Can a therapist tell a teen not to be gay?

Not if one state rep has anything to do with it

At age 14, Leelah Alcorn, born Joshua Alcorn, told her parents that she was transgender. Three years later, the Ohio teen killed herself by stepping into traffic. She left behind a suicide note that condemned an unsupportive community and, in particular, Christian therapists who told her that she was "selfish and wrong."

Five years earlier, in 2009, an American Psychological Association report had already warned that efforts by a counselor to change a minor's sexual identity could pose "critical health risks." That report joined a heap of others issued by major medical associations regarding the danger of so-called "conversion therapy" practices.

But some counselors ignored those reports and continued to react as though two boys kissing was a scourge. Four states — California, Oregon, Illinois, and New Jersey — as well as Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., have passed bans on all "conversion therapy" when it comes to minors. In 2015, the White House issued a statement in support of those laws. State Rep. Keisha Waites, D-Atlanta, wants Georgia to follow suit.

"It's just good legislation," Waites says.

In December, Waites pre-filed a bill that could come before the lower chamber this session which would ban conversion therapy statewide. House Bill 716 would prohibit anyone serving as a therapist, counselor, or psychologist from seeking to change the sexual identity or gender of a minor. It would not reach into homes to affect parenting; rather, it would hold licensed professionals to standards already outlined by the American Counseling Association's Code of Ethics and endorsed by major medical groups. The bill does not differ in any substantial way from legislation already in place across the United States.

In 2013, Waites put forward a similar bill designed to protect teens from conversion therapy that floundered in committee. What's her spark of hope this time?

In October 2013, GOP presidential candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie supported a ban on conversion therapy practices, telling the press that religious belief cannot trump the health of children. Christie's position was strengthened by a 2015 court ruling that found a New Jersey conversion therapy group guilty of consumer fraud and liable to pay damages.

"This is no longer a Democratic conversation," Waites says. "This is a common interest conversation about protecting families and people ... Given the fact that other states have cleared those hurdles and vetted it, my thought process was, 'We should do this in Georgia.'"

Georgia Equality Director Jeff Graham supports Waites' efforts: "All legitimate mental health accreditations have condemned this practice and I think it would certainly be a wise move for the state of Georgia. Certainly we know that the conversion therapy that this legislation would seek to outlaw — the only affect this has had is to further confuse and harm young people."

At Lost-n-Found Youth, an Atlanta nonprofit that serves LGBTQ teens, director Rick Westbrook receives regular calls from young Georgians whose parents are pushing for conversion therapy.

"We do everything we can — especially if a kid is under 18 — to intervene and help that child," says Westbrook, who has found that most calls concern out-of-state religious camps that preach sexual-orientation conversion. "They're already having trouble as to where they're at in their development and finding out about themselves. They don't need that type of therapy — or rather foolery. It just has a detrimental affect on them becoming happy members of society."

Could such a bill fly in the Legislature, where there's a healthy appetite to discuss religious freedom legislation but little desire to consider bills protecting LGBT people?

Over the past decade, Georgia courts have tossed two lawsuits filed by counselors who claimed they were fired or reprimanded due to their religion, as they viewed homosexuality as a choice. And last year, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law an act designed to prevent suicide in Georgia schools which, by all statistical measures, would disproportionately help LGBTQ teens who are far more likely to attempt suicide.

How Waites' bill could fit into the proposed "Religious Freedom Restoration Act," if both were to be approved in the same session and signed into law by the governor, is a muddy puzzle. The act would "provide a claim or defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government" — a "burden" that could potentially include the law requiring counselors to set aside religious convictions when it comes to the sexuality of minors.

"Our goal is to start a conversation," Waites says. "We are getting the conversation out there that the American Psychological Association has ruled, as well as a number of other medical experts, that this therapy is ineffective and does not work."

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