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What Does Addiction Have to do with Conversion Therapy?

June 23, 2015
by Buster Ross
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Today I took my seat at the White House Briefing on LGBT Substance Use, surrounded by my greatest heroes in the LGBTQ community. Leaders from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy punctuated a room full of people doing incredible work supporting the wellbeing of our community. They are beacons of hope for the many of us who have felt we have been lost at sea in our work for LGBTQ rights, reminding us we are not alone, not at all. So how did I end up in that seat looking out upon the White House lawn?

I first heard the call to act in the fall of 2014 in Seattle, Wash. I was at a conference for addiction treatment professionals, presenting on the LGBTQ-Integrative Model, a new (and successful) model for addiction treatment.  It was the 35th anniversary of NALGAP, The Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Addiction Professionals and their Allies, a group dedicated to preventing and treating substance misuse and addiction in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer communities.

NALGAP President Phil McCabe called upon conference attendees to see to it that LGBTQ youth be protected from “conversion therapy” in our home states, I was listening. Conversion therapy (also called reparative therapy) is any treatment that aims to change sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.  Working in a program that specializes in treating co-occurring trauma, I know too well the experiences of LGBTQ people who have survived these efforts to fix something that isn’t broken.

Without NALGAP, it is impossible to imagine the work I do today supporting LGBTQ programming in drug and alcohol treatment facilities, teaching new addiction counselors in graduate school, engaging in public affairs efforts, and conducting ongoing research and study.

So last fall, when I returned home, I wrote an op-ed calling upon groups like Basic Rights Oregon to re-introduce legislation to end conversion therapy.

In the middle of all this, I learned my own grandfather, a psychiatrist, had written a paper about a case of conversion therapy in his practice in the 1950s. That reinforced my belief that conversion therapy, though misguided, is not ill-intended and that those who practice it are not villains – refocusing me instead on the real issues of protecting youth and the role of the therapeutic profession.

Recently I was invited to meet with clinicians at a program in Florida, and provide training on working with “LGBTQ Older Adults.” Most of our discussion was about the reality that older LGBTQ clients have experienced even more “covert cultural sexual abuse,” as Dr. Joe Kort refers to it, than their younger peers.

Conversion therapy, as it turns out, is not so covert, and lawmakers in Oregon ended this practice with the passage of HB 2307 just this month. We can now acknowledge that when families direct their love and support to affirming a child’s LGBTQ status, rather than changing it, the disparities are not so great.

Protecting youth should remain our focus as federal lawmakers are now considering new legislation which would end conversion therapy nationally, as called for by the president and surgeon general.

I was grateful to be invited to the governor’s signing ceremony to enact the new Oregon law. And I wept a bit when I saw the date. As a small group gathered for this historic moment, I could not attend as I was scheduled to train counselors at a youth facility in Minnesota.

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NALGAP is very pleased to have Buster Ross as a guest blogger. We are especially proud of the work he did in his home state to have this abusive practice banned. We hope others will also take the challenge that was made in Seattle to encourage others to speak out against the practice of conversion therapy. NALGAP will continue to help in anyway we can. The Board of Directors will be releasing a position statement in the next week. Check here for more information. And lets continue the conversation.

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"NALGAP: The Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Addiction Professionals and...