A Passing Phase & The Dangers of Conversion Therapy

Passing Phase ThumbnailJ. Paul Devlin’s A Passing Phase is a light-hearted coming-of-age story about a serious topic: societal and interpersonal bias against sexual and gender minorities. In this novel, seventeen-year-old Nate Whitby enters conversion therapy to “change” his attraction to men. He believes it’s a phase, thinking:

“Absolutely. That’s all it is. Wasn’t he simply a late-blooming hetero? Most definitely. It’ll kick in, maybe as late as college but it will kick in soon enough. It has to.”

With the “help” of his repressive mother, he turns to a therapist who is eager to “treat” him despite the fact that doing so is against the law in their state. Nate emerges from this damaging process with a better understanding of who he is, but in real life, not everyone is as lucky.

Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy or Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE), involves practices aimed at changing an individual’s sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression. In the past, this type of therapy included such aversion-based treatments as applying electric shocks when a patient was aroused by same-sex images. Today, it includes treatments to alter an individual’s “thought patterns by reframing desires, redirecting thoughts, or using hypnosis, with the goal of changing sexual arousal, behavior, and orientation.”

These practices continue to occur despite the fact that the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality as a pathology from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) more than 40 years ago.  There is also a strong professional consensus that this treatment does not alter sexual orientation or gender identity and that it presents a serious risk of harm to those undergoing it.

As Ryan Kendall testified before a California State Assembly Committee:

At the age of 16, I had lost everything. My family and my faith had rejected me, and the damaging messages of conversion therapy, coupled with this rejection, drove me to the brink of suicide. For the next decade I struggled with depression, periods of homelessness, and drug abuse.

Recognizing the risk of harm to LGBTQ youth, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has called for the elimination of conversion therapy in Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth (October 2015). The Administration noted that there are many ways to end this practice, including through the passage of legislation.

Conversion therapy on minors is now illegal in a handful of states, including California, and the District of Columbia. Do laws preventing therapists from performing conversion therapy violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?

Appellate courts have said no, ultimately upholding these laws as constitutional regulations of professional conduct. In Pickup v. Brown, the 9th Circuit analyzed California’s law prohibiting mental health professionals from performing SOCE with patients under the age of 18.  The Court determined that the law prohibited conduct, but not expressive speech, and was related to a legitimate state interest in “protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors.” 740 F.3d 1208, 1231 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting 2012 Cal. Legis. Serv. ch. 835, 1(n)). Meanwhile, the 3rd Circuit analyzed New Jersey’s law banning SOCE counseling of minors and concluded that it was a “permissible prohibition of professional speech” because the state has an “‘unquestionably substantial’ interest in protecting citizens from harmful professional practices,” an interest that becomes stronger when it relates to minors. John Doe v. Governor of the State of New Jersey, 783 F. 3d 150, 153 (quoting King v. Governor of the State of New Jersey, 767 F. 3d 216 (3d Cir. 2014)).

In my opinion, the protection of LGBTQ youth from harmful and discredited professional practices is not just a legitimate or substantial state interest, but a compelling one. Conversion therapy should only happen in fiction, if anywhere at all.


  1. Great response to the book and I’m glad you added so much additional detail about this! Hopefully it’ll educate some people who stumble across the blog.

    1. Thanks, Geoff! I hope this post educates some people about the dangers of conversion therapy. Americans are very quick to defend atrocious behavior (like performing conversion therapy) by saying it’s “free speech,” but the 1st Amendment has its limits.

  2. I cannot believe this stuff was legal! I’ve heard about these conversions, but have to admit I have no idea about the state of these things in Germany, will have to investigate. This so-called therapy is really psychological warefare!

    1. I don’t know how widespread it is in the United States at the moment, but it’s very sad that we need laws to stop it from happening. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  3. Conversion therapy is a horror that should never have been allowed. I am heartened to see it finally being legislated against. Thinking of those who were forced to undergo it breaks my heart.

    1. It is heartbreaking. It’s been 40 years since “homosexuality” was removed as a pathology from the DSM, and yet we still need legislatures to tell professionals that they can’t do this type of therapy. That’s awful.

  4. An interesting book and an important topic. I do try to think that for every bigot trying to push against equality and people being able to express who they really are, there is an editor pushing singular they to avoid binary gender definitions, etc. (that second one would be me).

    1. “there is an editor pushing singular they to avoid binary gender definitions, etc. (that second one would be me).” That’s certainly an important thing to do! I sometimes slip, but I try to be careful about it.

  5. I didn’t realize it was still an issue, but that’s probably because I come from one of the early states to approve civil unions and later marriage for LGBTQ. With the current insane outcry about trans people and bathrooms, It appears that the world has gone crazy about interpersonal relations and gender identities, without rhyme or reason. I saw an amusing meme on Facebook: God sent gay and transgender people to separate out the Christians from the bigots. That might be a God I could believe in.

    1. The current bathroom debate is just ridiculous. I think the challenges LGBTQ individuals face has certainly improved in some places, but we still have a long way to go. Thanks for stopping by!

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