UN tackles gay "conversion therapy" for first time

A panel of mental health experts, human rights advocates, religious leaders and a former patient gathered Thursday at the United Nations Church Center to discuss a controversial therapy that claims to "cure" gay people and make them straight. Although such practices have been around for decades, the concept has come under increased scrutiny over the last five years as lawsuits and litigation attempt to curb the "conversion therapy" and the mainstream mental health profession renounces it.

The panel is the first at the U.N. to directly address this so-called therapy, sometimes referred to as sexual orientation change efforts. Those who organized the event said they hoped it would be the first of many similar conversations, and part of a larger push from the U.N. to address gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.

The panel was organized by Bruce Knotts, the director of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, and Mordechai Levovitz, the LGBT advocacy coordinator there, both of whom are openly gay, and have had brushes with conversion therapy. For Knotts it happened in the late 80s, when he was working as a U.S. diplomat, and the Department of State sent him to a psychologist "who was supposed to make me straight," Knotts told the audience. "I was with him three times a week for a year, and I didn't notice any difference at all."

When Levovitz was 18, he reached out to an organization called Jews Offering New Alternatives To Healing (or JONAH), a counseling center that is now the target of a first-of-its-kind consumer fraud lawsuit. After two two-hour conversations, Levovitz decided the center wasn't for him. "I could tell right away that he was a snake oil salesman," he said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "But many of my friends did go, and some of my friends were very damaged and traumatized by it, and some of them weren't."

In addition to the New Jersey lawsuit, groundbreaking legislation passed last year in California banning licensed practitioners from performing the therapy on minors. But even as other states are considering similar legislation, a California court temporarily blocked the law after two lawsuits filed by Christian legal organizations took aim at it, arguing the law is unconstitutional.

Despite the increased scrutiny on this controversial therapy, there are no rigorous scientific studies that analyze it, and no reliable statistics that show how harmful, or helpful it can be. Anecdotal evidence on both sides abound. Chaim Levin, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against JONAH, described how "degraded and violated" he felt during and after his years of conversion therapy.

After Levin spoke, a letter was read from an ex-gay man who wrote that the therapy "saved my life." "Let's make sexual orientation change efforts better and more responsible, but please don't eliminate it," wrote the man, who asked that his name be withheld.

Mainstream mental health organizations, from the American Psychological Association -- where a 2009 task force found the practice to be both harmful and ineffective -- to the World Health Organization, have said there is no evidence that the practice works and have concluded that it may lead to depression, anxiety and even suicide. Meanwhile, the dwindling pool of supporters, nearly all connected with religious organizations, insist that change is possible for some people, and that those people who do wish to change should not be denied the opportunity.

Those gathered at the U.N. on Thursday were careful to stress that the point of the meeting was not a debate over the effectiveness of these "conversion" practices. "The other side tries to present it as if it's a debate," Jack Drescher, a psychoanalyst and a member of the American Psychiatric Association, told the crowd. But, Drescher added, there is no longer any real debate about this therapy among mental health professionals. The debate now, he said, is not clinical, but cultural.

And the harms of this practice, those on the panel all stressed, go far beyond any suffering an individual may experience in the therapy.

"The truth is we actually don't know why people are gay, or straight," Drescher said. "But polls tend to show that the more someone believes that sexual orientation is innate, the more likely they are to believe in civil rights [for gay people]." The goal of proponents, Drescher said, "is to dissuade someone from that view."

The panel began with a preview of an upcoming film about Uganda and the so-called "Kill The Gays" bill, a law that is currently sitting in that country's parliament and would impose harsh penalties on gay people. "The fact is that many people see that bill being born of the influence of Western evangelicals who came en masse to Uganda to spread the gospel, specifically the notion that LGBT people can change," Levovitz said as the discussion got underway Thursday.

Another panelist, Sam Wolfe, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center who filed the lawsuit against JONAH, said that he has been focusing on conversion therapy for the past five years, because, "the anti-gay movement, in general, has really latched on to conversion therapy."

That wasn't always the case. The idea of a gay cure goes back to a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness and "sodomy" a crime. In the middle of the 20th century, the idea of psychiatric treatment for homosexuality was seen as a humane alternative to institutionalization or jail. In the '70s, the American Psychiatric Institution removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, and most psychiatrists and psychologists soon abandoned the practice of conversion therapy. Around the same time, though, Christian groups like Exodus International picked up where mainstream therapists had left off.

Recently, some leaders of the self-described ex-gay movement have expressed doubts. Last June, the head of Exodus International declared at its annual meeting that there was no cure for homosexuality and that the promise of one offered false hope to gays. But soon after this declaration, a group broke off from Exodus to form a new group. "I am feeling inexpressible joy that the Lord has brought together a group of people who will not allow the message of hope and change to die in a sea of misguided social/cultural relevance," Frank Worthen, one of the new group's leaders, and a founding member of Exodus, said in a press release last summer.

"The idea is that gay people are somehow broken, that we need to be fixed," Wolfe said. "You can see the line of reasoning: therefore we're not entitled to equality under the law and we're not due equal respect and to be treated well," Wolfe, who described himself as a "survivor" of conversion therapy, explained.

"What we're really talking about here is creating a world and a society where sexual orientation change efforts are looked upon as as ridiculous for LGBT people as they are for a heterosexual person," said Toiko Kleppe, a representative of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. "That is also a world that human rights law is in favor of."

After the panel, a group of young gay men hung around and chatted. Mathew Shurka, a former client at JONAH who is now openly gay, said he thought the discussion was "amazing."

"It's really exciting to meet everyone here and see this whole community," Shurka, who is 24, said, smiling. "Being in the therapy, you don't really know anything about being gay."

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