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There are now 16 American states that have banned conversion therapy. Its practitioners aim to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. For the people who are supposed to be changed, conversion therapy is linked to higher rates of depression and suicide, which helps to explain why more than a dozen states are considering legislation to outlaw it on top of the states that already have done so. One of those states is Georgia, and NPR's Leila Fadel went there.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Peter Nunn lives just outside Atlanta.
PETER NUNN: Hi, I'm Peter.
FADEL: Hi, Peter.
NUNN: Nice to meet you. This is Amelie. She's just...
FADEL: He and his husband Monte have a dog named Amelie and a cat, Hollow. Peter's dining room is adorned with smiling pictures of his family.
NUNN: I love photos.
FADEL: Is this your mom?
NUNN: That's my mom and Monte dancing at our wedding.
FADEL: But it took a lot of work and time to get to this happy place.
NUNN: When I was 15, my parents found a men's workout magazine that I had and drew their own conclusions. They didn't talk to me about it. My dad told me we were going to go on a trip. He didn't tell me where we were going.
FADEL: On the way there, his father turned to him.
NUNN: He said he was going to take me to a therapy center to deal with whatever weird sexual stuff I had going on and that if it didn't work, he was going to send me to military school to make a man out of me.
FADEL: Every day for two weeks, licensed mental health professionals told him that what he was feeling was sinful, and he was broken.
NUNN: The whole thing was focused on, you know, my eternal soul was at danger here. So at this point, I would do anything they asked me to do or believe anything they asked me to believe so that I could be fixed.
FADEL: Did you believe that?
NUNN: A hundred percent.
FADEL: Did you want to be fixed?
NUNN: I wanted to be fixed 100%.
FADEL: Back home, he told his parents it worked. But it didn't, and he felt like a failure. When he was 16, he tried to take his own life while at a friend's house.
NUNN: I took a bunch of pills in the woods behind their house with a note in my pocket.
FADEL: The note said, God, forgive me. Peter Nunn's suicide attempt after conversion therapy is all too common. Already LGBT youth are more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. That nearly triples among those who've been through some type of counselling to change their sexual orientation. That's why Georgia state representative Matthew Wilson is trying to pass legislation to ban it. As in more than a dozen other states, if passed, the law would stop licensed mental health professionals from trying to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors.
MATTHEW WILSON: I specifically asked just for a hearing this year - no vote - so that we could use this year as an educational moment to really raise awareness about the need for this.
FADEL: He says it's about saving vulnerable children.
WILSON: There's been an outcry - not just from the victims and the LGBTQ community but from the medical professionals who say this is not medicine. And not only is it not medicine, but the harm is very real and lasts a lifetime.
FADEL: Many medical associations say the practice does not work and is harmful. National organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the advocacy group The Trevor Project are trying to get this legislation passed in all 50 states. But Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian group that opposes LGBTQ rights, wants to stop the bans. Mat Staver heads Liberty Counsel.
MAT STAVER: The counselors that we work with - they try to respect the wishes of the client. And the client is that minor. It's not the parents. It's the client.
FADEL: Staver says it's about an individual patient's autonomy, even if they're minors, and that a ban on conversion therapy violates the free speech of counselors.
STAVER: There's no other area of counseling where the government has barged into the private counseling room, and this should be no exception.
FADEL: Recently, the Supreme Court declined to take a case that would have challenged the conversion therapy ban in New Jersey. And advocates of the ban say if a practice is deemed harmful or abusive to children in other cases, the state does intervene. The depth of that harm is something Greg and Lynn McDonald say they didn't understand when they found out their son, Greg Jr., was gay. They describe themselves as conservative Christians and were worried that their son was committing a sin.
LYNN MCDONALD: We thought that Greg somehow missed something along the way and that if he had someone to walk with and talk with in regards to it, he'd see and desire, you know, to be heterosexual.
FADEL: So they met with a counselor about conversion therapy, which is legal. But Greg Sr. said if there'd been a ban...
GREG MCDONALD: It would have made me really pause to know that it's illegal to do that to a minor.
FADEL: It took years, but Greg and Lynn say they realized they couldn't change their son. The Bible, they say, teaches them to love.
L MCDONALD: Before anybody even thinks about sending their son or daughter to one of these places, they have to be so educated in understanding what this can do to...
G MCDONALD: Yeah.
L MCDONALD: ...Your child for the rest of their lives - what kind of pain that could bring.
FADEL: Today they say they're ashamed that they ever considered conversion therapy. And they want to be a resource for other conservative Christians who feel alone as parents of LGBTQ kids.
Leila Fadel, NPR News, Atlanta.
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