State measure would ban 'conversion therapy' for gay and lesbian youth

OLYMPIA -- Can sexual orientation be changed? It’s a question that’s now in front of state lawmakers in Olympia, where there is move to ban “conversion therapy” for gay and lesbian youth.

“Conversion therapy” is the controversial practice of counselors trying to change the sexual orientation of their patients -- patients who are often forced into therapy by their parents who want their child to be heterosexual.

No one knows how widespread the practice is in Washington. Those therapists who claim to offer this service don’t advertise widely because it is controversial. Some patients say they have put their homosexuality “behind” them through counseling, but the view held by the vast majority in the profession is that “conversion” therapy is ineffective and even harmful.

“These beliefs have long been discredited by all the major mental health organizations,” said Doug Haldeman, a clinical psychologist and member of the Washington State Psychological Association. He testified Thursday before lawmakers.

“I have never seen it work, never,” Haldeman said after the hearing. "It’s like mission impossible, and when you put a kid through that, that sense of shame and failure and depression can last a lifetime.”

State Rep.Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, is urging his colleagues to support a measure that will pave the way to banning conversation – sometimes called “reparative” therapy. “Sexual orientation change efforts are dangerous,” Liias said.

The bill creates a task force to find ways to end or at least regulate the practice when it comes to anyone under 18. The group would report to the Legislature by the end of the year.

“No one should be forcing a child to  participate in something that could be dangerous to them,” Liias said.

During nearly 30 minutes of testimony at Thursday’s hearing, no one showed up to oppose the measure.

The 15-person task force that would be created would have to make “reasonable efforts” to recruit one member who actually practices the technique to ensure that that viewpoint is represented.

California is the only state that has banned conversation therapy, but it has faced legal hurdles. It’s been put on hold by a federal court pending a full trial. The claim by those who brought the lawsuit is that it violates the rights of parents to raise their children how they want, and that it violates the rights of therapists to practice what they want.