For Minnesota Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, this is personal. The veteran lawmaker is sponsoring legislation that would make conversion therapy for vulnerable adults and people under 18 illegal statewide.
“I’m gay myself,” Dibble said. “That has something to do with my interest in the subject. While I was never subject to conversion therapy per se, I grew up with the very unmistakable message that who and what I was was bad, sinful, socially undesirable. It was a problem, something to overcome.”
Conversion therapy, sometimes referred to as “reparative therapy,” is a controversial and widely discredited practice in which practitioners attempt to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity by employing psychological or spiritual interventions. The practice has been outlawed in 20 states. In Minnesota, the cities of Minneapolis and Duluth have approved conversion therapy bans.
Last year, a conversion therapy ban sponsored by Rep. Hunter Cantrell, DFL-Savage, passed the Minnesota House; Dibble’s companion bill has been reintroduced in the hopes of receiving a hearing and a full vote this session.
As a young man, Dibble said he struggled to come to terms with his sexual orientation. In a desperate effort, he tried throwing himself into conservative religion.
“I spent a turn in fundamentalist Christianity in high school before even coming out to myself,” he said. “I fervently prayed to change and tried to be different. I grew up with those feelings of internalized negative thoughts, of homophobia and a complete lack of belief in myself and who and what I was.”
That internalized self-doubt took a toll on Dibble’s mental health, but he said that eventually he was able to come to terms with his true self. He said he stepped forward to sponsor the bill because he wants to protect young Minnesotans from practices that he sees as harmful to their mental health and well-being.
“This so-called therapy, which is bogus and completely invalid, has negative impact on the mental health of people who are subjected to it,” Dibble said. “It should be against the law to subject young people to this kind of ‘therapy.’”
Margaret Charmoli, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice and former president of the Minnesota Psychological Association, said that conversion therapy is ineffective and potentially harmful to patients.
“Conversion therapy is based on the premise that something is wrong with an individual who has something other than a heterosexual orientation,” Charmoli said. “That perspective has been long abandoned by the psychiatric community.” Part of the negative effects of conversion therapy, she explained, “is the premise that there is something wrong with an individual who has something other than a heterosexual orientation.”
Conversion therapy also supports anti-gay discrimination, Charmoli added. This has a negative societal impact.
“What we know about those kinds of practices is that they contribute to the stigmatization and marginalization of people who have a sexual orientation that isn’t heterosexual,” she said. Such marginalization leads to a phenomenon known as “minority stress,” a chronic and more acute form of stress that can be damaging, both physically and mentally.
Jacob Thomas, communications and brand manager for OutFront Minnesota, an organization advocating for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Minnesotans, has been a vocal advocate for Dibble’s legislation. While mental health professionals once classified homosexuality as a mental illness, those days are long past, he said.
“Every major medical organization in the country has come out against conversion therapy. We know this is not sound medical practice. First and foremost, the medical creed is to do no harm. When a so-called medical professional practices something that is not showing results, that is actually injuring patients, they are doing harm.”
Dibble explained that he believes conversion therapy is so potentially dangerous to the individuals it is practiced on that outlawing it protects the public health.
“A few years ago we passed a law that said that anyone who is younger than 18 can’t go lie in a tanning bed,” he said. “There are things that can’t be done to children because they have been proven to inflict measurable harm.” Conversion therapy inflicts measurable harm, Dibble said: While adults can choose whatever type of mental health care they want, the rights of minors and the vulnerable must be protected. “There is no parental right to grievously harm your kid.”
Wil Sampson-Bernstrom was just 14 years old when he told his politically conservative parents that he was gay. His family lived in south Alabama at the time, and members of their religious community encouraged his parents to take him to therapy.
“In the South, the resources that are available in situations like this are mostly pro-conversion therapy,” Sampson-Bernstrom said. His parents were told that the reason their son was gay was likely because he had been molested as a child. The therapists, whom Sampson-Bernstrom said were affiliated with James Dobson’s Focus on the Family organization, told his parents that they would help him understand his trauma and move forward with a “normal,” heterosexual life.
Sampson-Bernstrom said that he held firm to his belief that “God had made me the way God had intended,” and his sexual orientation wasn’t something he could change. He stubbornly resisted attending conversion therapy until he was kicked out of his Christian school for being gay. “I agreed to conversion therapy because I believed that doing this would help keep me in school so I could graduate,” he explained.
Sampson-Bernstrom said that his therapist practiced a specific type of conversion therapy known as “theophostic prayer ministry.” During a theophostic prayer session, he said, his therapist would guide him into a state of relaxation before leading him to “reflect on memories that I ‘associated’ with being gay.” A lot of the treatment was rooted in the idea that Sampson-Bernstrom had been molested as a child: “We would then replace those memories with what I describe as a blinding light that was supposed to be the love of Jesus cleansing that memory from my brain.”
Sampson-Bernstrom said he underwent conversion therapy on a weekly basis from age 16 to 18. The experience made him feel that if he could, he would do anything to change himself. “If I could’ve taken a pill to make me not gay I would’ve taken it in a heartbeat,” he said. “But I didn’t believe that pill existed, certainly not in the form of these harmful therapies that I was being subjected to.”
Eventually, Sampson-Bernsrom moved out of his family home and quit therapy. When his parents eventually moved to Minnesota, he stayed in Alabama and worked on coming to terms with his mental health.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, I believe that my path in life could’ve been radically different if I hadn’t suppressed who I was for all of my teenage years, if I wasn’t so focused on hiding or changing or being shamed or told that God didn’t love me this way or God or another person couldn’t love me this way,” he said. He said he now suffers from memory loss and other mental health challenges as a side effect of the therapy.
“I live today with anxiety, depression and PTSD,” he said, “and if I don’t keep up with my medication and my coping strategies, they’ll rear their heads pretty viciously.”
Charmoli said that stories like Sampson-Bernsrom’s are common. She has worked with survivors of conversion therapy who suffer long-term impact from it, often in the form of severe minority stress.
“The concept of minority stress is robustly supported in the literature,” she said, adding that such experiences can lead to self-harming behavior. “People with similar life experiences can be more prone to addiction, depression, suicide attempts.”
The connection between conversion therapy and religious faith can make this kind of practice particularly harmful, said Brian McNeill, president of Dignity Twin Cities, a spiritual organization that works to create community and change for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics and their families.
“Religion works on our super egos, encouraging us to be the best people we can be and to be holy and good and righteous,” he said. “Most people aspire to that.” When religious communities support conversion therapy, McNeill added, it cements the idea that any sexual orientation other than heterosexual is sinful or bad. That message creates lasting harm for people who don’t fit their religious community’s definition of normal.
“As you know, being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer is not a mental illness, according to the DSM-4 and 5, and according to the American Psychological Association and all the all the national medical associations,” McNeill said. “They all recognize that being queer is not a mental illness. You don’t need therapy specifically for being queer. Therapy targeted at being queer is a misuse and unprofessional.”
McNeill, who was raised in a conservative Catholic family and went to seminary to become a priest before coming out as gay and leaving, said that his organization has spoken out in support of Dibble’s bill.
“We are very much in favor of this legislation,” he said. “We are working with OutFont to advocate for the conversion therapy ban.”
Dibble said that he is particularly bothered by the fact that many conversion therapists have close ties to religious organizations. When young people like Sampson-Bernstrom are told that their sexual orientation is sinful, they lose trust in themselves. Religion is a powerful force in some families, and young people under pressure to try religiously affiliated conversion therapy may find it impossible to say no.
“When someone is called out and told that who they are is a sin, I can only imagine the psychological torment,” Dibble said. “It seems so incredible to me and so barbaric. These are young people who are desperate to gain the approval of their family.”
While unnamed representatives from Outpost Ministries, a Robbinsdale-based organization whose website offers “the transforming power of Jesus Christ for the same-sex attracted, the gay-identified and the broken Body of Christ,” refused requests for an interview, an organization representative did offer this statement via email: “We oppose forceful, coercive, or needlessly invasive treatment of any kind by any one. We also support and encourage every person’s autonomy and individual freedom to choose whatever type of healthcare option they desire.”
Because conversion therapy can be offered in churches by unlicensed mental health practitioners, Dibble admitted that First Amendment protections guarantee that these practices may continue on some level, even if his legislation eventually becomes law.
“We will never be able to forbid this practice inside of religious communities,” he said. “At least I hope that through this debate we are getting information into the hands of people so they can know that this is a bad thing. Most parents really do love their kids and don’t want to harm them.”
Sampson-Bernstrom said he knows from personal experience that conversion therapy is often closely tied to conservative religious communities. “A pastor could come up to a kid at church and say, ‘Hey kid, do you know you could be straight? Come to my office and we’ll pray together.’”
Outpost, for its part, denied that the services the organization offers constitute conversion therapy. “As a Christian discipleship ministry,” the Outpost representative wrote, “we do not offer therapy of any kind nor are we a substitute for therapy.”
A match for Minnesota
In 2011, Sampson-Bernstrom moved to Minnesota to be closer to his parents. The move transformed their relationship. He said that spending time away from their more socially conservative community in Alabama had changed his parents’ ideas about the reality of his sexual orientation. And Sampson-Bernstrom said that his time living on his own strengthened his confidence and sense of self. His move north felt like further validation.
“Just the change in environment in Minnesota from, ‘It’s a horrible thing to be gay,’ to being in a place where we have one of the largest pride fests in the country, and queer people are celebrated and respected and you see them on TV as journalists, that whole environment shift really set my parents up to be on a journey of understanding and acceptance,” Sampson-Bernstrom said.
Minnesota’s statewide campaign for marriage equality was heating up at the time, and Sampson-Bernstrom said that parents enthusiastically declared their support.
“My dad even did a sermon at an interfaith pride service that I coordinated in Mankato,” Sampson-Bernstrom said. “My mom was making calls for the ‘Vote No’ campaign for marriage equality. It was such a dramatic shift.”
When Sampson-Bernstrom got married to his husband, he said, “My dad officiated my wedding. Our moms walked us down the aisle. We are now celebrated by our families.”
Dibble said that Minnesota’s supportive environment for LGBTQ people should mean that his legislation would pass easily, but resistance from conservative Republican senators has slowed its progress. The proposal failed to pass last session, so he’s made adjustments to its wording to help encourage a few key Republicans to throw in their support.
“The language of the bill is slightly different than the year before,” Dibble said. “The key difference is we don’t define conversion therapy in the bill. We task that job to a group of professionals who would be convened under the auspices of the Department of Health. That is a way that Republican senators don’t have to attach their name to something that might be problematic politically.”
Dibble explained that he also scaled back language around fraudulent sales. “That seemed to be problematic for some of them,” he said. “It is a compromise that has met with the approval of a couple of key Republican senators.”
Dibble’s proposal needs a minimum of two Republican senators to vote yes to get the 34 votes needed for passage. “So stay tuned,” he said.
He does believe that it is important that debate over this bill is publicized: “I hope that kids and families hear something that they haven’t heard in their lives, which is, ‘You’re OK. You’re fine as you are. You can’t be changed.’ They can hang on to that shred of hope until they turn 18 and can make their own decisions, live their own lives.”
Passage of statewide legislation is important, Thomas added, because it sends a message that Minnesota is willing to protect minors and vulnerable adults from a potentially harmful practice. While citywide bans are helpful, he said, their impact is limited. Passing the ban statewide would be far more powerful.
“A city is not the same as a state,” Thomas said. ““The reason it is important is that while we are currently able to protect some Minnesotans, we aren’t able to protect all Minnesotans.” Senate passage of the bill would, he continued, “send a strong message that this is an unacceptable, bad practice, that this practice should not masquerade as science.”
Dibble said that he believes that most parents love their children and try to do the best for them. He hopes that more will learn that conversion therapy has been widely discredited and is causing far more harm than good.
“A lot of parents are dubious about these practices,” Dibble said. “I hope that the messages that come out of this debate will help give those parents courage to say no, and validate their intuition that this is not the right thing to do to their kids.”