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Oregon panel considers bill banning 'gay conversion therapy'

By SHEILA V KUMAR

Of the Associated Press

SALEM — An Oregon gay rights group asked the state Legislature on Monday to outlaw therapy that seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of young people, arguing the practice often does more harm than good.

A state House panel heard testimony on the measure, which is being promoted by Basic Rights Oregon, a nonprofit gay and transgender advocacy group from Portland.

The measure is part of a national push to prevent mental health care providers from practicing so-called conversion therapy. Laws banning the practice have passed in New Jersey, California and Washington, D.C., and a dozen other states, including New York and Florida, are pushing for similar legislation.

Under the bill, social workers and licensed medical health care professionals, such as psychologists or psychiatrists, would be barred from practicing conversion therapy on children under age 18.

Paul Southwick, an attorney in Portland, said he has gone through an intensive two-year conversion therapy program with both licensed and nonlicensed professionals, and part of his treatment included having to watch heterosexual pornography. But instead of being “cured” after the program he instead felt increasingly depressed and anxious, he said.

“Essentially, conversion therapy offered me a false hope built on a flawed premise. And the flawed premise was that something was really wrong with me, that I had a sickness. And the false hope was that I could be cured,” Southwick said.

The American Psychological Association says there is no evidence that the gay conversion therapy can change a person's sexual orientation. A task force set up by the group found that it caused distress and anxiety.

Samantha Ames, an attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said there have been challenges to New Jersey's and California's laws but both were upheld. Washington, D.C.'s bill hasn't gone into effect yet, she said.

Opponents often argue that because therapy takes place through talk, it constitutes free speech under the First Amendment, Ames said.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Oregon, upheld California's statue in 2013 and ruled the therapy doesn't violate the free speech rights of licensed counselors and patients seeking treatment.

Teresa Harke, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Family Council, said the group was in opposition to the bill “as it stands” because the language is too broad.

“Under the current broad language of the bill it seems a parent who is a licensed counselor or professional could face sanctions for talking with their own children at home about sexuality and gender identity topics,” Harke said during the public hearing.

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