OKLAHOMA CITY — An Oklahoma City lawmaker is stoking debate about a controversial treatment that claims the ability to change someone’s sexual orientation.
Rep. Sally Kern is proposing a protection for parents who want to obtain the controversial treatment, known as conversion therapy, for children who are “struggling with same-sex attraction." She also wants protections for counselors who provide the service.
“It is not a hate bill,” Kern said. “… The people who oppose this bill are the ones who are opposing liberty. So it’s not just about hate.”
But advocates of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people claim Kern's proposal is just that — hate filled — while advancing child abuse and a long-discredited view of homosexuality.
“It’s really, really horrible that it’s been introduced as a positive thing in the Legislature,” said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Oklahoma Promise, which advocates for LGBT rights. “I was getting calls from national organizations, and they were just astounded that someone would attempt this in this day and age.”
If the Legislature passes Kern’s bill, Stevenson said it will be the first in the country to adopt such a law.
Kern’s is one of thousands of bills that legislators will take up beginning next week. There is no guarantee that the measure has enough support to even advance out of committee, though Kern said she is hopeful that it will.
Spokesmen for Gov. Mary Fallin and House Speaker Jeffrey Hickman said they haven't taken positions on bills that have been filed, including this one.
David Dinielli, deputy legal director of the Southern Law Poverty Center, an Alabama organization that monitors hate groups and advocates for tolerance of diversity, said legislation has appeared in about 30 states to end the practice of conversion therapy.
Three states have banned the the treatment outright.
The practice has been rejected by mainstream science for more than 40 years, he said.
Major medical groups have taken “extremely strong and clear positions against the need for conversion therapy, that it doesn’t work," Dinielli said. They've also warned that the practice increases the risk of suicide, he said.
“Homosexuality is not an illness that deserves treatment,” he said, adding that some conversion therapists engage in bizarre practices — such as forcing subjects to attend nude group counseling or beat effigies of their mothers, who are blamed for making them gay.
Many operators, he said, aren't licensed and conduct practices in the shadows.
Even so, the treatment persists. Dinielli noted an outside research study found about a third of LGBT surveyed said they've been sent outside their homes in an effort to change their sexual preference.
About 70 therapists in 20 states advertise their conversion therapy practices, he said.
The group does not show any therapists currently offering the practice in Oklahoma.
Kern said she filed her bill as a proactive measure because of the number of states trying to ban the practice.
She acknowledged that the American Psychiatric Association has condemned conversion therapy but called it “a political group.”
She concedes that the therapy has drawn bad practitioners, but she said every profession has bad apples.
“That’s why it’s essential to move it forward so we can improve the therapy,” she said. “If someone is struggling with same-sex attraction and they don’t want to have those feelings, what’s wrong with them getting some counseling?”
Kern said her proposal “cuts at the heart of” an LGBT “mantra” that sexual preference is innate and cannot be changed.
“There are no credible studies that prove you’re born gay,” she said. “There are more studies that show it’s more about nurturing than it is nature. And if you allow a bill like this then you’re giving people the opportunity to have the freedom to examine and understand the issue.”