Freedom, Safety, Suicide, and Life:  Conversion Therapy Ban Draws Intense Testimony on Beacon Hill

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An exchange between two men who have felt same-sex attraction but have sharply different takes on it highlighted nearly three hours of testimony about a proposed ban on conversion therapy at the Massachusetts State House.

Ken Williams, a California man who co-founded Changed, an organization of men and women who say they have left homosexuality, clashed with state Representative Jack Lewis (D-Framingham), a second-term legislator who used to run an organization dedicated to homosexual and transgender young people and is civilly married to a man.

Lewis called conversion therapy “a barbaric practice” that undermines feelings of legitimacy and makes some teen-agers suicidal, and should therefore be outlawed.

Williams said he has been married to a woman since 2006 and has four children with her, but that if conversion therapy had been banned when he was younger it would have made his own happy outcome impossible and may have led to his suicide.

The warring views illuminate what’s at stake with conversion therapy and why 45 people testified about it Tuesday, March 5 before the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons With Disabilities of the Massachusetts Legislature.

Critics of conversion therapy described jarring treatments like electric shock and separation from family that they say have harmed patients. Supporters of it endorsed what they call “talk therapy,” which involves a patient exploring with a therapist where the patient wants to go, using only words.

Legislators are considering three bills that would prohibit licensed therapists from offering therapy to minors designed to change sexual orientation or gender identity. Differing versions passed the House and Senate last year, but supporters in both chambers were unable to reconcile them before the session ran out in July 2018.

This year supporters have tried to put the ban on a fast track, as the children-and-families legislative committee made the bills the subject of its first hearing of the new legislative session and quickly voted two of them out of committee Tuesday.

Williams, wearing a black T-shirt that said on the back, appeared with two other similarly clad members of the organization. He described a difficult childhood that led to unwanted sexual attraction to males.

“I was confused about my gender, not fitting in with boys or girls my entire childhood. Schooldays were humiliating. I was exposed to gay porn a little early, touched by boys in my neighborhood, and when my sexual desires emerged, they were only for males. I would fixate on one impressive male, wanting to just delete me and replace me with him. I had no identity of my own,” Williams said.

His interior turmoil brought him to the brink, he said.

“By age 17 I was emotionally unstable, and walked out of the Christian bookstore suicidal, because there was not one resource there that offered any help. Finally, I broke down and told my parents about my homosexuality, and they helped me find a therapist, who helped me explore the changes that I personally wanted. And he kept me alive,” Williams said. “I saw Dr. Schmidt weekly for five years, starting at age 17. And he helped me talk out my emotional pains. And I discovered, over time, that it was deep emotional wounds and pains that had not been addressed, that were underlying my other issues. Over time my insecurities, self-hatred, fear of males, and obsession over one male faded.”

He argued that Massachusetts House Bill 140 would impose a one-size-fits-all therapy on young people questioning their orientation or identity, to the detriment of many who don’t want to live that way.

“Some people want to be gay, and that’s their right in America,” Williams said. “But not everyone who experiences same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria is at peace with that direction of their lives. … Do you realize many people experience zero same-sex attraction or gender confusion until after they were sexually abused? It’s not everyone, but it’s common. And interacting with someone else’s genitalia doesn’t heal sexual abuse trauma. But therapy can, talk therapy can.

“And if … H.140 been a law in 1989 blocking me from the therapy that I was asking for, I probably would have killed myself,” Williams continued. “I would not have been content with the government mandate for what I had to identify as. I wanted a wife and my own children, and I wanted friendship with other men, which was not available, somehow, for me, and not to treat them as objects. And despite years of homosexual identity and behavior, I did experience change in my sexual desires. I no longer experienced the desires that would be typical of a gay man. … And there are thousands of once-gay people out there. … Patients should have the right to clarify and pursue their own sexual identities.”

Two allies of Williams testified in comparable terms. Liz Flaherty said a faith-based therapist helped her see that deep emotional wounds led her to lesbianism, which she said she eventually left behind as a lifestyle. Drew Berryessa said he first had homosexual feelings at age 12, but knew that acting on them conflicted with his religious beliefs and made it unlikely he would ever have the wife and family he wanted, and that a counselor he encountered at age 22 helped him overcome homosexuality and change his desires. He subsequently married a woman, had three children with her, and become a minister.

Lewis, a member of the children-and-families legislative committee and a former assistant minister at a Unitarian Universalist church, found the testimony of the three disturbing.

Here’s what Lewis said in response, in full:

As I mentioned before, I used to run an organization for LGBTQ middle and high school youth. And when they encountered folks who had made different decisions like yourselves at things like youth pride, or didn’t share their values or hollered at them from the side of the street, my advice to them was always:  ‘Take a deep breath and walk away, it’s not worth engaging. You’re not going to change minds.’ But I’ll admit, fast forward a couple of years, now I have a seat at the table, and with kids in the room that are hearing what you’re saying, it’s hard to be quiet.

You’re adults. This is America, you’ve made choices for yourself. I’m happy that you’re married and you have three beautiful kids. You’re an ordained minister. I’m the same. An ordained minister with three beautiful kids. I’m also gay. I have a husband. And we’ve made different choices in our lives.

Many of you have alluded to going to religious therapists. I just want to continue to reiterate that nothing in this bill would force your religious leader, would force your church to adapt any different message. Or would force them to adapt a radical inclusive message of Jesus. It wouldn’t force anything upon them. They could continue to be ministers preaching what they want to preach, and teaching what they want to teach.

But the thing I think that hurt me the most to hear was the continual association with sexual orientation of being gay and trauma in as a youth — specifically, being molested by a man in one’s life. This stereotype has built and built and built so much, that I think it’s so important that we all confront it head on. Because LGBT folks are not child molesters. We are not created by the indecent choice of another person. Sexual assault is not something to talk about so freely and flippantly. And I take offense, to be honest, with the idea that people are gay because their genitals were touched at a point in their life that wasn’t of their choosing. People are gay after going to Canada, and later in life they decide to be gay. People go to Disney World and five years later decide that they’re gay. It has nothing to do with these events in their lives, and nothing in this bill would prevent therapists from exploring true trauma that has been experienced by people of all sexual orientations.

Again, you’re adults, this is America, you’ve made these choices. But I think it’s so important for kids to not be forced by their parents, or by anyone, to make these choices before they’re ready. And to go to a therapist, not with a foregone conclusion in mind, but, as I believe the bill is written — and if it’s not, please help me see where it’s not there – but with therapists who are going to explore who they are, with them, and help them decide who they are and who they’re becoming, not with a foregone conclusion that they have to be straight or have to be gay.

But really, you are making choices, I’m happy for you making those choices. But to the young people out there who are struggling at a younger age, I hope that they know that there’s a world of possibilities out there. Thank you.

Williams responded by calling for freedom for people to decide what path they’d like to take:

I appreciate the sensitivity here. I certainly know what it’s like to be mocked, ridiculed, all of that. We love gay people. We love LGBTQ people. We’re advocating that there should be rights for people to determine whatever path they’d like to take. What doesn’t feel fair is to remove from the table the potential to move from gay back to straight if that’s what the person would like to pursue.

You know, in the nicest possible way, it felt like you were just saying to me that I shouldn’t have a right to share my own story. I would not suggest what someone else should be. I’m trying to protect a people group that now is having rights taken away from them, to get professional help. The church is not adequately equipped to help these people, like us. We need to be able to go to a professional. I went to a clinical psychologist, who helped me, and it changed my life.

Freedom of parents and kids versus the government’s legitimate police powers to protect the safety of its citizens framed the debate during the hearing.

One supporter of the ban, state Representative Tami Gouveia (D-Acton), a member of the children-and-families committee, spoke about one of her children, a biological female who identifies as a male who told her at age 17.

Gouveia, a public health social worker, said she has taken her child to a “gender-affirming therapist” at Fenway Health in Boston for the past two years, but that she shudders at the thought of children being exposed to attempts by therapists to change gender identity.

“Conversion therapy is the opposite of all of these honorable, brave, and admirable values that my son practices and possesses. Conversion therapy is based on lies that damage individuals and their relationships with themselves and with others. Conversion therapy is an inhumane practice that denies individuals of their core selves and true identities, and robs the world of their beautiful, authentic selves. Conversion therapy is fundamentally an abusive practice and must be banned immediately,” Gouveia said.

Love, not correction, is the answer, she said.

“Every single child in our state deserves love and support and to have their humanity affirmed and celebrated rather than shamed and judged,” Gouveia said. “Every one of our children and teens deserves to receive health care and therapeutic treatment that is ethical, encourages self-exploration and self-acceptance, and affirms their full identities. As elected officials it is our duty to uphold the constitution and to protect all children from abusive practices that damage the soul and lead to life-altering adverse consequences.”

But transgender-affirming therapy is itself damaging, argued a mother whose now-adult biological son and daughter have been through it.

Both have serious mental health problems, but therapists focus only on gender identity, said Lynn Meagher, from Washington state.

Her biological daughter suffers from anxiety and depression, but isn’t getting treatment for it, and is instead transitioning to life as a male with hormone therapy to be followed by surgery. The voice has deepened. In the offing is a double mastectomy and perhaps a hysterectomy that will leave the biological woman permanently sterile.

Meagher said that some people who transition from one sex to another later regret it, finding that it doesn’t solve their problems but creates new ones.

“What happens if it turns out that the body was never wrong to start with?” she said. “… Please respect the privacy and dignity of families as they seek to find authentic healing, which is unique to every individual and is best determined by families and the therapists that they choose. Please leave room for every child to have the help that they need.”

Earlier in the hearing, two men who did not state their names said they underwent unsuccessful conversion therapy that harmed them.

One said his relationship with his parents was damaged when a therapist told him that his parents were to blame for his homosexuality because his father was too distant and his mother was too overbearing, and that he took part in group therapy sessions where male patients were encouraged to “beat effigies of their mothers” and “to channel primal rage toward their fathers.” Bitterness, loneliness, and self-hatred followed, he said, before he left conversion therapy.

Another said he underwent conversion therapy for five years starting at age 16, which included being separated from his mother and two sisters for three years to try to keep him from picking up effeminate behavior or mannerisms. That damaged his family relationships without altering his same-sex attraction, he said.

He noted that two survivors of the mass-shooting in June 2016 at the Pulse, a nightclub in Orlando, Florida that catered to homosexuals, planned to testify later in the hearing against the conversion therapy ban.

“The fact that Pulse victim survivors could witness 50 people murdered … and the solution to overcoming that trauma is to no longer be a homosexual, is devastating to our entire community,” the man said.

Those two Pulse survivors, Luis Ruiz and Angel Colon, told the committee they experienced no abuse growing up but realized as adolescents that they were attracted to men. They didn’t want to be, however, and the Pulse shooting spurred them to try to change their lives. They have since founded Fearless Identity, a Christian organization that seeks to assist young people interested in leaving homosexuality.

“We speak to a lot of youth, a lot of kids. A lot of them come up to us wanting change. And we speak to them, we give them advice, and we don’t force anything upon them,” Colon said. “If they want a change, they’ll get the change. If you want to stay the same, if you want to be gay, that’s O.K.. We still love you. We have nothing against you. We just want that option to give to other kids and youth, that option to change if they want to take it.

“And going back to Pulse, I say it’s all respect and love,” Colon continued. “I still have friends that are in the gay lifestyle. I’m still very, very close to the other survivors. It’s a bond of brothers and sisters, something that we all went through. And we speak to each other, and they know what I’m doing, and they respect it, because I share my love with them. I don’t throw it down their throat. I tell them what I do, but I still tell them that I love them, that I don’t hate them, that it’s not homophobia, it’s just a choice that I decided for me, and I think a choice that we should give our kids and our youth.”