Across the country, legislatures and policy makers are increasingly considering measures to protect LGBTQ minors from harmful conversion therapy, the discredited practice that seeks to turn LGBTQ people straight. As the efforts gain increased media attention, journalists have a responsibility to accurately portray the practice, including by noting that it has been called dangerous and ineffective by major medical associations, highlighting survivor voices when appropriate, avoiding spreading misinformation about the practice, and otherwise following best practices in reporting on conversion therapy.
A Media Matters study of coverage of a successful county-wide conversion therapy ban in Palm Beach County, FL, found that broadcast outlets there featured considerably more voices supportive of the harmful practice and largely failed to note that the practice has been thoroughly discredited and that sexuality cannot be forcibly changed. Here's what journalists can do to avoid similar traps in their own reporting on conversion therapy:
Know there is a national upswing in efforts to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy, which remains a widespread problem and is deeply unpopular
According to the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), nine states, Washington, D.C., and dozens of municipalities have active laws protecting LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy, which is also sometimes called “reparative therapy,” “ex-gay therapy,” or “sexual orientation change efforts.” Governors from both sides of the aisle have signed bills banning the dangerous practice, with four Republican governors and five Democratic governors passing bans in their states, but the Movement Advancement Project has estimated that current bans protect only about 27 percent of LGBTQ Americans. Had these bans not been in place, an additional 6,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13-17 would have undergone conversion therapy “from a licensed health care professional before age 18,” according to a January 2018 report released by the Williams Institute.
At least 17 states (Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington) are currently considering bills that would ban conversion therapy, and many municipalities have passed or are considering similar ordinances. The Trevor Project, the leading crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth, is working to have legislation submitted in all 50 states to protect youth from the dangerous practice, and in 2017, senators reintroduced a bill, the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, that would have banned it nationwide. The bill, which did not come to a vote, was first introduced in 2015, aimed to classify conversion therapy as fraud, ultimately allowing state attorneys general and the Federal Trade Commission to enforce the rule.
Many Americans are not aware of the prevalence of conversion therapy and may consider it mostly a problem of the past, but the groundbreaking January report by the Williams Institute estimated that approximately 20,000 LGBTQ youth, ages 13-17, will undergo conversion therapy in the United States before the age of 18 from a licensed professional in states that do not ban the practice. An additional 57,000 “will receive conversion therapy from religious or spiritual advisors before they reach the age of 18.” The report also estimated that approximately 698,000 LGBTQ adults have received conversion therapy at some point in their lives, including 350,000 who underwent it as adolescents.
The Williams Institute report also cited polling which found that conversion therapy is deeply unpopular, with only 8 percent of Americans believing that conversion therapy could change someone’s sexual orientation. At the state level, support for protecting LGBTQ youth from the dangerous practice is high; 71 percent of respondents to a poll in Florida, 64 percent of respondents to a Virginia poll, and 60 percent of respondents in a New Mexico poll supported a legal ban on conversion therapy.
Avoid suggesting that the most extreme forms of conversion therapy are the only practices that are harmful
There are a range of practices that fall under the umbrella of conversion therapy, from talk therapy to shock and aversion treatments, all of which are considered harmful. In their coverage of conversion therapy, journalists must resist pushing misinformation such as saying that the practice is harmless when it does not involve shock treatment or other blatantly physically harmful practices.
According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), conversion therapy involves “a range of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.” The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR)’s #BornPerfect fact sheet described a few examples that would fall under the range of conversion therapy practices, noting, “while some counselors still use physical treatments like aversive conditioning, the techniques most commonly used include a variety of behavioral, cognitive, psychoanalytic, and other practices that try to change or reduce same-sex attraction or alter a person’s gender identity.” NCLR continued, “While these contemporary versions of conversion therapy are less shocking and extreme than some of those more frequently used in the past, they are equally devoid of scientific validity and pose serious dangers to patients.” Furthermore, in a 2009 report, the American Psychological Association detailed some aversive conversion therapy techniques, including, “inducing nausea, vomiting, or paralysis; providing electric shocks; or having the individual snap an elastic band around the wrist when aroused by same-sex erotic images or thoughts.”
It is imperative that audiences understand that the entire range of such practices is dangerous and ineffective. For example, NBC News covered the report from the Williams Institute about conversion therapy, writing that the entire practice is “medically defunct” before noting that “currently, talk therapy is the most commonly used therapy technique,” though “some practitioners have also combined this with ‘aversion treatments,’ such as induced vomiting or electric shocks.”
While highlighting the range of practices associated with conversion therapy, journalists should avoid providing a platform for practitioners who claim conversion therapy is harmless because their practice does not include shock therapy. For example, Miami’s Fox affiliate WSVN 7News featured the testimony of local therapist Robert Otto who claims to help children with so-called “unwanted attractions”:
ROBERT OTTO: I don’t shock people. I don’t hook them up to a little buzzer and connect them to a wall socket and flip a switch if they have a wrong thought. I listen to them, and I help them understand how those thoughts happen and where they come from.
Though WSVN 7News’ segment followed Otto’s clip by noting that medical associations “oppose conversion therapy,” its audience may still inaccurately believe that conversion therapy is not dangerous when it does not involve physical pain. Talk therapy seeking to change sexual orientation or gender identity is still a dangerous form of conversion therapy.
Note that major medical associations have found no scientific validity for conversion therapy and that sexuality and gender identity cannot be forcibly changed
Reporters covering efforts to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy should always include that the practice has been debunked and rejected by all major medical associations as ineffective, harmful, and unscientific and that sexuality and gender identity cannot be forcibly changed.
The American Psychiatric Association’s official 2000 position statement on conversion therapy reaffirmed its 1998 position that “there is no published scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of ‘reparative therapy’ as a treatment to change one’s sexual orientation.” In addition, the organization wrote that it “opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy, that is based on the assumption … that the patient should change his or her homosexual orientation.” Similarly, the American Psychological Association released a 2009 resolution saying, “The APA concludes that there is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation.” A division of the American Counseling Association known as the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counseling also found that attempts “to alter or change gender identities and/or the sexual orientation of transgender clients across the lifespan may be detrimental, life-threatening, and are not empirically supported.” International organizations also recognize the junk science behind conversion therapy; according to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Therapies aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation have been deemed outside the scope of ethical practice.”
When discussing conversion therapy, journalists should highlight official statements and positions from major medical associations such as these. For example, FOX 4 News in Kansas City, MO, covered a recently introduced bill to ban conversion therapy statewide in Missouri, describing the practice as “widely seen as misguided, ineffective, and some say dangerous” and noting, “Medical experts say conversion therapy can inflict serious emotional harm, with direct links to depression, social isolation, and suicide risk.”
But despite widely accessible information about conversion therapy’s ineffectiveness, not all coverage includes this crucial fact. A Media Matters analysis of coverage of a ban in Palm Beach County, FL, found that only about 12 percent of segments mentioned that the practice has been debunked and that sexuality and gender identity cannot be forcibly changed.
Journalists have a responsibility to educate the public not just about the ineffectiveness of conversion therapy but also its harmful side effects and universal condemnation from major medical associations. According to HRC, “every major medical and mental health organization in the United States has issued a statement condemning the use of conversion therapy” because “there is significant anecdotal evidence of harm to LGBTQ people resulting from attempts to change their sexual orientation and gender identity.”
For example, in a review of studies on conversion therapy, the American Psychological Association wrote:
The reported negative social and emotional consequences [of conversion therapy] include self-reports of anger, anxiety, confusion, depression, grief, guilt, hopelessness, deteriorated relationships with family, loss of social support, loss of faith, poor self-image, social isolation, intimacy difficulties, intrusive imagery, suicidal ideation, self-hatred, and sexual dysfunction.
Additionally, the National Association of Social Workers has asserted that conversion therapy, “can lead to severe emotional damage”; the American Academy of Pediatrics has said that “it can provoke guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in orientation”; and the Pan-American Health Organization, a regional office of WHO, has noted, “There are many testimonies about the severe harm to mental and physical health that such ‘services’ can cause. Repression of sexual orientation has been associated with feelings of guilt and shame, depression, anxiety, and even suicide.”
Journalists should always note in their coverage that the practice has dangerous side effects. For instance, The Arizona Republic’s website AZCentral noted the American Psychiatric Association’s list of harmful effects associated with conversion therapy and highlighted the Trevor Project’s list of side effects, which includes “increased depression, increased suicidal ideation and increased substance abuse.” In a segment covering the recent ban in Broward County, FL, CBS4 News Miami highlighted that conversion therapy is “ineffective, dangerous, and harmful to kids.” In contrast, while covering Washington state’s efforts to ban conversion therapy, CBS affiliate KIRO 7 News failed to mention that the practice has been debunked and is harmful to recipients. Similar segments aired several times without providing appropriate context on the dangers of conversion therapy.
Don't uncritically feature conversion therapy proponents, who often distort facts and spread misinformation
Media sometimes fall into the trap of providing a platform for conversion therapy proponents to spread misinformation about the practice, and outlets often fail to contextualize those figures’ affiliations and backgrounds. Journalists should resist allowing these proponents to spew misinformation in an attempt to show “both sides” of the story, particularly as the practice has been opposed by all major medical organizations.
When covering a proposed ban in Virginia, Fox 5 D.C. gave an extended platform to conversion therapy advocate and practitioner Christopher Doyle, who claims that he got rid of his “unwanted attractions.” The segment failed to mention that Doyle is a major so-called “ex-gay” advocate who runs a pro-conversion therapy group called The National Task Force for Therapy Equality (NTFTE) and is a consultant for another group called Equality and Justice for All. He also signed on to a “Dear Legislator 2018” letter urging legislators to oppose conversion therapy bans. Both groups have been involved with major anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom and a number of other anti-LGBTQ groups and hate groups. Fox 5 D.C.’s segment failed to give any information about the dangers or ineffectiveness of conversion therapy and only referred to Doyle as a “psychotherapist.” Introducing the segment, reporter Ronica Cleary echoed his false point that these bans “do not help minors and can actually make the situation worse,” and throughout the segment, Doyle misinformed about the nature of conversion therapy, including saying, “It’s not licensed professional counselors that are doing bad work, it’s religious fanatics.” Doyle’s remark is in stark contrast to the Williams Institute, which has estimated that 20,000 LGBT youth “will receive conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before they reach the age of 18.”
Similarly, NBC 12News in Phoenix, AZ, featured “California- and Texas-based therapist” David Pickup without context, where he falsely claimed that “there is no proof of harm.” The segment explicitly said that it would show “both sides of the issue," before featuring his comments. Pickup is a board member of pro-conversion therapy group the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) and works closely with Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays, in addition to being linked to Doyle’s group NTFTE. According to NCLR, NARTH encourages its members “to consider techniques that include hypnosis, behavior and cognitive therapies, sex therapies, and psychotropic medication, among others.”
Media Matters previously studied how West Palm Beach broadcast media provided a platform for another therapist tied to NARTH, Julie Hamilton, who also spread misinformation about conversion therapy. When featuring Hamilton, outlets failed to contextualize Hamilton’s ties to pro-conversion therapy groups or her book on the so-called “treatment” of “unwanted homosexual attractions.” Local media there also disproportionately featured testimony from supporters of conversion therapy even though the practice is deeply unpopular and widely condemned.
If outlets do insist on hosting figures with a history of anti-LGBTQ bigotry, they must contextualize their backgrounds and affiliations and at the very least debunk their misinformation. Outlets fail their audiences by giving uncritical platforms to misinformation, as multiple studies have found that audiences’ attitudes and opinions can be swayed even after myths are thoroughly debunked. Media coverage should also represent the communities affected by conversion therapy and not give heightened platforms to voices who support such a widely debunked practice.
Include personal narratives of LGBTQ people and conversion therapy survivors when possible to add important context and reinforce medical consensus on the practice's harm
Because proponents of conversion therapy frequently misrepresent the harms of the practice and claim they may be helping people, sharing stories of survivors of conversion therapy helps accurately depict the realities of such experiences and rebut the myth that conversion therapy is not harmful. Survivors should never be forced to relive their traumatic experiences with conversion therapy to a reporter or the public; however, outlets should make space for survivors who are ready and willing to share their experiences or for LGBTQ individuals who understand the risk it poses to their community.
For example, AZCentral’s report on a recently introduced bill in Arizona featured comments by Sam Brinton, a survivor and advocate who works with the Trevor Project. The report noted that Brinton, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun they, experienced post-traumatic stress disorder after undergoing conversion therapy and quoted them saying that “we need to be addressing this” problem in order “to stop LGBT youth from dying by suicide.” Brinton also published a New York Times op-ed about their experience surviving conversion therapy, where they wrote:
For over two years, I sat on a couch and endured emotionally painful sessions with a counselor. I was told that my faith community rejected my sexuality; that I was the abomination we had heard about in Sunday school; that I was the only gay person in the world; that it was inevitable I would get H.I.V. and AIDS.
But it didn’t stop with these hurtful talk-therapy sessions. The therapist ordered me bound to a table to have ice, heat and electricity applied to my body. I was forced to watch clips on a television of gay men holding hands, hugging and having sex. I was supposed to associate those images with the pain I was feeling to once and for all turn into a straight boy. In the end it didn’t work. I would say that it did, just to make the pain go away.
Similarly, Miami’s WSVN 7News interviewed Wilton Manors Vice Mayor Justin Flippen about the then-proposed ban in Broward County, FL, who described his personal experiences surviving conversion therapy: “I saw other young people in these sessions that struggled emotionally, mentally with who they felt they were and what they were being told by these professionals.”
Also in Miami, CBS4 reported on the successful passage of Broward County’s ban and featured a transgender child and her accepting mother, who, the report said, were “thrilled to learn that Broward County commissioners passed this new ordinance.” Highlighting the stories of those who have survived conversion therapy helps humanize the issue and illustrate the risk it poses to LGBTQ people, and lifting up LGBTQ voices who have not undergone the dangerous treatment shows that they thrive when society accepts them for who they are rather than try to change them.
Contextualize the extremists and hate groups who are suing over conversion therapy bans if including them in coverage
Anti-LGBTQ hate groups and extremists have stepped into a number of efforts to protect youth from conversion therapy and are attempting to block policies that would ban the practice. Outlets should be careful to not use hate groups as sources for this topic and should contextualize these groups if they include them in their coverage.
According to the Sun-Sentinel, a Broward County, FL, newspaper, anti-LGBTQ hate group Liberty Counsel has already filed a lawsuit against a successful ban in Tampa, FL, and has threatened to sue in Palm Beach County, FL. Liberty Counsel regularly engages in demonizing, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, including comparing LGBTQ people to pedophiles and claiming that marriage equality and inclusive nondiscrimination protections could lead to civil war and death. However, Sun-Sentinel’s coverage described it as a “legal group” or “nonprofit,” noting in an article only that it “has had other battles over religion and homosexuality.” By not exposing the bigotry of bad actors in this space, outlets fail to show the extremism that underlies support for conversion therapy.
Liberty Counsel has been vocally involved with current debates over conversion therapy, but its position is common among other often less-vocal hate groups. Anti-LGBTQ hate group ADF has repeatedly demonstrated its support for conversion therapy, including in court. ADF has frequently put LGBTQ youth in its crosshairs and has been leading the national campaign against transgender student equality in schools. At least a dozen of ADF’s anti-LGBTQ allies also support the harmful practice. Journalists must be cognizant of these groups, particularly when quoting figures who may be associated with them or highlighting their involvement in these debates.
Additional research by Rebecca Damante.