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Duke psychiatry professor: Sally Kern's conversion therapy bill would do irreparable harm to Oklahoma children

Duke psychiatry professor: Sally Kern's conversion therapy bill would do irreparable harm to Oklahoma children

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Representative Sally Kern holds her hand to her heart as the colors are presented at the state Capitol Feb. 2.


It is with alarm and a sense of urgency that I urge the Oklahoma state legislators to vote against the bill, "Freedom to Obtain Conversion Therapy" sponsored by state Rep. Sally Kern. This bill would be the first in the nation to legalize explicitly so-called “conversion therapy,” a set of dangerous and discredited practices that attempt to change sexual orientation or gender identity and linked to lifelong damage — especially for children.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fierce advocate of protecting the freedom of parents to rear their children as they see fit. A line must be drawn, however, when parents, even those who are misinformed but well-meaning, unaware of potential consequences of their actions, place their vulnerable children in harm’s way. Across our great land, countless number of children have already suffered the emotional pain, shame and subsequent depression of having been subjected to totally discredited practices like conversion therapy. It is because of such outcomes that every reputable health and mental health organization is on record for speaking out and warning against such dangerous practices.

I speak as a psychotherapist, a teacher of psychotherapists, and a father. I have been teaching and practicing psychotherapy at Duke University’s Department of Psychiatry for more than three decades, and over the years, my perspective on matters of reversing sexual orientation or gender identity has changed radically.

Early in my career, as a student and practitioner, I was taught that psychotherapists could change an individual’s sexual orientation. As someone who was trained in the “talking cure,” I could reassure myself that our methods were humane and certainly lacked the brutality of the electric shocks that were being administered by our behavior therapist colleagues. The behavior therapists of that era would attach straps to arms and ankles of self-identified homosexuals, show them photos of nude, same-sexed individuals, and zap them with electric current when they became aroused. As one might imagine, the only thing that changed as a result of such barbarity was the intensity of guilt and self-loathing experienced by the subjects.

Those of us who relied on more old school psychotherapy were not so cruel, at least not blatantly so. Those with same-sex attractions, so we were taught, had genuine mental illnesses from which they suffered and from which they could be cured. Little could we have appreciated that in our methods, our practices only shamed and coerced their true selves into hiding. It is no wonder — and something for which I feel deep and lasting sorrow — that a generation of people, the ones we were telling ourselves we were helping, suffered so profoundly, many taking their own lives.

They continue to take their lives even today because, unable to change, they feel like they have failed themselves, their parents, their church, and yes, even their therapists. Youth are especially vulnerable to these forms of psychotherapies. The Center for Disease Control estimates that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers; one study of transgender youth reported that 25 percent have made suicide attempts.

And it is particularly about youth here that I wish to speak. For in all the work and research on this subject, and of all the patients I have seen whose identity and orientation remained steadfast, nothing strengthened my resolve to speak out on this issue more then when my youngest daughter, a junior in high school at the time, came out to my wife and me. Quite honestly, we were stunned. Not unlike many other parents, it took weeks and months for us to acclimate to her reality. But from that very first telling, one thing was never in question, that we loved her unconditionally for who she was and our love continues for the remarkable person she continues to be.

For many years I have been presenting to clergy, college campuses, and departments of psychiatry — even the Psychiatry Department of the U.S. Army — on the ghastly and shameful history of the harm inflicted by mental health professionals to LGBT individuals. Enough already. Conversion therapy is not only ineffective, it causes irrevocable harm.

The damage that Rep. Kern’s law will do to Oklahoma’s children will be irreparable. She should know better than to put our youth in harm’s way. Laws are needed to protect the innocent and vulnerable among us. And we need those laws in place now. Let’s make sure every child, no matter who they are, knows they were #BornPerfect.

William S. Meyer is an associate clinical professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Ob/Gyn at Duke University Medical Center.


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