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Stop pressing kids to be someone they are not

Opponents of gay-conversion therapy packed a medical board hearing room April 15.
Opponents of gay-conversion therapy packed a medical board hearing room April 15. Des Moines Register

As the child of Southern Baptist missionaries, Samuel Brinton from Perry, Iowa, grew up in a conservative mission community. One day, a forbidden Playboy magazine made the rounds among the boys, but Sam proudly told his dad later that it didn’t affect him the way it did others. He got excited instead, he said, being around a certain male friend.

It did not go over well, as Sam said in a videotaped interview played for the Iowa Board of Medicine at a meeting earlier this month. His father would continue to react with rage to the idea of Sam being gay.

When his mother finally saw that nothing Sam’s father did or said was making a difference, she suggested therapy. So began a series of out-of-state treatments that, whatever their motivation and model, when described by Sam sound like physical and psychological torture: Fear-mongering, behavior modification, pain from heat, cold and electrical shocks.

None of it changed Sam’s sexual orientation because, as opponents of such therapies testified to the medical board, being gay or straight is not something you choose; it’s who you are.

The Obama administration last year called for a ban on gay-conversion therapy on minors after a transgender youth from Ohio committed suicide, writing in a note that she’d been called selfish and wrong in sessions.

Sixteen-year-old T.J. Foley, executive chairman of the Iowa Youth Advisory Council, testified at the medical board meeting that though it is scientifically unsound and psychologically damaging, gay-conversion therapy remains prevalent in Iowa. He and others had wanted the Iowa Legislature to ban it. But after that didn’t happen, they asked the medical board to pass an administrative rule against its use.

Methods have changed, testified Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, which organizes an annual conference for LGBT youth. But from electric shock therapy and castration to hypnosis, all approaches stem from the scientifically discredited belief that being gay is a mental disorder.

Only one speaker voiced support for such therapies: Chuck Hurley, the vice president of the religious and conservative Iowa Family Leader foundation, which is connected to the national Family Research Council. His comments focused on transgender youth who get gender-changing hormones or surgery.

Citing the American College of Pediatricians as his source, Hurley urged the board to “reject as normal a life of chemical and surgical impersonation of the opposite sex,” as he ticked off a list of potentially deadly consequences. He argued that endorsing “gender discordance” and what he called “surgical mutilation” are forms of child abuse and also claimed the majority of “gender-confused” people eventually accept the sex assigned to them from birth.

The Family Leader is the organization that led the campaign against retention of Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled in support of same-sex marriage in 2009. Now it has gone from claiming a legal basis to citing a medical basis for its anti-gay campaign.

Hurley’s comments didn’t escape the scrutiny of medical board member Kyle Ulveling. “What,” he asked Hurley, “is the American College of Pediatricians?”

Hurley fumbled. The organization turns out to be a group of socially conservative pediatricians and health care professionals with an ideological agenda rather than an objective scientific basis. It has been discredited by the Southern Poverty Law Center for attacking gays and lesbians “in the name of protecting children.”

The 60,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics, as Ulveling pointed out, is the actual scientific authority on pediatric care. And it calls reparative or conversion therapy ineffective and potentially harmful, citing guidelines from the American Psychological Association.

It recommends a “trans-affirmative care” model — that is, supporting a person’s gender identity expression, whatever it is. It says “a person’s gender identity may not align with (the) sex assigned at birth.”

The disclosure about Hurley’s medically biased source underscores how easily ideology can masquerade as scientific fact, and how dangerous that can be if sources are not checked. It’s clear from looking at the American College of Pediatricians’ website that almost all the pediatric issues it concerns itself with involve sexuality.

It warns against so-called “gender ideology,” comprehensive sex education, pornography and the sexually transmitted HPV virus, and declares that a married mother-father parental unit is necessary to healthy child-rearing. Hurley’s statements prompted a response from a 66-year-old transsexual woman in attendance, who said she’s a female born into a male body. “It’s not men wanting to dress up as women and go into women’s bathrooms and molest women,” she said.

Under constant pressure, Samuel Brinton said he had been about to commit suicide when his mother intervened. He resolved to change. It wasn’t until college that he found affirmation and was able to come out. Brinton eventually graduated from MIT and went to work for a Washington, D.C., think tank, where he focuses on nuclear waste management. He says he has begun to mend fences with his parents and has forgiven them.

The Iowa Board of Medicine declined to pass the rule being sought but agreed to form a subcommittee to look into conversion therapy. It will include other professionals, since such therapies may also be practiced by psychologists, mental health counselors, social workers or other practitioners, according to the groups testifying.

There is no way to know how widely conversion therapies are practiced. But if any parent is considering sending a child for such therapy, please stop and do the research first. We should be affirming all our children for who they really are rather than forcing some into self-loathing with futile attempts to remake them into someone they are not.

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