Conversion therapy is discredited torture, but media outlets are letting its advocates spread lies about the practice

Conversion therapy is discredited torture, but media outlets are letting its advocates spread lies about the practice

››› ››› BRIANNA JANUARY

As states across the country consider legislation that would protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy, the ineffective and dangerous practice that seeks to turn LGBTQ people straight or alter their gender identity, some media outlets are turning to prominent conversion therapy proponents and practitioners who use the opportunity to spread misinformation and myths. Many of these therapists are associated with national pro-conversion-therapy organizations, but local broadcast-media outlets that quoted them usually failed to explain their affiliations or contextualize their work. At least four major national proponents have been featured in coverage of municipal and state efforts to protect youth from conversion therapy, sometimes in states where they do not reside or practice: Christopher Doyle, Julie Hamilton, Joseph Nicolosi Jr., and David Pickup.


Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

At least 19 states are considering bills to protect LGBTQ youth from harmful conversion therapy

At least 19 states are considering bills that would protect LGBTQ youth from the harmful and discredited practice of conversion therapy. According to the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), at least 19 states are considering legislation to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy, and nine states and Washington, D.C., already ban the practice. Advocates are aiming to introduce legislation that would prevent the practice, which has been called “torture,” in all 50 states. Conversion therapy, which is also sometimes called “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.” The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) says every mainstream major medical and mental health association has rejected the practice as ineffective, harmful, and unscientific. The American Psychiatric Association opposes the practice, saying that “there is no published scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of ‘reparative therapy’ as a treatment to change one’s sexual orientation” and citing risks including “depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient.” Similarly, the American Psychological Association has said, “There is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation.” A division of the American Counseling Association 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.” [National Center for Lesbian Rights, accessed 3/7/18; Salon, 3/21/17; Human Rights Campaign, accessed 3/7/18; American Psychiatric Association, May 2000; American Psychological Association, 8/5/09; Lambda Legal, January 2011]

Some media outlets featured prominent conversion therapy practitioners and proponents in their coverage

At least four major proponents of conversion therapy have been featured in coverage of state and municipal efforts to protect LGBTQ youth from the practice, sometimes in reports from states where they do not reside or practice. An analysis of news coverage in states considering legislation to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy identified four major practitioners and proponents featured in reports. In quoting these four, the outlets gave them platforms to advocate for and spread misinformation about the harmful practice. Media Matters previously released a guide on how journalists can avoid spreading misinformation about anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy. It discourages featuring conversion therapy proponents, especially without contextualizing their work, which represents an unscientific viewpoint and a slim minority. The following four conversion therapy proponents showed up in several television news segments in broadcast markets in Arizona, Florida, Maine, and Virginia:

Christopher Doyle

Dr. Julie Hamilton

Dr. Joseph Nicolosi Jr.

David Pickup

Christopher Doyle

Christopher Doyle runs two of the most prominent pro-conversion therapy organizations, one of which launched a campaign this year to kill bills that would protect LGBTQ youth from the practice. Christopher Doyle is a major so-called “ex-gay” advocate -- someone who claims to be formerly gay -- and is involved with at least four pro-conversion-therapy groups. He is the co-founder of National Task Force for Therapy Equality (NTFTE) and Voice of the Voiceless, the director of the International Healing Foundation, and a consultant for Equality and Justice for All. Both NTFTE and Equality and Justice for All have been affiliated with major anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom and several other anti-LGBTQ groups and hate groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Voice of the Voiceless “portrays itself as a kind of anti-defamation organization, standing up for ‘ex-gay’ people against their critics and depicting opponents of reparative therapy as intolerant authoritarians who will not allow people to pursue their own ideas about sexuality.” As part of his leadership in advocating for conversion therapy, Doyle signed onto a “Dear Legislator 2018” letter, spearheaded by his group NTFTE, urging lawmakers to oppose efforts to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy. The letter pushed misinformation about the practice, including claims like “transgender identity may be pathological,” and advocated against “the full acceptance of transgender identity approach.” According to HuffPost, a 2017 documentary featured Doyle practicing conversion therapy in which he used “shame and guilt” and told his patient to “grow a pair of balls.” [National Task Force for Therapy Equality, accessed 3/7/18, 3/7/18; Voice of the Voiceless, accessed 3/7/18; International Healing Foundation, accessed 3/7/18; Family Research Council, 9/6/17; Media Matters, 9/28/17; Southern Poverty Law Center, 5/25/16; HuffPost, 9/29/17].

Fox 5 DC gave Doyle an extended platform to spread misinformation about conversion therapy. The Virginia House of Delegates introduced a bill to protect LGBTQ youth from harmful conversion therapy in January. Fox 5 DC aired a three-minute segment on the effort, nearly half of which consisted of an interview with Doyle. The segment, which failed to mention that Doyle is an influential national pro-conversion therapy advocate, did not provide any information about the dangers or ineffectiveness of conversion therapy and referred to Doyle only as a “psychotherapist.” Introducing the segment, reporter Ronica Cleary echoed Doyle’s 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.” The Williams Institute has estimated that 20,000 LGBT youth “will receive conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before they reach the age of 18.” [Virginia Legislative Information System, 1/5/18; Fox 5 DC, News at 51/10/18; Williams Institute, January 2018]

Dr. Julie Hamilton

Julie Hamilton edited a book on so-called “treatment” of “homosexual attractions” and has served as president of two major pro-conversion therapy organizations. Dr. Julie Hamilton is the former president of the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, a group that describes itself as “principled advocates for persons experiencing unwanted homosexual attractions,” as well as its offshoot the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). The FAQ page on NARTH’s website says that sexual orientation can change and that “many individuals have reported therapy-assisted change in their sexuality.” Furthermore, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, NARTH encourages its members “to consider techniques that include hypnosis, behavior and cognitive therapies, sex therapies, and psychotropic medication, among others.” Hamilton also edited the 2009 book Handbook of Therapy for Unwanted Homosexual Attractions: A Guide to Treatment and wrote its preface, in which she suggested a man who was murdered by his former partner, who was male, might not have been killed if he had undergone conversion therapy. [The Palm Beach Post, 7/29/16; CNS News, 9/19/16; Southern Poverty Law Center, 3/1/12; National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, accessed 3/7/18; National Center for Lesbian Rights, accessed 3/7/18; Handbook of Therapy for Unwanted Homosexual Attractions: A Guide to Treatment, 2009]

Two outlets in Florida featured Hamilton spreading misinformation about conversion therapy and falsely claiming that efforts to protect LGBTQ youth can harm children and teenagers. In January, the Florida Senate introduced legislation to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy throughout the state. More than a dozen municipalities and multiple counties in the state, including Palm Beach County, have adopted similar policies. Two West Palm Beach media market news outlets featured Hamilton in December coverage of the county’s ban on the practice. One outlet ran a segment featuring a clip of Hamilton testifying at a hearing on the ban that it would “harm … children and teenagers” who are “suicidal and depressed” if they were unable to undergo conversion therapy when their “goal is to change.” The American Psychiatric Association has said the opposite, noting that it is actually conversion therapy that poses such potential risks, including “depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior.” Additionally, the Sinclair Broadcast Group-owned and operated CBS 12 aired multiple clips of interview with Hamilton, who pushed misinformation about the practice including suggesting that conversion therapy could “help” “depressed and suicidal” LGBTQ minors change “attractions that they did not choose and do not want.” She also claimed that “there is actually no such thing as conversion therapy” and that the ordinance would ban “free speech in the counseling office.” [flsenate.gov, accessed 3/7/18; The Daily Beast, 11/17/17; Media Matters, 1/5/18; WPTV NewsChannel 5, The Now South Florida, 12/19/17; American Psychiatric Association, accessed 3/7/18; WPEC CBS 12, News at 6, 12/5/17; CBS12.com, accessed 3/7/18]

Dr. Joseph Nicolosi Jr.

Joseph Nicolosi Jr. is a “reparative therapy” practitioner and advocate, and his father started the largest conversion therapy practice in the world. Dr. Joseph Nicolosi Jr. practices reparative therapy at The Breakthrough Clinic, where he is the clinical director. The Breakthrough Clinic has locations in California and New York, and its website notes that Skype and phone therapy sessions are available to clients throughout the world. Nicolosi Jr. is heir to a conversion therapy legacy, as his father, Dr. Joseph Nicolosi Sr., was the “originator” of “reparative therapy,” which is trademarked on his website, and co-founded NARTH, the group Hamilton once led. Between their two practices, the father and son claim to have treated “thousands” of men with “unwanted same-sex attractions.” [The Breakthrough Clinic, accessed 3/7/18, 3/7/18; JosephNicolosi.com, accessed 3/7/18]

The Christian Civic League of Maine, an anti-LGBTQ group, flew Nicolosi Jr. out of state from California to testify in favor of conversion therapy. The Christian Civic League of Maine, which was formerly headed by anti-LGBTQ hate group Maine Resistance leader Michael Heath, invited and flew Nicolosi Jr. out from California to testify against Maine’s proposed bill to protect LGBTQ youth on February 14. In his testimony, Nicolosi Jr. falsely claimed that “reparative therapy” is different from conversion therapy, saying, “In reparative therapy, the client is in the driver’s seat. He sets his own goals, which the therapist helps him achieve.” In fact, the term “conversion therapy” covers an entire range of practices, all of which seek to change a person’s sexuality or gender identity. Nicolosi Jr. also said that same-sex attractions may be caused by “trauma and sexual addiction” and that “as those underlying issues are resolved, the sexuality begins to change on its own.” Nicolosi Sr. pushed the same myth, once saying that “if you traumatize a child in a particular way, you will create a homosexual condition.” This myth, however, has been debunked by medical associations, and according to SPLC, “no scientifically sound study has definitively linked sexual orientation or identity with parental role-modeling or childhood sexual abuse.” Additionally, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ #BornPerfect project, minors who undergo conversion therapy “are almost always forced or coerced” into doing so, as their parents are often “well-intentioned” but “do not understand that they are putting their children at risk of serious harm.” [Christian Civic League of Maine, 2/15/18; Bangor Daily News, 2/17/17; MaineLegislature.org, 2/14/18; Human Rights Campaign, accessed 3/7/18; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2/27/11; National Center for Lesbian Rights, accessed 3/7/18]

Four outlets in Maine repeatedly featured Nicolosi Jr. advocating for conversion therapy and spreading misinformation about the harmful practice. Four broadcast television stations in Maine’s media markets aired a total of 17 segments (some of them repeats) featuring clips of Nicolosi Jr. over a two-day period following a hearing on the state’s proposed bill to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy. All four outlets failed to fully contextualize the Nicolosi family legacy, and only two outlets mentioned Nicolosi Jr.’s out-of-state status. Maine channel WMTW News 8 aired parts of Nicolosi Jr.’s testimony in which he pushed the myth that “the client is in the driver’s seat” during conversion therapy. Two channels, WVFX Fox 22 and ABC 7, ran the same segment several times, which featured testimony of Nicolosi Jr. falsely asserting that the bill “will be damaging to minors, many of the minors who need help the most.” Additionally, two channels, WABI TV5 and WMTW News 8, allowed Nicolosi Jr. to push the myth that same-sex attractions are caused by childhood sexual trauma and that conversion therapy treats that trauma. [WMTW News 8, News 8 at 6 a.m., 2/14/18; WVFX Fox 22, 7 a.m. News on Fox, 2/15/18; WABI TV5, Morning News, 2/15/18]

David Pickup

David Pickup, who has called himself “a poster child for the emotional and sexual abuse that leads to homosexuality,” is a major player in two pro-conversion-therapy groups. David Pickup is a conversion therapy proponent and practitioner with “extensive expertise in reparative therapy” and a board member of NARTH, with which Hamilton and Nicolosi Jr. are both affiliated. Pickup also works closely with Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays and co-founded Doyle’s group NTFTE. He, like Doyle, also signed the "Dear Legislator 2018" letter urging lawmakers to oppose efforts to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy. Pickup claims that he was “the quintessential kid that was set up for homosexuality” because he was a sensitive child, was not close to his father, and was sexually abused as at a young age. He also claims to have gotten rid of his same-sex attractions after undergoing conversion therapy in the care of Nicolosi Sr., which he says “worked for me” and “helped save my life.” [Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays, 8/31/15; National Task Force for Therapy Equality, accessed 3/7/18, accessed 3/7/18]

NBC 12 News in Arizona featured Pickup, who does not reside or practice in Arizona, denying the harmful effects of conversion therapy. An Arizona Senate committee is considering a bill introduced on January 16 that would protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy. NBC 12 News in Phoenix featured Pickup discussing the bill without mentioning his ties to major national pro-conversion-therapy groups or his out-of-state status. During the segment, he falsely claimed that “there is no proof of harm” regarding conversion therapy on minors, in direct conflict with major medical associations and civil rights groups. [azleg.gov, accessed 3/7/18; NBC 12, News at 6, 1/17/18]

Additional research by Rebecca Damante. 

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