PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Pima County voted two years ago to get rid of gay conversion therapy for minors. Fifteen states now have some sort of ban in place.
What about Arizona?
Could a statewide ban ever happen here? And if so, would it even work?
It’s a highly controversial topic in our heavily conservative state. It pits medical and mental health experts who’ve condemned the practice as ineffective, harmful and unethical against family and faith advocates who say this is about freedom of religion and speech, and a parent’s right to choose for their child.
Valley attorney Tyler Allen spent five years in conversion therapy as a teen and says he’s seen therapists use religion to shame and silence people into despair, depression, and even suicide.
“It was severe intense emotional and mental abuse,” Allen said.
He almost killed himself to suppress his shame.
“I was driving down the freeway, and I was just … done,” he said.
“I got my car up to 110 on the freeway and I was going to crash it.”
“I was so close to not being here anymore,” Allen said.
Driven to the brink after years trying to change who he is all started when he was just a young teen.
“I told my bishop at 14 that I was gay,” Allen said.
And for the next five years, he devoted every day to praying he wasn’t.
“They would tell me, 'It’s not going away because you’re not trying hard enough,'” Allen said.
“You become so hopeless. So hopeless. Every morning, that was the first thought, 'Am I still gay? Did it work yet? Is it gone yet? What am I doing wrong?'”
Tyler was 15 when he made Eagle Scout and looks even younger in his professional Boy Scout photo in uniform adorned with badges, sitting next to the American flag.
“It wasn’t my parents' choice. It was my church’s choice because my parents had no idea,” Allen said.
“My bishop said I’m going to this doctor’s appointment and I need therapy. They had no idea until I was 18,” Allen said.
Then he went through another year trying to please them too.
“My dad told me, 'I will spend whatever it takes to fix you.'”
And so, he kept at it.
“I needed to prick myself with a needle, I should put a rock in my shoe,” he said, describing tactics the counselor suggested as aversions to any thoughts of same-sex attraction.
“You’re told ‘You’re not trying hard enough! You’re evil, you’re broken, you need to be fixed.'”
He says counselors subjected him to everything from pushing pharmaceuticals, which he refused, to group retreats, even forced separation from his mom.
“The Mormon Church told me that if I stopped, I would get excommunicated,” he said.
And that’s just what happened.
Shadi Bastani is a licensed professional counselor specializing in sexual abuse and trauma.
“I mean, it’s just heartbreaking,” Bastani said.
“I haven’t worked with a client who entered reparative therapy who at one point didn’t consider taking their own life,” Bastani said.
And more people are talking about it because of a new film.
The movie "Boy Erased," nominated for two Golden Globe awards, is based on a memoir of the son of a Baptist preacher whose parents put him in conversion therapy to try and change him so he wasn’t gay.
One of the teens forced to go through the same program committed suicide.
-48 percent of LGBT teens attempt suicide if their parents tried to change their sexual orientation.
- It goes up to 63 percent if therapists and religious leaders are also involved.
Now, for the first time here in Arizona, a conservative lawmaker is on board to ban conversion therapy for minors statewide.
“I have heard the term. I didn’t know what it meant,” said Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee
“I was horrified. “
She couldn't believe what Tyler went through and is now one of two GOP co-sponsors of Senate Bill 1047.
“If an outcome to conversion therapy is suicide or attempted suicide, I want to make sure that’s not being practiced here in the state of Arizona,” Brophy-McGee said.
She knows it'll be a fight.
About two-thirds of conversion therapy cases get around the bans already in place in other states by claiming freedom of religion.
“We have to get this right,” Brophy-McGee said.
She also wants to make sure the ban isn't so broad families can't ask questions about sexual orientation because the general topic is taboo.
Conservative lobbyist Cathi Herrod with the Center for Arizona Policy says therapists are still protected by free speech, even if their advice is unpopular.
“This is about parents having the freedom to seek help for their children,” Herrod said.
"Three U.S. Supreme Court cases last year warned about the dangers of the government deciding which speech is acceptable and not acceptable," Herrod said.
For instance, in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, Herrod points out the court warned against “the danger of content-based regulations 'in the fields of medicine and public health, where information can save lives.’”
“[R]egulating the content of professionals’ speech ‘poses the inherent risk that the Government seeks not to advance a legitimate regulatory goal, but to suppress unpopular ideas or information.’”
Rich Wyler, a former patient and proponent of conversion therapy agrees.
“I don’t want the government telling me what we can talk about and what we can’t talk about. You can ban practices, just don’t ban what we can talk about in therapy,” Wyler said.
“Don’t ban issues a client can explore or the outcomes, the goals that a client can have, it’s just not right,” Wyler said.
He runs the Journey into Manhood weekend retreats through Brothers' Road where he explains in his video testimonials the program is for men who say they don't want to be homosexual, if "being gay just doesn't work for you. It's not who you feel like you are.”
“It probably saved my life, it certainly saved my marriage. It changed my life for the better,” Wyler said.
His co-founder, David Matheson, who is also a clinical mental health counselor, said in the same video, “Feelings of sexual attraction to the other sex diminishes a great deal and yes, absolutely, it does work!”
Now he wishes those videos didn’t exist.
"I feel sad that I believed that and that I taught that,” Matheson said.
For nearly 20 years, Matheson's been one of the most well-known proponents of conversion therapy.
Last month, he not only renounced the practice, saying it should be banned for kids AND adults, he came out on social media saying he's gay and ready to exclusively date men.
“This desire, this need really, to be in a relationship with a man had just overwhelmed everything else.”
“I knew that that it was just not negotiable”
He divorced his wife of 34 years and just pulled his book "Becoming a Whole Man," from publication.
“I had a lot of internalized homophobia,” he admits.
He knows he hurt people.
“I was in this ideological prison. One saying being gay is a sin, and the other side, being gay is a disorder.”
He worked at the LDS counseling service Evergreen where Tyler says the Mormon Church sent him to "pray away the gay."
"It's abuse. It's emotional and mental abuse," Allen said.
Evergreen closed in 2014 and the chair and many of its members helped start up the new LDS-based gay support group called NorthStar.
Bennett Borden, President of NorthStar International, says they do not support conversion therapy, “and certainly does not oppose the ban proposed in AZ.”
He says while NorthStar “does not endorse the idea that everyone should seek professional therapy to address issues related to homosexuality or gender identity, or that any particular therapeutic effort is going to be helpful or effective for everyone."
They believe it “is possible for those who experience same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria (i.e., transgender individuals) to live in joy and harmony within our covenants, values, and beliefs as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Not for abuse. For consumer fraud.
And while that sets a seemingly foolproof precedent, it's costly and takes years for a single case.
In fact, they're still tied up in court as people who believe in the practice, keep re-branding and resurfacing.
"This is about parents having the freedom to seek treatment for their children and licensed professionals having the freedom to counsel as they deem appropriate," Herrod said.
The court of law. The court of public opinion.
Tyler says you have to start somewhere.
Even if it is more symbolic than practical.
“It was such a harmful experience. I need to create something good out of it so that nobody else hurts this way,” Allen said.
Brophy-McGee says most bills take three or four tries to get through the Legislature.
SB 1047 is on its second round, still waiting for a hearing in the Senate Judiciary.
And it's not likely going to get one.
Tyler says he’s willing to collect signatures to put it on the ballot if that's what it takes.
A recent UCLA study shows 20,000 LGBT teens will go to a licensed therapist for conversion therapy before they turn 18. And another 57,000 will see a religious counselor or adviser.
Here are some additional resources for teens and families: