West Palm Beach Moves to Ban Anti-Gay Conversion Therapy

Update: Commissioners approve the conversion therapy ban 5-0.

At tonight's commission meeting, the City of West Palm Beach plans to ban conversion therapy on minors. It's a practice that essentially stigmatizes same-sex attraction as a mental illness. Similar bans have recently passed in Miami Beach, Miami, and Wilton Manors. 

Conversion therapy is predominantly regarded as a junk science and a poisonous reaction to the LGBTQ civil rights movement. But in Palm Beach County, the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council (PBCHRC) has found at least a half-dozen psychologists provide the service.

One Palm Beach county psychologist defended the practice and has spoken out against the ban at the July 29 county commission meeting. "We know people are not simply born gay," Dr. Julie Herren Hamilton told commissioners in July. "There is no such thing as conversion therapy. It does not exist. That is a myth that there is something out there that is harming people.”

Though she introduced herself as the former president of the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, Herren Hamilton is also the former president of the controversial National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). In the past, Hamilton has produced a video titled, “Homosexuality 101: Where Does it Come From, Is Change Possible, and How Should Christians Respond?" and co-edited "The Handbook of Therapy for Unwanted Homosexual Attractions: A Guide to Treatment." 

American medical authorities have consistently found no scientific support for the idea that sexual orientation can be altered through therapy. In 2006, the APA stated: “There is simply no sufficiently scientifically sound evidence that sexual orientation can be changed...Our further concern is that the positions espoused by NARTH and Focus on the Family create an environment in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.”

Wilton Manors commissioner Justin Flippen, who spearheaded the Wilton Manors ban this past August, voluntarily went through the controversial therapy as a teenager. It didn't change his sexual orientation, and now Flippen argues that these "fraudulent medical practices" ostracize young adults and can lead to "homelessness and suicide."

The ban was taken up by commissioners at the request of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council (PBCHRC), an independent nonprofit that has helped pass more than 100 laws calling for equal rights for the LGBTQ community. PBHRC founder and president Rand Hoch said that "the discredited practice of conversion therapy has long been rejected by virtually all of our nation's mainstream medical and mental health organizations."

On Monday night, Dr. Rachel Needle, a West Palm Beach psychologist and adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University, is expected to speak out against the practice and its potential risks, including shame, decreased self-esteem, problems with emotional intimacy, substance abuse, and suicide.

"The practice of conversion therapy is based on two false premises," Needle said in a statement. "First, it is based on the falsehood that being gay, lesbian, or transgender is a mental defect that needs to be cured. It is also based on the presumption that being LGBTQ is something that can be changed through therapy."
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Jess Swanson is a staff writer at New Times. Born and raised in Miami, she graduated from the University of Miami’s School of Communication and wrote briefly for the student newspaper until realizing her true calling: pissing off fraternity brothers by reporting about their parties on her crime blog. Especially gifted in jumping rope and solving Rubik’s cubes, she also holds the title for longest stint as an unpaid intern in New Times history. She left the Magic City for New York to earn her master’s degree from Columbia University School of Journalism, where she spent a year profiling circumcised men who were trying to regrow their foreskins for a story that ultimately won the John Horgan Award for Critical Science Journalism. Terrified by pizza rats and arctic temperatures, she quickly returned to her natural habitat.
Contact: Jess Swanson