Conversion Therapy and Public Education: The Unfortunate Intersection – Next100
Commentary   Education + Early Years

Conversion Therapy and Public Education: The Unfortunate Intersection

Millions of American taxpayer dollars are going to private K-12 schools which advocate for or mandate conversion therapy. Public education funds are rare enough as it is; they should never be spent on phony practices which have been proven to be destructive for the students and families.

A recent investigative report done by HuffPost found that millions of American taxpayer dollars are going to private K–12 schools that advocate for or mandate conversion therapy—a phony and deeply destructive pseudo-therapy that supporters claim can change LGBTQI+ children and adults’ sexual orientation, gender expression or identity. As someone who was forced to participate in conversion therapy when I was a child, and who now works in education policy, I cannot think of a more clearly heinous, despicable perverse use of limited public education dollars than to perpetuate fake science and inflict a terrible trauma on LGBTQI+ students through conversion therapy.

Taxpayer dollars regularly go to private schools. It’s not ideal or frequent, but sometimes it’s necessary in order to accomplish certain policies and rules, such as providing services for students with disabilities. Other times, however, it’s distressing: twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C. have voucher programs that, despite their deeply racist origins and lackluster outcomes with regard to student performance, also provide public education dollars to private schools. This inadvisable policy has been the subject of scrutiny and disagreement between the left and right.

Unfortunately, the provision of public funds to private schools is positioned to expand even further in the months to come. Just two weeks ago, Secretary DeVos announced the development of a new rule that the Trump Department of Education is currently drafting that would effectively force state education agencies to disperse public funds appropriated by the CARES Act (that were intended to provide relief to schools and districts in their COVID-19 recovery efforts) to private schools in their states. I strongly oppose this new rule; public funds should only go to private education as a last resort, and only when it serves public education’s interest. But, if this new rule does go into effect, the CARES Act recovery funds should never be given to any school which advocates for or mandates conversion therapy. Indeed, no federal or state funds should support schools which push these programs, whether through voucher programs, provision of equitable services, funds to serve students with disabilities, or any other form.

I was forced into conversion therapy when I was still a child. Raised in a deeply conservative and religious Texan family, after I came out, I was almost immediately required to attend one-on-one sessions with a counselor whose intention was to put me back on the straight and narrow. About a year into counseling, it was clear that the weekly sessions were not changing my orientation, and so my family transitioned me into a different form of therapy, an immersive, intensive program held at the local First Baptist Church. The group—which is still around today—bills itself as a program that allows men, women, and children who have, in the eyes of the program, struggled with the sinful homosexual lifestyle to work toward spiritual wholeness with God.

There is this inexplicable, self-destructive allure to the whole process of conversation therapy that isn’t immediately obvious to those who haven’t grown up LGBTQI+ in a religious community. On my first day, as I shook hands with the director and entered his office for my onboarding, I realized that I had never before met a gay person (former or otherwise). Later, when I attended my first session, for the first time in my life I found myself surrounded by other people that were like me. And, although they were racked with shame, secrets, and wounds that were generations deep, these broken men and women were my first community.

When I speak about those years to friends or family and relive those moments, I realize that I’ll never be able to fully articulate the evil of that program, and the damage done by the people who put me in it. How can I explain what it’s like to be told day in and day out by those you love and admire that you should hate everything about yourself? Imagine being told that how you walk, how you talk, what you eat, how you dress, your relationship with your father and mother—all of you, in essence—is the manifestation of evil’s hold over your life. Imagine hearing that message when you’re eighteen, fourteen, or even ten. For me and many of conversion therapy’s young subjects, learning how to heal these wounds will be a years-long project.

Science and medical experts back up the experience of myself and so many others. Conversion therapy is based in fake science and promises of effectiveness have been continuously disproven. The American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American School Counselor Association and countless other organizations have spoken out about the destructive sham which is conversion therapy. They have stated that conversion therapy has been affirmatively disproven, and what’s more, that such practices can result in significant harm in the development of a child or adult. The Human Rights Campaign has compiled a more complete list of professional organizations which refute conversion therapy here.

And in some cases—though not enough—policymakers have already agreed. Conversion therapy is already banned for minors in twenty states that span the political spectrum, from Utah to New York.

Public education funds should never be used to perpetuate harmful, anti-scientific practices. And yet, that’s what this report has found.

The U.S. Department of Education and state education agencies have an obligation to protect LGBTQI+ students, not to foot the bill for phony and deeply harmful “pray-the-gay-away counselors.”

Congress can, and should, act today to protect LGBTQI+ students and make sure that the Trump Department of Education does not provide more funding for private schools who are inflicting this abuse upon their students. Congress should:

  1. enact legislation that ensures no school which receives federal funds will advocate for or mandate phony conversion therapy practices, similar to Representative Sean Patrick Maloney’s Prohibition of Medicaid Funding for Conversion Therapy Act which would include similar restrictions for Medicaid funds;
  2. pass and enact legislation that prohibits commercial sexual orientation conversion therapy across the nation, such as Senator Patty Murray’s Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act; and
  3. block Secretary DeVos’s new rule to provide more public funding to private schools.

About the Author

Levi Bohanan Education + Early Years

Levi is an advocate for progressive child care policy and high-quality early education. Levi previously served in the Obama administration at the U.S. Department of Education, and has worked in the U.S. House of Representatives and with education nonprofits. At Next100, Levi’s work focuses on expanding access to high-quality child care and early childhood development opportunities.

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