Maryland will join 10 other states and the District in protecting LGBT youths from the use of discredited and harmful conversion therapy by licensed professionals.
Statements from those opposing the bill passed by the General Assembly revealed a sharp misunderstanding about its focus. One asserted that the bill’s wording shifted the focus from a ban on the abusive act of conversion therapy to the professionals conducting it, and that licensed therapists objected to the bill for fear they would lose their licenses over “a simple conversation” about sexual orientation.
I have been around the block a few times with more than 25 years of experience as a licensed psychologist in Maryland. Professionally trained licensed therapists know the difference between judgment-free therapeutic discussions exploring complex sexual identity issues and agenda-driven dialogue with a fixed goal defined by someone other than the minor client. These highly trained practitioners study four to eight postgraduate years about myriad communication methods addressing challenging personal issues. This prepares them to be competent and ethically responsible to provide a safe, accepting and unbiased environment to enhance personal understanding and emotional well-being.
Conversion therapy practices are not professional psychotherapy. They are systematized, institutionally driven forms of coercive control and bullying that do not belong in the offices of any therapist or counselor, licensed or not, nor in the lives of anyone, young or old. But the state cannot regulate practices of the unlicensed, nor the choices of adults. So this bill, which bans the practice of conversion therapy with minors by licensed providers, necessarily narrows the scope and jurisdiction that the state can apply.
Also known as reparative therapy, conversion therapy refers to a range of unscientific, nihilistic, authoritarian practices aimed at convincing a person that he or she can and should change a nonconforming sexual orientation/identity to heterosexual. Studies have shown not only that it is ineffective at achieving these objectives, but also that its critical, fear-based, shaming techniques damage the psychological and sometimes physical well-being of those on whom it’s conducted. The practices are based on prejudicial and scientifically false premises that sexual orientations other than heterosexual are wrong and that non-heterosexuals are mentally ill.
There is one exception. LGBT individuals are more likely to exhibit higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide under one set of circumstances: the systematic exposure to conditions that convey negative judgment and lack of acceptance. That is what conversion therapy practices do. Usually initiated by those influential to the LGBT individual such as family, friends and dominant cultural circles, conversion techniques use guilt, fear, ridicule, blame and shame to diminish the self-esteem and self-will. These statements are not based on a belief, a political position or attitude of social tolerance. They are based on scientific fact.
The claim by opponents that parents should have the right to pursue “loving” conversion therapy misses this important point. Gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals are not mentally ill. In 1973, following decades of research indisputably demonstrating that individuals with LGBT sexual orientations are no more prone to mental illness than heterosexuals, homosexuality was removed from the diagnostic manual of mental illnesses.
Criticism of the bill was that it condemns the abusive act of conversion therapy but does not ban it across the board and only restricts the practice of it on minors by licensed practitioners. Perhaps this is merely a misunderstanding of the state’s jurisdiction? The state, through its laws and licensing boards, holds the authority to regulate the practices of only the individuals it licenses. It has no jurisdiction over unlicensed people/practices, including the clergy and religious practices. Also, the state cannot mandate in what therapy, legitimate or not, adults may choose to engage.
The licensing authorities define and regulate — according to scientifically based, ethical, safe and effective criteria — professional standards of practice. Practitioners who are privileged to hold a state license have the responsibility to practice within these parameters.
In a letter of support from the Maryland Psychological Association, a statement from its board of directors is quoted: “As psychologists, we not only advocate for the use of psychological science for the creation of policies that promote public good — particularly for those who, due to their identities, are disenfranchised and marginalized — but we do not stand idly by while science is misused or ignored to further marginalize disenfranchised groups.”
Scientific research has demonstrated the profound influence that significant people and institutions can have on children’s emotional development. Passing this bill helped Maryland responsibly reflect this level of scientific sophistication and better protect its minors.