OKLAHOMA CITY – An Oklahoma lawmaker wants to make the state the first in the nation in providing legal protection for parents who seek therapy for children who have same-sex attractions.
An interim study sponsored by Representative Jim Olsen, R-Roland would cement a parent’s right to seek so-called “conversion therapy” for their children.
The study comes on the heels of the 2020 attempt to ban the controversial therapy in Oklahoma. Olsen said last year’s proposed ban on conversion therapy in Oklahoma was one reason why he proposed the study. He also felt religious and parental rights were being attacked by similar bans on the practice in other states.
“The bill will have in it, exclusions for abusive therapy, what’s called aversion therepy; any kind of torture,” Olsen said. “The bill will not protect that kind of therapy.”
Olsen said the premise that people born gay or transgendered runs counter to his religious beliefs. “I’m sure there are some people who are tempted [by same-sex attractions] more than others, but as far as being born into and locked into a this is your destiny, I can’t see that lining up with the scripture,” he said.
Scott Hamilton, executive director of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, disagreed. Hamilton said a parent should not have the right to force this kind of harm on their children.
“It’s not a religious issue in my mind. Instead, it’s a moral one,” Hamiliton said. “Conversion therapy is junk science and something that not only does not work, it’s actually very, very harmful to individuals who are forced to undergo it.”
Hamilton isn’t alone there. Many medical and psychological associations have all issued statements condemning the practice of conversion therapy.
For nearly two decades scientific studies have pointed to the potential mental health threats posed by stigmatizing sexual orientation. In 2001, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher — who was appointed by President Bill Clinton and retained by President George W. Bush — issued a report that said there was no evidence sexual orientation can be changed.
Surgeon General Satcher said his “Call to Action” report on sexuality was not a religious document, rather it was his job to provide the public with the best scientific research. The report said sexual orientation was most often determined during adolescence and warned “these anti-homosexual attitudes are associated with psychological distress for homosexual persons and may have a negative impact on mental health, including a greater incidence of depression and suicide, lower self-acceptance and a greater likelihood of hiding sexual orientation.”
WHAT IS CONVERSION THERAPY?
Even the term “conversion therapy” is steeped in controversy. Neither supporters of the practice nor critics of it believe the term is accurate.
“First and foremost, this is not “therapy,” but torture, a practice sustained by a heterosexist, cissexist culture that values heterosexuality and devalues non-heterosexuality and values people whose gender identity aligns with their assigned sex at birth (cisgender) and devalues people whose gender identity does not align with their assigned sex at birth (transgender),” Sage Mauldin, Director of Policy at Equality Arizona and professor of Human Relations at the University of Oklahoma, said.
Mauldin helped craft the legislation that sought to prohibit the practice of conversion therapy on LGBTQ youth in Oklahoma.He said any prohibitions are aimed at stopping the practice from being forced on children, but would not impact church or religious practitioners.
If Oklahoma approves a law granting protections for conversion therapy, it would be the first state to do so during a time when other states are banning the practice for children.
“[The term] conversion therapy came from people who didn’t practice it and it’s their way to label it for their purposes,” Olsen, the state lawmaker, said. He said the practice is the same as any other type of therapy.
The list of approved speakers for Olsen’s study includes the executive director of First Stone Ministries, an Oklahoma City based religious organization that specializes in this type of therapy and others who support the concept.
“No electroshock…no IV drips,” Stephen Black said as he walked through each room of First Stone Ministries where he serves as executive director. Black said he is used to the claims of torture surrounding the practice of so-called conversion therapy and carefully showed each room as he explained the type of work that happens in the office.
“[Critics] like to use these terms, “conversion therapy” to scare the public, to scare families, to scare parents,” he said. He said First Stone programs offer talk therapy and group therapy for people who are seeking to leave the LGBTQ lifestyle or are struggling with sexual sin and same-sex attractions.
First Stone is not connected to any psychological association. However, it was one of the founding members of the now shuttered Exodus International.
Exodus International made headlines when it closed and its then-executive director Alan Chambers apologized for the pain the organization caused members of the LGBTQ community.
Black acknowledged Exodus’ problems but he said the failure of Exodus International was due to a departure from Biblical principles. He said First Stone has seen remarkable success in its therapy programs.
“We don’t say, ‘pray away the gay,’ come in here and we hit you with a fairy wand and all of a sudden you’re healed. Nobody ever promises that. What we do promise, though, is if you, according to God’s word, not our promises, but His promises,” Black said.
First Stone boasts a 70 percent success rate for its clients but those figures come from a survey conducted by the organization.
Records show that First Stone was only able to contact 500 of its 1,200 clients. Of those who received a survey, 185 responded.
The organization’s 100-plus page report indicates 70 percent of those who engaged with the ministry for more than a year — and responded to the survey — reported they had found “lasting freedom.”
The report does note its data does not meet peer review criteria.
Other studies, including Cornell University’s analysis of research done about conversation therapy, have raised questions about the practice and its effectiveness.
According to Cornell analysis of 47 peer reviewed studies on the same topic, 12 scientific studies have concluded conversion therapy is “ineffective and/or harmful.” One study found positive results, but Cornell points out its participants all self-identified as “religious.”
The other 34 studies, Cornell concluded, “do not make an empirical determination about whether CT can alter sexual orientation.”
First Stone’s study would not meet the Cornell criteria for inclusion.
However, Black’s staff says they are living proof of the benefits and successes of the programs.
“I was protesting along with them, you know ‘we’re here, we’re queer, get over it,” Laura Leigh Stanlake, the First Stone Director of Women’s Ministries said, speaking about her life as a lesbian and gay-rights activist in the 1980s.
Stanlake said she lived in a same-sex relationship. She said a religious experience brought her out of a lifestyle she now believes is sinful.
“Everything in that moment just changed,” she said. “You know, my opinion of what I was doing, my helplessness, my insecurity, my fear, everything kind of just changed.”
Another staff member, Laura Beth Perry, described her life as a transgender man. Her story is included in a new documentary, In His Image, which supports conversion therapy. Perry said she lived as a man for nine years and even went through surgical procedures to remove her female anatomy.
“I wanted to be a man and I believed I was,” she said. “And I just needed to get rid of this female body. And then I would be OK. I thought I’d live happily ever after.”
Perry said it was a religious experience in 2014 that led her to walk away from her life and begin living as a woman again. The decision meant leaving a partner she had been introducing as her wife for many years.
“After I came to the Lord in 2014 and I was just radically saved, I mean, I was so transformed in an instant, I, um, the word had just transformed my heart,” she said.
In each of the lives of First Stone staff members, the decision to change their lifestyle and choose the therapy was made as an adult. Both Perry and Stanlake say they likely would not have accepted this type of therapy as teenagers.
Black said they will work with children if the child consents.
“We never have ongoing meetings with someone who does not want to receive our help or services, and that includes teenagers,” he said.
However, Hamilton and other critics of conversion therapy argue even introducing the idea that sexual orientation can be changed — or that there is something wrong with with LGBTQ people that needs to be changed — can be damaging to children who are already struggling with their sexual identity.
“Evidence in around the world that demonstrates that this kind of so-called therapy greatly increases the risk of suicide and LGBTQ people are already at a marked higher percentage of people who attempt suicide,” he said.
Black, of First Stone, said suicides are “rare” among the people he has treated. However, he said he believes those who complete suicide are not committed to the therapy and may have considered suicide before seeking help.
Instead of legislation supporting conversion therapy, Hamiliton said the primary legislative focus should be on protecting children.
“We need education for the family that shows that this kind of thing is detrimental to the family,” he said. Hamilton said he questions any successes tied to conversion therapy programs.
“There has never been one one concrete example of any one ever changing their sexual orientation,” he said.
For success stories promoted by proponents of conversion therapy, Hamilton said there is a need for more education on the topic of sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity.
“Gender identity can be fluid. Gender queer is a popular expression for someone who whose gender identity may not be defined as male or female,” he said.
Regardless, Hamilton said the focus of the legislature should be on limiting harm.
That can also mean reducing economic harm.
While Mauldin and Hamilton make what they say is the moral argument against the practice of forcing children into therapy, they agree that Oklahoma’s economy stands to suffer.
If approved, Oklahoma would be the first state to offer statutory protection to the therapy practices that have been banned in more than a dozen other states.
Such a move could result in similar backlash seen in states that passed “bathroom bills” which blocked transgendered people from using bathrooms for the gender they identify with.
“[Oklahoma] would be the only state to have such a law. And such a law would have dire consequences,” Mauldin said.