In an effort to protect Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ youth, City Councilman Dan Gilman and Council President Bruce Kraus introduced legislation to prohibit licensed mental health professionals from employing a controversial method called “conversion therapy” on minors.
On Tuesday, by unanimous vote, the council approved the legislation banning the practice, which attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
Mayor Bill Peduto has said he will sign the legislation, according to a spokesman for Gilman.
“The City of Pittsburgh bears the responsibility to protect all of its residents, and this legislation defends LGBTQIA+ youth against the destructive psychological and physical impact of forced conversion therapy,” Gilman said in a prepared statement. “By passing this legislation, the City is standing up for equality and ensuring that Pittsburgh is a welcoming city for all.”
Conversion therapy has been opposed by a host of mental health, medical and social work organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians and the National Association of Social Workers.
“This has been something on my radar since I first started in Council,” Gilman said in an interview. “And it got put on the front burner with the election because of [Mike] Pence. I thought it was important to take action.”
Vice President-elect Pence has been accused in various media accounts of supporting conversion therapy, although Pence’s spokesman, Marc Lotter, denied to The New York Times last month that Pence supports the practice. According to Lotter, a past campaign statement by Pence had been misinterpreted. Nonetheless, Pence has opposed initiatives advancing LGBTQ rights, both as a member of Congress and as governor of Indiana.
Gilman said he is unaware of how many licensed therapists in Pittsburgh are currently using conversion therapy on minors.
“It’s hard to know the exact number,” he said. “But we have received reports of people who have received therapy as a minor or adults who are concerned that it is in the community.”
For minors, there is “no benefit to any sort of these treatments,” and in fact, they often cause great harm, said Judith Glassgold, chair of the American Psychological Association’s 2009 Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation, and a nationally recognized expert in the psychology of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“These treatments are seen [by those minors subject to the treatments] as a form of rejection by their parents, and their parents not liking them for who they are,” she said.
The research has shown, Glassgold said, that those minors who are forced to undergo conversion therapy have an increased risk for suicide, substance abuse, and other destructive behaviors.
Most of the programs offering this type of therapy are promoted by religious organizations that see gender non-conformity as incompatible with religious doctrine.
“This creates psychological problems where a person thinks he has to choose between having fulfilling adult relationships and his faith,” Glassgold said. “This creates stress for children and for their families.”
Glassgold recommends that therapists treating children who are conflicted in their sexual identity to “not have a preexisting idea of the outcome” of that treatment.
“Therapists should not push being gay over being ex-gay on anyone,” she said. “What you help someone do is build the skills to figure this out. We don’t want to push any outcomes on kids or parents. People often make a variety of choices on how they choose to live. Sometimes they alter parts of their faith, or parts of their sexuality.”
There are no circumstances in which conversion therapy can be helpful for a child, according to Glassgold.
Dr. Mindy Hutchinson, a local psychiatrist who treats adults, adolescents and children, agrees.
“There is no data that supports conversion therapy,” Hutchinson said. “The thing is that gay kids and adults have more mental health issues. The theory [behind conversion therapy] is that if you can stop them from being gay, they will have better lives. But they are probably not having more mental health issues because they are gay. Rather, it’s because they are being shunned, and because of societal reaction. There is a lot of internalized self-loathing that goes with that.”
In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association determined that homosexuality is not an illness, Hutchinson noted.
“But there are still people who believe you can analyze this out of people — mostly religious groups,” she said. “Conversion therapy carries with it the idea that homosexuality is evil and a sin that has to be battled against. What that does to someone who is already prone to anxiety and feelings of isolation is horrific.”
A Jewish group called JONAH which employed conversion therapy on Orthodox men, was ordered by a New Jersey Superior Court to cease operations in December 2015, after a finding of fraud. While New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a bill in 2013 that prohibited licensed therapists from employing conversion therapy, the therapists at JONAH were not licensed therapists.
The therapy methods at JONAH, according to a Newsweek article, included practices such as “strip therapy” and requiring men to beat effigies of their mothers. Witnesses testified to other unorthodox methods of therapy including a nude “rebirthing” ceremony, and weekends spent almost entirely naked, group showers, and cuddling with the therapists.
Some who are opposed to the conversion therapy ban express consternation about the government intervening in parental rights.
“I’m relieved to know that the City of Pittsburgh is at full employment, where there is no crime, no violence, no corruption, where every child gets an adequate education, and where no physical infrastructure is in disrepair that our duly elected representatives have the time and energy to instruct private citizens about legal behavior in which they may or may not be allowed to engage,” remarked local writer and occasional Chronicle columnist Abby Schachter, author of “No Child Left Alone: Getting the Government out of Parenting.”
Similar laws had been passed in other cities, including Seattle, Cincinnati and Miami Beach.
Pittsburgh is the first city in Pennsyl-vania to enact such a ban.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.