in the room for 10 years,” Adam Trimmer said. “I got out of conversion therapy and we never really talked about it again.”

Now, the two are very close and Paulette and Adam Trimmer are both vocal opponents of conversion therapy. Though the policy change wouldn’t have affected Trimmer’s case, since he was 18 at the time, both he and his mother see it as a blow against a dangerous practice.

“I’m really proud of the state of Virginia,” Adam Trimmer said of the boards’ decisions to ban the therapy among their licensed psychologists and counselors. “What happened to me has left a lot of scars and a lot of trauma, and I think it’s important that the mental health community keeps that from happening to the next generation.”

“Definitely,” his mother added. “And families.”

“And families,” he agreed.

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Katie O'Connor
Katie O'Connor

Katie, a Manassas native, has covered health care, commercial real estate, law, agriculture and tourism for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond BizSense and the Northern Virginia Daily. Last year, she was named an Association of Health Care Journalists Regional Health Journalism Fellow, a program to aid journalists in making national health stories local and using data in their reporting. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, where she was executive editor of The Flat Hat, the college paper, and editor-in-chief of The Gallery, the college’s literary magazine.