The federal government issued a report (PDF) on Thursday urging families and therapists to abandon the use of “conversion therapy,” or attempting to change sexual orientation or gender identity, on youths.
The government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) said it created the report to help parents and mental health practitioners decide how to best help adolescents who discover that they may be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
The authors, who are psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers from SAMHSA and the American Psychological Association said there is no credible evidence that “conversion therapy” has any effectiveness in changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The practice has been promoted by some religious groups but is widely panned as harmful by medical and psychological groups, including the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Conversion therapy perpetuates outdated views of gender roles and identities as well as the negative stereotype that being a sexual or gender minority or identifying as LGBTQ is an abnormal aspect of human development,” the authors wrote in the report released Thursday. “Most importantly, it may put young people at risk of serious harm.”
The report said LGBT youths face increased risk of depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and victimization from their peers when they are not accepted or supported by their families and communities. Any therapy or treatment that attempts to change a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity may contribute to those risks, the report added.
Instead, children do best when their sexualities and identities are affirmed. “Supportive families, peers and school and community environments are associated with improved psychosocial outcomes for sexual minority youth,” the report said.
Medical and mental health experts have been sounding alarm over “conversion therapy” for many years. What is new about this report, said Brian Altman, the director of the division of policy innovation at SAMHSA, is that the psychologists and other experts convened for it also came to a consensus about the best ways to help children who may be grappling with gender identity or expression, meaning they may be transgender.
“It would be very much the same [as with sexuality], allowing a child or adolescent to socially transition from one gender expression to their true gender identity,” he said.
Experts are uncertain how many children have been subjected to “conversion therapy.” Studies from San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project found that more than half of LGBT people ages 21 to 24 who were surveyed reported having been pressured by their parents to change their sexual orientation when they were teenagers. A little more than a third said they were sent outside the home to a therapist or religious leader to “cure, treat or change” their orientation.
The New Jersey–based Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH, in June became the first gay “conversion therapy” group to be found guilty of fraud, in a lawsuit filed by a group of gay Orthodox Jewish men who said they were promised that the therapy would turn them heterosexual.
In a 2013 interview with Al Jazeera about the lawsuit and its criticism, JONAH co-founder Arthur Goldberg said that the suit was based on misrepresentations of what the group does and that JONAH is a “light in the closet” for people struggling with their sexuality.
But California, New Jersey, Illinois and the District of Columbia have banned the practice for minors as of August 2015, according to the report. An additional 21 states are considering bans, and President Barack Obama in April called for an end to “conversion therapy” after the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, an Ohio teen who had recently come out as transgender and was made to undergo such sessions.
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