The dangers of conversion therapy

Southern Poverty Law Center, Truth Wins Out join forces to shine a light into the darkness of those who try to change others’ orientation

Imagine being told your lifetime of thoughts and feelings were unacceptable, and that what you think and feel in the future would need to be remolded to conform to what others consider acceptable.

That’s the reality of conversion therapy, an unscientific methodology rooted in conservative Christian philosophy that is designed to reorient homosexuality to heterosexuality.

Conversion therapy is condemned by all major medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling groups. Yet fundamentalist religious leaders advocate its widespread practice to “cure” homosexuality. They recommend this treatment for both adults and for gay and lesbian teenagers, who are often forced into the therapy against their will.

Opposition to conversion therapy is strong in the LGBT community, and it gained even more momentum recently when the Southern Poverty Law

Center and Truth Wins Out joined forces to launch a coordinated campaign to counter proponents of the controversial therapy.


David Webb - The Rare Reporter

The prestigious civil rights group — SPLC — and the LGBT rights organization — TWO — scheduled a series of community meetings in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., for former patients of the therapy to share their stories. One of the campaign’s goals is to seek help from community activists and elected leaders in monitoring and evaluating local conversion therapy programs.

For most people, the notion of conversion therapy achieving any measure of success would probably be laughable if it were not so destructive to those who are exposed to it. Critics of the therapy warn that individuals who undergo it often suffer anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts — in addition to retaining their sexual orientation.

The radical therapy is reminiscent of unscrupulous scientific experiments from previous decades that horrified the world when they came to light. In those events groups of scientists in the U.S. and other countries carried out hideous psychological and medical experiments using as their subjects prisoners, orphans, mental patients, minorities and other powerless people.

Through my work as a journalist I have met several individuals over the years that underwent conversion therapy. Without exception, all reported the therapy caused them more anguish than they felt before receiving it.

One person — who was raised by a domineering, Bible-obsessed mother — was sent from his East Coast home when he was in his 20s to a conversion therapy treatment program in, of all places, San Francisco, the gay capital of the U.S. It’s not difficult to figure out what happened there.

The group of like-minded individuals in the program reportedly had the time of their life when the lights went out at night, and at one point they went over the wall to see the sights of Baghdad on the Bay.

Again, the lack of logic is humorous, but the therapy left the young man and his family, which had expected him to return home “cured,” more troubled than ever.

In subsequent years he engaged in the abuse of alcohol and illegal substances, promiscuity and criminal activity.

His mother drifted into a state of denial and, even though her son contracted the HIV virus, she maintained that he did not engage in sex with other men.

The last I heard, the man was still allowing his mother to run his life, which she has dedicated to ensuring would not include the company of a male partner.

In another case, a man in his 30s sought help from a counselor whose facility was located on the campus of a large mainstream church. Placing his trust in the counselor — in part because he supposedly was a straight, married man — the patient participated in a bizarre treatment program that involved the patient removing his clothes during the sessions. The “treatment” eventually progressed to the counselor instructing the patient to perform oral sex upon him.

Eventually, the patient came to his senses, reported the counselor to law enforcement officials and filed a lawsuit against him. The patient suffered severe psychological problems as a result of the contact with the counselor, but he recovered through the help of a traditional counselor who helped him accept his sexual orientation.

The last time I heard from the patient he was attempting to get on with his life as a gay man and had met someone with whom he was trying to bond.

The files of Truth Wins Out are full of stories of unscrupulous conversion therapists who masquerade as professional counselors, when in fact they are what the organization’s founder, Wayne Besen, refers to as “quacks.”

Besen has also cornered advocates of conversion therapy who claim to be “ex-gay” in gay bars and exposed others as frauds because they still engage in homosexual activity.

The influence of the powerful Southern Poverty Law Center — which is best known for its work in waging successful legal fights against violent white supremacist groups — will likely help Besen spread his message to an audience that he might not have otherwise reached. The nonprofit group’s Teaching Tolerance project has received high praise for its outreach.

As regards religious leaders who recommend conversion therapy, they are doing neither the individuals nor their families any favors. Coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation — for both gay men and lesbians and their family members — is challenging enough without the interference of religious leaders who apparently are less concerned with the welfare of the individual than they are in demanding observance of antiquated religious laws.

For gays or lesbians attempting to deny their sexual orientation, it might be useful to learn a lesson from the legions of people who have already struggled with the same issue and finally came to realize that a person’s basic nature cannot be transformed.                                              •

David Webb is a veteran journalist who has covered LGBT issues for the mainstream and alternative media for three decades. E-mail him at

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 4, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Lambda Legal to file employment discrimination lawsuit on behalf of former Texas state employee

Lambda Legal is planning a press conference in Hurst on Wednesday morning to announce a federal employment discrimination lawsuit on behalf of a former state employee. Tom Warnke, a spokesman for the LGBT civil rights group, said this afternoon that he couldn’t release any additional details until the press conference, because the lawsuit has not yet been filed.

Below is what little info we have at this point. Stay tuned to Instant Tea for updates.

Lambda Legal to File Federal Employment Discrimination Lawsuit on Behalf of Former State Employee

WHEN: Wednesday, September 7, 2011, 10:00am.
WHERE: Holiday Inn Express & Suites, 820 Thousand Oaks Drive, Hurst, TX
WHO: Kenneth Upton, Jr., Supervising Senior Staff Attorney in Lambda Legal’s Southern Regional Office, Benjamin D. Williams, pro-bono co-counsel with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, and Lambda Legal’s client will be available for interviews.

—  John Wright

LGBT advocates blast divorce case ruling

Lambda Legal attorney calls 5th District’s decision ‘worst of opinions,’ warns further appeals could set damaging precedent for marriage

Read the full opinion written by Justice Kerry P. FitzGerald

John Wright  |  Online Editor

Ken Upton
Ken Upton

Texas is justified in prohibiting same-sex marriage — and divorce — because gay couples can’t procreate and because children are better off raised by heterosexual parents, according to a ruling handed down by a state appeals court in Dallas this week.

But these prohibitions don’t unfairly target same-sex couples because Texas also prohibits bigamous and polygamous heterosexual marriage, and because gay couples do enjoy some state protections, such as the ability to seek protective orders from domestic violence, the court said.

Allowing same-sex couples to divorce in Texas would redefine the fundamental institution of marriage, according to the court’s opinion. And if same-sex couples want more legal rights, they should petition the Texas Legislature, not the judiciary.

Dallas’ 5th District Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday, Aug. 31 that a gay couple legally married in Massachusetts cannot obtain a divorce in Texas. The ruling overturned a district judge’s decision last year that declared the state’s marriage bans unconstitutional. Democratic District Judge Tena Callahan’s October 2009 decision allowing the gay couple to seek a divorce was appealed by Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott.

LGBT advocates slammed Tuesday’s long-awaited, 38-page ruling in the case, which came from an all-Republican, three-judge panel of the appeals court.

“It was the worst of opinions,” said Ken Upton, a Dallas-based senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal, the national LGBT civil rights group. “It reinforced all of the old arguments we thought we were moving away from.

“These are stupid arguments with no real basis,” Upton added. “They’re made up just to oppress us. It [the opinion] is an example for people who thought we’d made progress everywhere — welcome to Texas.”

Upton, who isn’t involved in the case, said the ruling will have a limited legal impact because, for now at least, it’s binding only in Texas’ 5th District. But he called the ruling psychologically damaging to the LGBT community and said it steals momentum from recent court victories, including a federal judge’s decision last month declaring California’s Proposition 8 unconstitutional.

Equality Texas, the statewide gay-rights group, issued a statement calling the appeals court’s ruling in the gay divorce case “homophobic, outdated and uninformed.”

“The Fifth District Court of appeals has taken the most extreme, the most conservative view possible on each issue before it,” Equality Texas said. “It’s not as if they wanted to just overturn the trial court’s decision, they wanted to smash it into the ground and discourage anyone from ever filing a pro-LGBT suit ever again.

“The ruling harkens back to a view of the world from generations past — a world where LGBT people were content to live in closets, and were afraid to demand to be treated with dignity and respect. A dignity and respect that this court goes out of its way to completely deny,” Equality Texas said.

The extreme nature of the panel’s ruling “lowered the bar” for another court to overturn it, according to Equality Texas. But Upton, long a critic of the gay divorce case, said he hopes the decision isn’t appealed, because the Texas Supreme Court could inflict more damage by laying down a broader precedent.

James Scheske, left, and Pete Schulte
ON APPEAL | James Scheske, left, and Pete Schulte, attorneys for the plaintiff in the Texas gay divorce case, respond to questions during a press conference after oral arguments in the same-sex divorce case were heard earlier this year. Scheske said this week that whether they appeal the case to the Texas Supreme Court depends on what is best for their client. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

“You have to pick your courts,” Upton said. “You have to pick the place where you think you’re going to have a fair chance of convincing someone. I just don’t think that was the Dallas court of appeals, and I certainly don’t think it’s the Texas Supreme Court.

“I guess we could go file one in Mississippi or Alabama if we wanted some more losses that say bad things about gay parents,” Upton added, “but we don’t want to reinforce that message when the momentum is on the side of equality.”

Attorneys for the Dallas man seeking a divorce from his husband, identified in court documents as J.B., said this week that no final decision had been made about whether to appeal.

“I expect an appeal, but that’s ultimately our client’s decision,” said James Scheske of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, the Austin law firm representing J.B.

J.B.’s attorneys have 45 days, or until Oct. 15, to appeal the decision, but Scheske said he expects to know within two or three weeks.

In response to concerns about the potential impact of a negative ruling from the Texas Supreme Court, Scheske said his job is to represent his client.

“I have a client who has a valid marriage that needs to end,” Scheske said.“The people who are at the advocacy groups, they’re all very well-intentioned, but they need to think about what my client’s position is, and what would they propose he do?”

J.B. married his husband, H.B., in Massachusetts in 2006 before moving to Texas and filing for divorce in January 2009. Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2004, has a residency requirement for divorce.

“My duties go to my client, not to what some advocacy group thinks is the best thing to do for some movement,” Scheske said. “I don’t represent a movement; I represent an individual.”

Peter Schulte, the gay Dallas attorney who serves as co-counsel for J.B., said his client was unavailable for comment this week.

Scheske called the appeals court’s ruling “disappointing.”

“This opinion singles out one group of citizens, same-sex couples, and denies them the same rights that everybody else has,” he said.

Scheske also represents an Austin woman who’s seeking a divorce from her wife. After the Travis County district judge granted a divorce to the lesbian couple earlier this year, Attorney General Abbott appealed.

Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for Abbott, praised the Dallas ruling this week.

“Because the Constitution and laws of the State of Texas define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, the court correctly ruled that Texas courts do not have authority to grant a same-sex divorce,” Strickland said. “Further, the court rejected the parties’ constitutional challenge and instead ruled that Texas’ definition of marriage is entirely consistent with the U.S. Constitution.”

The Attorney General’s Office was assisted in the case by the right-wing, Plano-based Liberty Institute.

“The court’s ruling strikes down an activist judge’s attempt to take the law into her own hands,” Liberty Institute President Kelly Shackelford told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The decision came from Justice David L. Bridges, R-Fate, who was elected to the court in 1996; Fitzgerald, R-Dallas, who was appointed by Gov. George W. Bush in 1999; and Robert M. Fillmore, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2009.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 3, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens