West Palm Beach moves to ban therapy to turn gay minors straight

Updated Oct 25, 2016

West Palm Beach commissioners gave initial approval Monday to a ban on mental health therapy meant to convert gay minors to straight.

After hearing testimony that therapy to change sexual orientation is unproven and potentially harmful, the board voted unanimously to outlaw the practice. A second and final vote is expected in about a month.

Rachel Needle, a West Palm Beach psychologist and certified sex therapist, told the board that major psychological associations have long dismissed the practice as based on falsehoods that LGBTQ people have a disorder or disease, and that conversion therapy can change it.

“Passage will send an important message to LGBTQ youth in our community: There’s nothing wrong with their sexual orientation or identity,” she said.

Julie Hamilton, a licensed Palm Beach Gardens marriage and family therapist, argued that “talk therapy” is a valid way to help clients “distraught about their unwanted homosexual feelings” and that the ordinance could leave them feeling they have nowhere to turn.

“These clients that are coming to us are saying, ‘I have these feelings and I don’t want them. I didn’t choose them and I don’t know what to do about them….’ They come in full of self-hatred,” said Hamilton, a former assistant psychology professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University and former president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality.

“What will happen if they become more suicidal after being told they cannot get professional help?” Hamilton asked.

Needle countered that talk therapy is fine but that “conversion therapy” is wrong because it indicates there’s something wrong with the client.

The American Psychological Association and other leading psychology organizations have pointed to many studies that indicate that rather than helping, conversion therapy can lead to depression, loss of self-esteem, social withdrawal, high-risk behaviors, substance abuse and suicidal thought, Needle said. “It can have a devastating impact on minors, especially.”

The ordinance was crafted at the request of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council (PBCHRC). It is similar to others in effect in Miami, Miami Beach, Wilton Manors and elsewhere around the country.

“The discredited practice of conversion therapy has long been rejected by virtually all of our nation’s mainstream medical and mental health organizations” PBCHRC President and Founder Rand Hoch said. “We are grateful that Mayor (Jeri) Muoio and the city commissioners are enacting a law to protect LGBTQ youth from these unethical practices.”