The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Truth Wins Out held community meetings to discuss "conversion" therapy at the Provo Community United Church of Christ in Provo, Utah, April 11 and at the First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City in Salt Lake City, Utah, April 12.
"We wanted to raise awareness of the harm that 'conversion' therapy causes people ... that this isn't a thing of the past and is still taking place around the country and abroad," said Sam Wolfe, a civil-rights lawyer for SPLC who helped launch the LGBT Rights Project.
The meetings were held in Utah, Wolfe told Windy City Times, because of his personal connection to the area, growing up as a Mormon and attending Brigham Young University where he first encountered "conversion" therapy as a student. Also, Wolfe said, Mormons tend to be a strong constituency within the conversion-therapy movement.
"About 15 people attended the Provo meeting and about 20 people attended the Salt Lake City meeting," said Wolfe. "They included community members, health professionals and other survivors who were not on the panel. So far the Provo meeting was the most powerful one we've had."
According to the SPLC website, "Conversion therapy (sometimes known as reparative or 'sexual reorientation' therapy) is a dangerous practice based on the premise that people can change their sexual orientation, literally 'converting' from gay to straight. The therapy includes everything from counseling to acting out scenarios to in some cases shock treatment. Conversion therapy has been discredited or highly criticized by virtually all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations. People who have undergone conversion therapy have reported increased anxiety, depression and, in some cases, suicidal ideation."
Panelists included survivors of conversion therapy; Wolfe; Wayne Besen, founding executive director of Truth Wins Out; Dr. Lee Beckstead, a Salt Lake City psychologist; and Lisa Diamond, associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah.
Each panel member discussed a different aspect of conversion therapy citing his or her own experiences and research on the topic. The survivors of conversion therapy told their stories and how the therapy impacted them to help other LGBT people who have undergone or are considering "therapy" to "cure" themselves.
Wolfe said that this therapy is not just about counseling individuals; it is a movement. Many of the major figures in the conversion-therapy movement, Wolfe explained, are actively fighting against LGBT equality by using their ex-gay conversion therapy data. Wolfe said that the SPLC is also seeing the influence in schools such as the Anoka-Hennepin School District case in Minnesota.
Besen explained the history of conversion-therapy movement and the figures who were supportive but have since denounced the practice.
"We want to educate the public that these kinds of therapies are ineffective and destructive," said Besen. "People are wasting money and time to chase a false hope that they can change their sexual orientation. These groups are relying on junk science and religious propaganda to defraud people into thinking they can turn straight.
"We are excited that these groups are getting exposed and are on the losing side of history since their experiment has failed. We aim to make sure that people know this information so they don't get sucked into their web. The only 'ex-gay' people out there to promote any success stories are still a part of "reparative" therapy organizations. No one else is espousing this philosophy outside of these organizations."
Diamond said that conversion-therapy organizations have used her written material against her, according to Wolfe.
Wolfe added that Beckstead went into how unethical it is for therapists to use conversion therapy. He also mentioned his involvement with the American Psychological Association's Task Force to evaluate sexual-reorientation treatments and provide recommendations based upon that evaluation.
The question that most people asked was what they could do to help expose conversion-therapy organizations such as the Utah-based Evergreen International. Suggestions included protests, complaints to professional medical boards and lawsuits.
As for the future, the SPLC wants to collect as many stories as possible so they can take further action against conversion therapy groups. "The bottom line is that this is a fraudulent practice that has harmed many people and needs to stop," said Wolfe.
SPLC and Truth Wins Out held previous community meetings on this subject in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; and Atlanta.
See www.splcenter.org/conversion-therapy and www.truthwinsout.org for more information.