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Virginia Takes Novel Approach to Regulating Conversion Therapy

Adam Trimmer (Louise Ricks/WCVE News)
Adam Trimmer quit conversion therapy after eight months and says he spent a decade recovering from the experience. He's now become a leading voice in a push to regulate the practice. Louise Ricks/WCVE

Adan Trimmer grew up in a conservative, Christian family in Prince George County, Virginia. When he was 17, he decided to come out to his parents.

“I felt as if I was the disease in the family; as if I had gone from the prodigy, the missionary son, the super-involved Christian who everyone in the family was so proud of, to an issue,” Trimmer said.

The next year, as an 18-year-old at college, Trimmer attempted suicide. While he was recovering in the hospital, a pastor he knew came by his room and recommended conversion therapy -- the practice of trying to convert someone’s sexual orientation from gay to straight.

“I was alone,” he said. “Shattered. At what at the time was the lowest point in my life. And here comes this guy who's like, ‘I'm going to help you.’ So I felt hope.”

Over the coming months, Trimmer went through a variety of common conversion therapy tactics. It’s a story he’s told repeatedly to health professionals, lawmakers and journalists over the past year as Virginia begins the process of regulating conversion therapy.

Fifteen states have passed laws banning conversion therapy for minors. Similar legislation in Virginia has repeatedly stalled in the General Assembly. But LGBTQ advocates are keeping a close eye on the state’s professional heath boards as they consider whether to act. Advocates say Virginia is the first case where boards have moved ahead of the legislature, albeit with a nod from lawmakers. 

The proposed new rules won’t be as sweeping as the ones considered by the legislature; they would only regulate health professionals certified by the boards, rather than practices themselves.

States and localities that have banned conversion therapy for minors as of January 2019 (SPQRobin/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

The Board of Social work is meeting on March 15 to consider new rules, following the leads of the Boards of Psychology and Counseling, which initiated the process of regulating conversion therapy for minors in February. Two other boards will consider it in the coming months.

Trimmer has used his time in conversion therapy to personalize the debate over regulations.

He’s described going to conferences where he learned to describe himself as “ex-gay”-- as someone struggling with same sex attractions.

A conversion therapy mentor invited Trimmer to practice what he called cuddle ministry. They would cuddle and stop every time one of them felt aroused.

“I mean it's, it's funny if you think about it,” he said. “But at the same time, that caused one of these strongest diversions, which was aversion to man-to-man touch.”

Trimmer began to doubt the treatments. After eight months, he quit.

“I was traumatized because I had no idea who I was,” Trimmer said. “I had to kind of figure it out on my own.”

Researchers at UCLA estimate that nearly 700,000 people have gone through conversion therapy across the U.S. The American Psychiatric Association and other professional groups say the practice lacks scientific credibility, and can cause anxiety and depression.

Mathew Shurka, co-founder of the anti-conversion therapy group Born Perfect Campaign, speaks at a conversion therapy workgroup meeting at the Department of Health Professions in October. (Ben Paviour/WCVE)

Ted Lewis, executive director of the LGBTQ support group Side by Side, says conversion therapy can exacerbate existing mental health issues.

“Young LGBTQ people who are struggling with who they are often turn to suicide,” Lewis said. “And something like conversion therapy furthers this notion that being LGBTQ is wrong.”

One Center for Disease Control survey found that gay and bisexual students were more than four times more likely to have attempted suicide than their straight peers

In the General Assembly, Republican-led committees have tabled bills to regulate conversion therapy for minors since at least 2014. Some lawmakers said the issue was better left to the state’s professional health boards, which regulate doctors, social workers and other professionals.

Last month, the Board of Psychology became the first to act. It unanimously voted to begin the process of regulating conversion therapy for minors.

Elaine Yeatts, a policy analyst with the Department of Health Professions, says current law already prohibits licensed health professionals from harming their patients. The new rules would give the board a more specific framework for evaluating potential complaints.

“The only thing that the adoption of additional regulation would be to further specify what the board means by harm to patients,” Yeatts said.

Sean Maguire (Louise Ricks/WCVE)

But critics like Sean Maguire with the conservative group the Family Foundation say that’s exactly why the new rules aren’t necessary.

“The kind of practices that are obviously wrong are already prohibited,” he said. “I think the motivation is really to make a PR statement.”

Maguire says he experiences what he calls unwanted same-sex attraction.

“It's a beautiful thing for a man and a woman to love one another and form a family and that unit,” he says. “I'd rather want that than what I do want.”

He says the Christian counselling he’s gotten has been a source of comfort -- one he’s worried the state could take away from teenagers down the road.

“Having that strong religious community around me really helped guard me from any sense of shame or alienation that too many people do experience,” Maguire said.

Yeatts says religious counselling would be exempt from any regulations passed by the board, which could take two years to go into effect. And the proposed rules could eventually be superseded by legislation from the General Assembly -- a route still prefered by some LGBTQ advocates.

“The legislative process can allow for openness, public accountability, and public discussions that may mean a better outcome,” said Naomi Goldberg, policy and research director at the Movement Advancement Project, a national LGBT think tank.

Adam Trimmer is pleased with the regulatory momentum, which has coincided with a period of personal growth. He’s done at least a half-dozen media interviews, attended the premier of the conversion therapy-themed movie Boy Erased, and is now working on a memoir.

“I'm so excited to finally be at this place,” Trimmer said in an interview last year. “2018 is the first year that I feel unashamed about myself and I'm so happy about that.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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