Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

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A “pivotal player” at Trump's health department previously promoted harmful “ex-gay” conversion therapy

  • Shannon Royce, who has reportedly emerged “as a pivotal player” at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), previously suggested that so-called conversion therapy was an antidote to marriage equality and worked for anti-LGBTQ hate groups that have promoted the dangerous and widely discredited practice.

    Politico reported on January 22 that Royce, the director of HHS’ Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, has become "a pivotal player” at the department and has been part of a group that's “spent months quietly planning how to weaken federal protections for abortion and transgender care.” The publication added that she has also helped spearhead “a vast outreach initiative to religious groups.”

    During a November appearance on a right-wing radio program, Royce suggested that she wanted to increase partnerships with groups that were "considered hateful” under President Barack Obama’s administration, including organizations that are against same-sex couples getting married and adopting children.

    Royce has a history of promoting anti-LGBTQ groups and causes, including the harmful and discredited practice of conversion therapy. The Human Rights Campaign has written that conversion therapy, sometimes known as reparative therapy, is “a range of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Such practices have been rejected by every mainstream medical and mental health organization for decades, but due to continuing discrimination and societal bias against LGBTQ people, some practitioners continue to conduct conversion therapy.” The American Psychiatric Association has found that the potential risks of the so-called therapy “include depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior.”

    Royce talked to The New York Times Magazine in 2005 about same-sex marriage and told reporter Russell Shorto that “the ex-gay movement is a very important part of the story”:

    The solution to the problem of the gay lifestyle in this view is, of course, Christ. The reparative therapy or “ex-gay” movement has been repudiated by major health and mental health organizations for its assumption that homosexuality is a defect to be repaired -- indeed, in May members of the American Psychiatric Association recommended that the organization support gay marriage in the interest of promoting mental health. But for both the national leaders on the anti-gay-marriage front and Christian community activists, “ex-gay” and “gay marriage” are closely connected, the first being the antidote to the second. Shannon Royce, the executive director of the Marriage Amendment Project, advised me explicitly: “The ex-gay movement is a very important part of the story.” [Pastor Brian] Racer spelled it out clearly as well. “I've had quite a few opportunities to counsel people who were in a homosexual lifestyle,” he said. “They have generally found themselves in a desperate place. They know that Christ promises an abundant life, but that promise was made with some restrictions. These people have tried to find fulfillment in ways that are against God's principles. So you don't want to further the error by allowing gay marriage. Most of these folks have had an abusive situation that goes back to childhood. You want to heal that. You want to hold back the tide and not let such a high impact issue harm the whole society.”

    Royce has also held senior roles in organizations that promoted conversion therapy. 

    She worked as the chief of staff for the anti-LGBTQ hate group Family Research Council before landing her federal job. FRC’s official position states that it “believes that homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large, and can never be affirmed. It is by definition unnatural, and as such is associated with negative physical and psychological health effects." 

    The FRC explicitly supports conversion therapy as a practice. The Human Rights Campaign notes that FRC promotes the “idea that people can and should try to change their sexual orientation, and that even if you can’t stop 'involuntary attraction,' you can just not act on it.” FRC has also fought against efforts to ban the practice in states.

    Royce was also the executive director of the Marriage Amendment Project, which first organized against same-sex marriage in 2004 and believed “marriage is the union of one man and one woman” (the group and its website are now defunct). The project's participants included numerous organizations that have supported conversion therapy, including the American Family Association, Exodus InternationalFocus on the Family, and FRC.

    Its “resources” page also included a link to advertisements from Exodus International touting the supposed effectiveness of the dangerous practice.

    Exodus International was explicitly dedicated to promoting conversion therapy. The group’s website in 2004 stated that it is “a worldwide interdenominational, Christian organization called to encourage, strengthen, unify and equip Christians to minister the transforming power of the Lord Jesus Christ to those affected by homosexuality.” The New York Times reported in 2012 that Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, “declared that there was no cure for homosexuality and that ‘reparative therapy’ offered false hopes to gays and could even be harmful.” The following year, the group issued an apology for its efforts and shut down its operations.  

    Royce was also the executive director of The Arlington Group, a coalition of numerous Christian conservatives that included Exodus International's Alan Chambers.

    The Marriage Amendment Project’s FAQ page also pushed anti-LGBTQ myths. The project claimed that “the most important reason to protect traditional marriage is for the well-being of children. Marriage still provides the most stable and nurturing environment for the raising and education of children. Numerous studies have indicated that family stability has more of an effect on children than the ‘happiness’ of the parents involved. … Children, no matter the age, innately desire a relationship with their mother and father. Same-sex marriage cannot provide that inherent need children carry with them throughout their lives.” An ACLU fact sheet states that “all of the research to date has reached the same unequivocal conclusion about gay parenting: the children of lesbian and gay parents grow up as successfully as the children of heterosexual parents.”

    Royce also brings anti-choice views to the department. Right Wing Watch reported that she attended a recent Evangelicals for Life conference and said that “we have such an amazing team at HHS, that is absolutely a pro-life team across the spectrum, and that is playing out in many ways.”

    FRC's “Washington Update” recently noted Royce's tenure at the department, among other things, and wrote: “For Trump voters, few things are as rewarding as the turnaround at HHS.” 

    A request for comment to the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships was not returned.