WASHINGTON ― A group preaching that sexual orientation is a choice and that “conversion therapy” should be legal held a forum in a Capitol Hill office building Wednesday, thanks to Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.).
The group, called Changed, is made up of people who used to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer but now say they are heterosexual and cisgender. They say they were able to shed their previous orientation by embracing their Christian faith.
The members, which included two survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting, held their event in the Cannon House Office Building ― a prime location to reach influential Hill staffers and members of Congress ― right next to the office of Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who is the sponsor of a bill to outlaw conversion therapy.
Because Changed held the forum in a taxpayer-funded congressional space, the event required a member of Congress to sponsor the discussion. And although the group both refused to disclose who that representative was and also denied that they knew their identity, a Capitol official familiar with scheduling told HuffPost that Hartzler was the member who signed off on the event.
A staffer for Hartzler initially denied she was the sponsor. “This was a Family Research Council event,” said Danny Jativa, Hartzler’s communications director.
Family Research Council does appear to have been involved in the event, as handouts supplied included FRC literature, including an “issue analysis” titled “Are Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE) Effective? Are They Harmful? What the Evidence Shows.”
After HuffPost pressed Hartzler’s office again over email, however, noting that a member of Congress would have had to sign off on the event, Jativa admitted that Hartzler had secured the meeting space for the group.
“The only involvement Rep. Hartzler’s office had with the event was putting in an order to request a meeting space. Our office, nor the member, participated in the event. We did not recruit nor advertise the event in any way, shape, or form,” Jativa said.
Hartzler has long opposed LGBTQ equality. She has a rating of zero on the Human Rights Campaign’s congressional scorecard and was a driving force in getting President Donald Trump to ban transgender individuals from serving openly in the military. Hartzler was also part of a push to get Amazon to sell books promoting conversion therapy.
While Changed was there seemingly to troll Lieu, part of the group’s agenda was to also lobby against another bill: the Equality Act, which would extend federal nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people. The members argue that it’s unnecessary and contribute to the “false idea” that LGBTQ people are marginalized. (Discrimination against this community is indeed real.)
But group members were also there to make sure conversion therapy ― the discredited, dangerous practice to make someone not gay ― stays legal. When HuffPost talked to Changed group members, they both denied that conversion therapy exists, while also defending the right for conversion therapy to take place.
“I changed my orientation,” group member Jim Domen told HuffPost.
He then fetched a rolled-up, poster-size picture of him with his wife and children. “What do you think?” Domen asked.
“It looks like you guys are a happy family,” HuffPost replied.
“No, they’re fakes. They’re frauds. They’re frauds. They’re not real,” Domen said sarcastically. “According to, like, Congressman Lieu’s bill, my wife and children don’t exist. They’re frauds. I’m a fraud.”
Domen was referring to the name of Lieu’s bill, the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act of 2019, which aims to ban conversion therapy. (Eighteen states currently ban the practice for minors, but Lieu seeks to outlaw conversion therapy nationally.)
Lieu told HuffPost that he wrote the nation’s first bill to ban conversion therapy while in the California legislature. “My goal with the California bill, and now my federal bill, was and is to end a for-profit practice that is unscientific and harmful,” he said.
“Homosexuality is neither a mental illness nor a developmental disorder and anyone seeking to ‘cure’ LGBTQ people is committing fraud,” Lieu added.
While working to defend conversion therapy, Domen and other group members also claimed conversion therapy isn’t real. “It’s so ironic the media uses a narrative that’s false and doesn’t exist,” Domen said.
“If someone was electrocuted and shocked, I would file a police report, I’d file a lawsuit, I’d be rich,” Domen said. “So where’s the lawsuit? Where’s the file?”
(You can read a firsthand account of conversion therapy here, where a teenager spoke to HuffPost in 2016 about the shock therapy, harassment and physical abuse he withstood with other LGBTQ teens, some of whom ended up killing themselves.)
“Conversion therapy reinforces internalized homophobia, anxiety, guilt and depression,” wrote a group of former leaders in the movement in a 2014 open letter. “It leads to self-loathing and emotional and psychological harm when change doesn’t happen. Regrettably, too many will choose suicide as a result of their sense of failure. In light of this, we now stand united in our conviction that conversion therapy is not ‘therapy,’ but is instead both ineffective and harmful.”
How many people go through conversion therapy is a famously hard-to-determine statistic. For one, there are varying levels of therapy, from informal pastoral counseling to lobotomies, and the churches that account for the majority of this sort of counseling have no responsibility to report it to any agency.
Wayne Besen, the executive director of the group Truth Wins Out, which fights against “anti-gay religious extremism,” agreed that things like shock therapy are quite rare. “It’s primarily a mix of faith combined with pseudo-science,” Besen said.
He argued that the main danger of conversion therapy is that it makes gay people feel less than, that it can do psychological damage, and make them feel, wrongly, that homosexuality is a disease.
Besen added that the heterosexual relationships resulting from conversion therapy could also be damaging for the spouse, as there’s no evidence anyone can actually change their sexual orientation.
But the Changed group ― which featured the hashtag #OnceGay on its literature promoting members’ stories ― says sexual orientation is a choice.
“I didn’t want to be gay,” the co-founder of the group, Ken Williams, told HuffPost. “I didn’t want to live that life. I wanted help. I wanted to feel better about the shameful feelings.”
Group members said they just wanted to preserve the ability of people to seek counseling, if they wanted it, and that efforts to outlaw conversion therapy ― which, again, they claimed didn’t exist ― would hamper those looking for that counseling.
Meanwhile, the medical community remains firmly against conversion therapy.
“No credible evidence exists that any mental health intervention can reliably and safely change sexual orientation; nor, from a mental health perspective does sexual orientation need to be changed,” concluded the American Psychiatric Association in 2013.
In response to the group holding this event in the Cannon Building, Rep. John Yarmuth’s (D-Ky.) office, which sits directly across from the room where the forum took place, hung a rainbow pride flag outside their door.
Amanda Terkel contributed to this report.