Oregon bill would ban therapists from trying to change a person’s sexual orientation

If passed, the bill would make Oregon the first state in the country to ban so-called conversion therapy for all patients 

By: - February 14, 2023 8:28 pm
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A case in Oregon involving bakers and a lesbian couple had a different outcome than the case decided Friday by the U.S. Supreme Court. (Getty Images)

Twenty years ago, Saren Craig was a college student in a deeply religious school in the Missouri Ozarks and went to see a counselor for anxiety and depression.  

The counselor’s conclusion: Being queer was “pathological and sinful” and tied to their history of abuse, Craig told Oregon lawmakers on Tuesday in a hearing for state House Bill 2458 in the House Committee on Behavioral Health and Health Care. The bill would ban licensed counselors and therapists from practicing conversion therapy on adults. 

Conversion therapy attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity and reduce their feelings of romantic or sexual attraction toward others of the same gender. Citing their own experiences, supporters of the bill say conversion therapy is harmful and emotionally damaging – especially for young people.

“Under her care, she reinforced internalized homophobia and transphobia,” Craig said in testimony about their therapy experience. “Instead of decreasing my symptoms, I got worse and grew extremely depressed. I was isolated and under a lot of pressure to conform to the college’s homophobic culture.”

In 2015, Oregon lawmakers passed a bill that made it illegal for licensed counselors and therapists to practice conversion therapy on minors. At the time, Oregon became the third state to do so. Now, 20 states and the District of Columbia ban conversion therapy for minors, according to Movement Advancement Project, or MAP, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. Another six states have partial bans in place.

The proposal would make Oregon the first state to ban counselors and therapists from practicing conversion therapy on patients of all ages. 

Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland and the bill’s chief sponsor, is gay. In an interview, he said he never went through conversion therapy. But the stories of others resonate with him.

“There’s been plenty of people that over the decades of this thing, have said they went through this therapy, thought they were changed and it didn’t work,” said Nosse, chair of the health care committee.

The bill has drawn widespread attention, including from people who live outside Oregon. About 500 people have submitted written testimony, with more than 300 individuals supporting the measure and about 175 people opposed. 

Stephanie Winn, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Oregon, opposed the bill. She urged lawmakers to consider so-called “detransitioners,” or people who have undergone operations or procedures to change their birth gender and later took steps to reverse the procedure.

For those people, Winn said, “mental health professionals simply affirmed their gender identity and ushered them along a path of social and medical transition, without exploring their reasons for wanting to transition.”

She said she hears from frustrated parents of children due to the ban on conversion therapy. 

“The proposed amendment would make the situation worse by depriving vulnerable adults as well as minors of comprehensive treatment for the underlying issues, such as … sexual trauma, which can drive the desire to be rid of sexual body parts that are associated with that trauma,” Winn said.

Most lawmakers on the committee said they supported the measure. One of them, Rep. Ben Bowman, D-Tigard, who is also gay, said he’s grateful he was never exposed to conversion therapy and drew laughter when he said he’s going to go have Valentine’s Day dinner with his boyfriend.

Rep. Ed Diehl, R-Scio, said he was concerned because he’s heard from therapists who are worried about the lack of definition for what constitutes conversion therapy. 

“I think it would be better to spell out what it is we’re talking about,” he said.

In the hearing, Nosse said he doesn’t think the current conversion therapy ban on children – which would apply to adults – prevents therapists from talking about issues of sexuality to help a patient.

“I don’t think our current law prevents the exploration of people’s identity, what they think or don’t think about their sexuality or their gender,” Nosse said. “I do think it prevents a therapy that says I can make you straight.”

The bill faces a committee vote to move forward.

Craig is now a professional counselor associate in Portland, far removed from the Missouri Ozarks where they grew up in a conservative community. Even so, Craig said, they found some counselors in Oregon still promote conversion therapy.

“Oregon is not immune to homophobic or transphobic influences,” Craig said. “I want to make sure no one has to experience this type of abuse I did under the hands of a healthcare professional.”

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Ben Botkin
Ben Botkin

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Ben Botkin has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.

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