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Adam Swanson

Senior Policy Associate, National Council for Behavioral Health

BREAKING NEWS: Conversion Therapy for LGBTQ Youth is Bad

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LGBTQ Conversion Therapy Two gay LGBTQ Flags and one American flag flying in the sky

In October 2015, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) published the report Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth. The report marked the first time we had conclusive, universal data, federally, that conversion therapy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) youth is not effective. In fact, conversion “therapy” has far more harmful repercussions than positive.

Children in the LGBTQ community, whether they understand or recognize their sexual orientation, seek understanding and acceptance. Forming a healthy identity is one of the most crucial parts of a child’s development. The problem is our society thinks of gender two ways: male or female. This leaves little room for variance for youth who have non-traditional identification with their genders assigned at birth. For example, elementary school teachers unintentionally introduce the idea of only two genders with which a child can identify. It can alienate children simply by asking them to line up based on gender—boys in one line, girls in the other. While this may not be the teacher’s intention, for a child confused about their gender orientation, this can be stressful. Physiological sex and gender are two very different things and we must recognize their impact on youth growing up in our modern world.

Judith Glassgold, PsyD, American Psychological Association associate executive director and government relations office public interest directorate, made the point that it’s normal for children to explore gender identities. Binary definitions of gender are not a part of the normal human experience. These definitions are something that society dictates. So—if it is a societal problem—why do we blame people for gender exploration? This is an issue that parents, especially, must address.

Dr. Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, pointed out that health care providers assume parents and educators know about the unique lived experiences of members of LGBTQ community. In reality, many parents are misguided about the stresses facing LGBTQ youth. Health care providers need to know how important it is for LGBTQ children to feel accepted by their families.

The Family Acceptance Project study found LGBTQ youth whose families rejected them were six times more likely to develop a mental illness and eight times more likely to attempt suicide. This is astonishing. Most parents worry about what their children are exposed to, but in this case, it is particularly important parents be careful and act with care. It’s easy for a parent to indirectly tell their child that not conforming to societal standards is wrong. By telling a child, “this is just a phase,” or “you’ll grow out of it,” parents and guardians set a precedent that they don’t accept their children the way they are.

A positive way to help affirm and show acceptance of LGBTQ youth is to teach healthy coping skills. This is not just applicable for parents with LGBTQ children, but for youth in general. Hate crimes and bullying occur in all pockets of this nation to all kinds of people—straight or gay. And this is especially true for members of the LGBTQ community. Teaching a child resiliency will strengthen their ability to form a confident identity and teach them they’re stronger than it may seem. These are the greatest skills a child can have in school… and in life.

As Lin Manuel Miranda said in his 2016 Tony Award acceptance speech, “Love is love is love is love.” No amount of conversion therapy or prejudice will prevent that from being true. Thanks to SAMHSA’s conversion therapy study, we have scientific data detailing the dangers and ineffectiveness of these types of therapy and that acceptance is much stronger than rejection in building healthy children and adults.

Editor’s Note: to learn more, check out our recent webinar at