Throughout more than six decades of working with people — first as a pastor and now as a counselor — I have never grown tired of hearing people’s stories and walking with them as they map out the course of their lives.
I especially enjoy working with young people in the formative years of their lives, even as the exponential expansion of information has made their task of negotiating the tricky waters of personality and sexuality more complex than ever.
In recent years, it’s been heartening to see young people here in Kentucky coming out to their friends, classmates and family members as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. LGBTQ young people are frequently met with open arms by their loved ones, affirmed and supported by the community at large.
It’s exciting to see some of that growing support for LGBTQ youth reflected in the Kentucky legislature: This year, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have joined together to file legislation protecting minors from the dangers of anti-LGBTQ “conversion therapy,” a discredited and debunked practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. The practice remains legal in Kentucky, despite a recent national sea change against “conversion therapy,” with 19 states and the District of Columbia now prohibiting the practice.
As a counselor, I know how important it is that young people develop character and find their own voice. Those are developmental achievements crucial to becoming effective adults. But “conversion therapy” methodically and intentionally undercuts those processes by disabling the very mechanisms by which a person establishes their identity and selfhood.
The practice, sometimes referred to as “reparative” therapy, by its very name denotes a broken, flawed person who needs to be fixed — and it has no scientific basis whatsoever. The “fixing” tactics involved in the practice include shaming, dissuasion and disparagement, social isolation, aversive “treatments” such as electro-shock and other means of associating “unacceptable” thoughts and impulses with pain.
Young people who have been subjected to “conversion therapy” typically report deep levels of depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation — and on top of that, the deceptive practice is completely ineffective. LGBTQ kids who endure this barbaric practice remain LGBTQ kids and are merely robbed of joy or even the will to live. Punishment and shame may push our feelings and desires underground, but the feelings do not go away by choice or willpower.
Conversion therapy is tantamount to pushing vulnerable children off of the ledge, unraveling the underpinnings of self-understanding, acceptance and personhood. We must stop folks from pushing children off the ledge.
Every major mental health association in the country – including the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Counseling Association, National Association of Social Workers, American Academy of Pediatrics and American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy — have taken public stances against “conversion therapy,” determining these practices to be unfounded and wrong.
Well-educated ethical therapists have also long since given up conversion therapy and designated it as a harmful practice. Robert Spitzer, a leading developer of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual, in 2012 published his apology for having supported “reparative therapy” in an earlier insufficiently informed paper.
As understanding and awareness about LGBTQ people grows all around the country, we are finding better ways to look after the safety of our children. It’s well past time that Kentucky lawmakers take action to bring the laws up to date and ensure that no licensed therapist in Kentucky ever again uses the damaging practice of “conversion therapy” on minors in our state.
It’s my duty as a counselor to ensure that every young person is met with love, respect and dignity — and it’s lawmakers’ duty to ensure that these norms are codified in law.
Chuck Leach, of Louisville, is a retired counselor and a former Baptist pastor. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.