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Oregon Doctor Should be Investigated for Unethical Use of Conversion Therapy

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Beth Allen Law firm of Portland, Ore. sent a complaint today to two professional psychiatric associations, urging them to investigate the unethical use of conversion therapy by a Portland psychiatrist.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Beth Allen Law firm of Portland, Ore. sent a complaint today to two professional psychiatric associations, urging them to investigate the unethical use of conversion therapy by a Portland psychiatrist.

The SPLC also launched an online tool that informs users of conversion therapists near them and offers LGBT people a safe place to share their stories about conversion therapy.

The complaint was sent to the Oregon Psychiatric Association (OPA) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), charging that the Portland psychiatrist unethically subjected Max Hirsh, a 22-year-old University of Oregon student, to conversion therapy.

Hirsh began seeing the Portland doctor for treatment for depression in February 2011 and discontinued therapy the following August after determining the doctor was using conversion therapy – a bogus form of treatment directed at changing his sexuality.

“This is an appalling violation of physician ethics, as well as a breach of a client’s trust,” Christine Sun, SPLC deputy legal director, said.

“LGBT people who seek therapy are vulnerable to these covert attempts by doctors to fix what is not broken. We are calling upon the OPA and APA to take steps to end the practice of conversion therapy by its members.”

Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, is a dangerous practice based on the discredited idea that people can change their sexual orientation – literally converting from gay to straight. The practice has been highly criticized by all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations.

Various forms of conversion therapy are practiced around the country, contributing to significant societal disapproval of LGBT people, their sexual orientation and gender expression. Central to conversion therapy is the belief that being gay is a mental disorder – a position long rejected by the American Psychiatric Association.

The APA warned over a decade ago: “The potential risks of reparative therapy are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient."

Despite these and other warnings, the practice of conversion therapy remains essentially unregulated.

To highlight the prevalence of the practice across the country, the SPLC created an interactive map, which notes the locations of nearly 70 therapists who advertise the practice of conversion therapy in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

A tool with the map also allows those recovering from the harm caused by conversion therapy to share their stories.

Hirsh, who identifies himself as a gay man, eventually discontinued therapy after his sexual orientation became the primary focus of the therapy sessions. Instead of addressing Hirsh’s desire to have a more active social and romantic life, the doctor focused intensely on Hirsh’s relationship with his father and even asserted that he didn't believe Hirsh was gay – approaches typically used by conversion therapists. The psychiatrist also told Hirsh that if he were indeed gay, then Hirsh would need to accept that his love life would always be dissatisfying.

“No one should have to undergo conversion therapy,” Hirsh said. “Ethical doctors respect their patients, but by telling me he didn’t think I was gay and by reinforcing negative stereotypes about gay people, my psychiatrist was deeply disrespectful of who I am.”

The complaint charges that, “rather than assist Mr. Hirsh in developing ways of achieving his clearly articulated goals for treatment, when Mr. Hirsh explained his negative experiences related to his disclosure of his sexual orientation, [the doctor] professed his determination that Mr. Hirsh did not ‘seem gay.’” It specifies four violations of principles of medical ethics, including that the doctor:

  • Failed to provide “competent medical care” and “uphold the standards of professionalism”
  • Provided treatment known to present significant risks without established benefit specific to that treatment
  • Failed to provide treatment with informed consent and “make relevant information available”
  • Failed to provide care with “compassion and respect for human dignity and rights.”

“One of the most disturbing patterns we see in reparative therapy is therapists pushing their own ideology at the expense of the patients' mental health,” said Wayne Besen, Executive Director of Truth Wins Out, a non-profit organization that fights anti-gay extremism. “This can often traumatize a patient because they see the therapist as an expert who is supposed to help, not cause further harm.”