A Resurgence of “Ex-Gay Therapy” Under Trump/Pence? ABC News Report Offers a Platform to Hate Group Rep. Peter Sprigg

In a recent article on the ABC News website about the un-scientific practice known as “ex-gay therapy,” the outlet neglected to include any comment from anyone in the well-publicized network of reparative therapy survivors. Instead, ABC provided a largely uncritical platform to a member of a certified anti-LGBT hate group.

Veteran journalists Brian Ross and Brian Epstein report on the celebratory mood among advocates of “gay conversion therapy,” who are “heartened” by the new administration’s deference to “religious freedom” claims. They begin by explaining that conversion therapy, sometimes called “reparative therapy” or “sexual orientation change efforts,” is indeed “long-discredited.” But then they offer what amounts to an 800-word platform to the Family Research Council’s Peter Sprigg.

The short piece serves as a teaser for Friday’s episode of 20/20, the result of a year-long investigation into several ex-gay “camps” located in the American South. The 20/20 segment features interviews with at least two young people sent to the camps—as well as self-described pastors and administrators of these facilities.

While the 20/20 segment is billed as an exposé, the print piece not only offers a voice to a representative of a group long designated as an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but it fails to mention that fact. And while they note that the Republican Party’s official platform “mirrors” language from FRC materials, they neglect to report that FRC president Tony Perkins was on the GOP committee that drafted that platform last year.

In addition to several direct quotes from Sprigg that position same-sex attraction as a sinful choice that can be changed, the authors do not directly critique FRC’s framing of the harmful practice as benign-sounding “sexual reorientation therapy.”

Although the article does include boilerplate statements from several leading medical and mental health organizations that have condemned so-called conversion therapy, it does not offer any additional resources to understand the real-world impact. Despite the existence of numerous peer-reviewed studies that have documented the harm such treatment inflicts on its subjects, the article does not broach the ethical or licensing issues that arise when licensed or religious therapists seek to use a tactic that has been denounced by the industry’s governing organizations.

Instead, the authors of the piece let stand Sprigg’s specious allegation that the Obama Administration launched a “federal legislative attack” on ex-gay therapy. (In reality, six states and the District of Columbia have outlawed the practice, but only for use on minors by licensed therapists. Faith-based counselors and clergypeople remain free to use various “therapeutic” measures to attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, despite broad scientific consensus that such changes are impossible.)

Testimony from survivors could have provided critical balance in the piece and a powerful counter to Sprigg’s assertions. RD reached out to two of them.

Carl Charles, a gay trans man and practicing attorney in New York City who spent nearly a year in church-based conversion therapy at age 15, stressed the lasting impact the treatment had on his relationships with his family, his community, and himself. He recalled that the process worsened his severe depression and fed an unhealthy amount of rage; he punched holes through the walls of his home, and often took a baseball bat to the creek behind his house and smashed old televisions, clocks, and other appliances as an outlet for his anger.

After leaving treatment, Charles said,

it took a long time to come to terms with myself as good enough, with my friends and community not being criminal, or inherently wrong. I felt I had to abandon my community of faith because I thought (and had confirmation at that time) that it did not include people like me.

Although he has since found an affirming faith community, Charles stressed that his journey back to religion, and to a solid sense of self-worth, was long and made more difficult by his time in conversion therapy. The one positive impact of the treatment, Charles said, was that it made him “relentlessly committed to trans people, LGBQ people and their lives—both the joys and sorrows.”

Conversion therapy “softened my heart to the struggles and multiple intersecting oppression of others, [and] deepened my compassion and ability to care for others,” he added.

Charles, now in his mid-30s, is still gay, still trans, and still an active member of the LGBTQ community, proving that efforts to change his sexual orientation and gender identity were wholly ineffective. This experience is not unique, as I have learned in the course of reporting on survivors of conversion therapy since 2009.

Beginning at age 14, Ryan Kendall spent nearly two years under the care of Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a leading proponent and practitioner of conversion therapy. While Nicolosi was a licensed, ostensibly secular therapist, Kendall’s parents were referred to Nicolosi through faith-based channels, including the Christian organization Focus on the Family.

In an email interview with RD, the 33-year-old gay man was frank about the profound impact the treatment had on him—though it did not change his sexual orientation.

“I spent 12 years suicidally depressed because of conversion therapy,” said Kendall.

I lost my sense of place in the world, my family, and any stability in life. At age 16, I went to court to revoke my parents’ legal custody. Less than one year later, I dropped out of high school. The next decade was a struggle to survive; I was battling the disastrous damage conversion therapy caused by sending the message being LGBT means we are defective, broken, and wrong. I struggled with substance abuse, struggled to support myself, and struggled to obtain an education.

Kendall, who is now a second-year law student at the University of California Los Angeles, highlighted the deeply religious roots of conversion therapy, even when practiced by licensed therapists who, like Nicolosi, claim their personal faith does not influence their practice.

“Conversion therapy is intimately linked to religiously-motivated bias, fueled by SPLC-designated hate-group the Family Research Council,” Kendall said.

“These organizations collude to advocate conversion therapy for legal and political reasons; they work together to make arguments under the framework of current legal doctrine that LGBT people do not need protection from discrimination or equal marriage rights. But make no mistake, conversion therapy advocates cannot be separated from their supposed religious motivation, and the harm [they] inflict on LGBT people because of a belief that we are somehow inferior is a heinous moral wrong they must one day grapple with.”