Can you pray the gay away? GOP platform revs up a hot debate

Danny Cords of Seattle, Wash., was only 14 when his parents enrolled him in three years of gay conversion therapy, seeking to tame his homosexual urges. "Why are we allowing this to happen?” asked Cords, who's now 29 and married to a man.
Danny Cords of Seattle, Wash., was only 14 when his parents enrolled him in three years of gay conversion therapy, seeking to tame his homosexual urges. "Why are we allowing this to happen?” asked Cords, who's now 29 and married to a man. kapchur.us photography

Danny Cords of Seattle was only 14 when his parents enrolled him in three years of gay conversion therapy, seeking to tame his homosexual urges with Bible verses, a pocket cross and a motto that reminded him that “all things are possible through Christ.”

He also kept a rock in his shoe, stepping on it as he walked to school, with the pain aimed at removing any temptation to have sex with a man and “not to think about gay things.”

“None of it worked, not even for a second. … We all should be ashamed that it’s legal,” said Cords, who’s now 29 and says he’s happily married to a man.

While gay conversion therapy for minors has been banned in five states and in Washington, D.C., backing for the practice is alive and well, with gay-rights advocates accusing Republicans of endorsing the idea at their party’s national convention in Cleveland.

On Monday, delegates voted to approve a platform that backs the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children. The platform makes no specific mention of gay conversion therapy, but critics say that passage is aimed at accepting the notion that one’s sexual orientation can be changed.

Gregory Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation’s largest GOP organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender conservatives, said he was “mad as hell” over the platform, calling gay conversion therapy a debunked psychological practice to “pray the gay away.”

Of the five states that have banned gay conversion therapy, California went first, in 2012. Since then, Oregon, Illinois, Vermont have followed suit, along with New Jersey, where Republican Gov. Chris Christie backed the prohibition.

In Washington state, a bill to ban the practice, sponsored by Democratic State Sen. Marko Liias of Lynnwood, failed last year.

Supporters say that gay conversion therapy works.

“It is possible to minimize sexual response to others of the same sex and maximize sexual response to the opposite sex, and if that’s what you want to do you should be absolutely free to do it,” said Rich Wyler, founder and director of People Can Change, a Virginia-based organization that offers support to men who want to “transition away from unwanted homosexuality.”

Wyler said it would be “absurd and unconstitutional” not to allow “straight-affirming therapy,” since there’s no proof that it’s harmful: “I know from first-hand experience that I’ve benefited greatly from it and I know hundreds of men who would say likewise.”

Gay rights supporters note that one prominent Republican who appeared to back gay conversion therapy in 2000 was Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. That’s based on a statement from his website, where Pence said that money for an HIV/AIDS program should also to go organizations that wanted to help people change their sexual behavior.

Pence’s selection as Donald Trump’s running mate, combined with what Angelo calls “the most anti-LGBT platform” in the 162-year history of the GOP Party, assures that gay rights will be an explosive issue in the 2016 election.

Pence angered gay rights groups last year when he signed a religious freedom bill that opponents said would allow businesses to discriminate against customers based on their sexual orientation. Pence later backtracked, when state lawmakers changed the law to say that no discrimination would be allowed.

And in April, a group of students at Indiana Wesleyan University protested the school’s decision to invite Pence as the commencement speaker, with opponents citing his prior support for gay conversion therapy and overall opposition to gay rights.

“When I learned that Mike Pence was a top candidate for Trump’s VP, I was awed by how low America could get,” said Luke Garfield, an organizer of the Wesleyan protest who graduated and now works as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.

Looking for a bright side, Angelo said it would be better to have Pence hold the “largely symbolic” office of vice president: “The sooner we can get Pence out of the governor’s mansion, the less harm he can do the LGBT community.”

On Capitol Hill, two Washington state Democrats, Rep. Suzan DelBene and Sen. Patty Murray, are pushing bills that would crack down on advertising for gay conversion therapy. They want to classify it as fraudulent under the Federal Trade Communication Act.

DelBene said that LGBT Americans “don’t need a cure – they need equality.”

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of stories like Danny’s,” said DelBene, who has 81 cosponsors for her bill, called the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act. It has yet to receive a hearing in the GOP-controlled House.

Joseph Backholm, director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington state, said it would be a mistake for Congress to allow the federal government to “jump inside of a counseling room.”

“It would be impossible for me to deny the reality that some people who used to be gay no longer are, and it is also impossible for me to deny the experience of people that I know who wanted to change but couldn’t,” he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court sought to end the debate over whether being gay is a choice when it legalized gay marriage last year. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that homosexuality is both “a normal expression of human sexuality and immutable,” meaning it will never change.

President Barack Obama called for an end to gay conversion therapy last year after Leelah Alcorn, a transgender 17-year-old from Ohio, killed herself by jumping in front of a tractor-trailer. She left a note saying that religious therapists tried to make her go back to being a boy.

Both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association oppose conversion therapy, saying it’s based on the idea that homosexuality is a disorder and can harm patients.

The GOP platform ignited an immediate firestorm among Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. On Twitter, she called it “disgusting” that Republicans want to overturn gay marriage and back gay conversion therapy.

With Republicans seeking to avoid divisive social issues at their convention, Party Chairman Reince Priebus told the Associated Press that conversion therapy was “not in the platform.”

Technically, he’s correct: The plank says only that “we support the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children.”

But Angelo isn’t buying it.

“Look, I saw the plank as it was drafted – you have some eyewitness testimony here,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an accident: The only movement we have had in this country over the last two to three years to ban any sort of therapy for minors is specifically and exclusively about conversion therapy.”

Meanwhile, Cords, who grew up in Renton, Washington, has forgiven his parents, saying they acted out of ignorance and fear by sending him to gay conversion therapy. He said “it was really scary for them” when he decided to come out of the closet at such a young age.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Cords said. “I don’t hold this against them.”

Cords said he tried hard to change in therapy but that he only learned that he was “utterly repulsive to God” and to other people.

“I wanted this to go away – I prayed,” he said. “But overcoming it meant having successful intercourse with a woman. As crass as that sounds, there’s no other way to spin it – that’s their goal, to get you married and have babies. . . . It tore my life apart.”

Cords said he ran away from home at age 17 and that his life turned around only after he tried to kill himself and then found support from other gay people.

He said it’s good that Republicans have chosen to put a national spotlight on the issue, calling it the “silver lining in a crap storm” that could lead to more public debate.

“There’s a blessing in that people are going to get educated now with what this is,” Cords said. “I hope they really tune in. . . . Why are we allowing this to happen?”

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6154, @HotakainenRob