As gay marriage wins wider acceptance across the United States, support for therapy aimed at “converting” homosexuals appears to be losing ground.
Although California’s move to ban the practice for minors looks set to be followed by other states, there are still plenty of psychotherapists offering the controversial service.
Often with links to conservative Christian organizations, they openly advertise treatment regarded as unethical and profoundly damaging by mainstream medical opinion.
Ryan Kendall, now a 30-year-old student at New York’s Columbia University, was on the receiving end of such therapy as an adolescent.
His parents discovered that he was gay by reading his journal when he was a 14-year-old growing up in a conservative community in Colorado Spring, Colorado.
He said that at that age, he already was fully aware of his sexuality and knew he could not change.
But that did not prevent his family from forcing him to see a series of conversion therapists over the course of the next two years.
“They would tell me that less than one percent of the world population was gay or lesbian,” he recalled in an interview with AFP.
“That I would die of AIDS before I was 30. That God disapproved of who I was, that my family disapproved, that society disapproved.”
For Kendall, the treatment ended when he ran away from home at the age of 16 and cut all ties with his family. But the trauma continued.
“I lost everything. My family, my faith, the roof over my head, educational opportunities. For the next nine or 10 years I was suicidally depressed. I was homeless off and on, I began abusing drugs.
“This kind of damage is not something you get over, you develop symptoms of PTSD,” he said, referring to the psychic damage exhibited by some emotionally shattered soldiers after in warfare.
“You live with that for the rest of your life.”
In what was widely seen as a benchmark of changing attitudes, gay rights activists were able last month to celebrate the closure of the oldest and best-known organization dedicated to the cause of gay conversion through therapy and prayer.
Exodus International, established in 1976, had some 150 branches across the United States and Canada. Prior to closing, its leader Alan Chambers issued an apology for the “pain and hurt” the organization’s activities had caused.
Chambers acknowledged last year that 99.99 percent of those who had undergone conversion therapy had not changed their sexual orientation.
Such figures do not convince Dr Tara King, a psychotherapist in Brick, New Jersey, who remains an advocate of a process that she says worked on herself but is expected to soon be outlawed for the under-18s in her state.
“If it is law, I will stop,” the former lesbian said with a smile before going on to explain why she regarded the impending legislation as an attack on religious freedom and unwarranted state interference in how parents bring up their children.
Sitting in her surgery, a huge Bible in front of her, the now celibate 49-year-old recounted how she had undergone nine years of therapy after realizing, at 24, that she could not reconcile her attraction to women with her religious faith.
“It was a lot of work. It was painful,” she said. “It was nine years before I stopped having same sex attraction. It is no different from a person with an alcohol addiction who will have cravings for years.”
Her patients are often youngsters sent to her by their parents, but she denies the process of examining and challenging their feelings is necessarily harmful.
“You are just talking about what the client wants to talk about, challenging their thoughts and offering some solutions. It is really a dialogue, and I’m not sure how a dialogue can be harmful,” she said, adding that “there is no shock treatment” during the therapy.
King admits that she can do little to influence a teenager who does not want to change, but she remains convinced that every homosexual has the potential to become heterosexual because the former option is “not the best plan that God has for them.”
A bill that would prevent licensed therapists from counseling gay and lesbian youths to change their sexual orientation was approved by New Jersey’s Senate last month and is currently awaiting final approval by the state’s governor.
The states of New York and Massachusetts are expected to follow the lead of California.