Stopping Pseudoscience & Protecting Children’s Lives: Fordham’s Dr. Celia B. Fisher on SAMHSA Expert Panel Behind White House Groundbreaking Conversion Therapy Report

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A report released today is a major step in President Obama’s commitment to expand the number of states enacting “Leelah’s Law,” which would ban the use of conversion therapy to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of lesbian, gay and transgender children and youth.

Dr. Celia B. Fisher, Director of the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education and the Marie Ward Doty Endowed Chair and Professor of Psychology served on the expert consensus panel whose recommendations form the basis of this report.

Dr. Celia B. Fisher, Director of the Center for Ethics Education
Dr. Celia B. Fisher, Director of the Center for Ethics Education

“This groundbreaking report dispels widespread misconceptions about sexual and gender development and definitively concludes that treatments designed to change a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity do not work, are devastatingly harmful to ‘victims’ of this type of therapy, and should not be considered appropriate mental health services,” Fisher stated.

The expert panel and report was commissioned following  White House support for a bill that bans all therapies aimed at changing sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill known as “Leelah’s Law” was developed following the December 2014 suicide of Leelah Alcorn – a 17-year-old transgender woman, after her parents made her attend conversion therapy.

The panel was convened by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) earlier this year, and included prominent figures in LGBT human rights, policy, research, treatment, and advocacy, including Fisher.

After a careful review of all past and current scientific and clinical data, Fisher noted that the panel concluded that not only was there no scientific support for conversion therapy, but that such approaches and the pseudoscience upon which they were based did not meet the professional or ethical standards of the mental health professions. The report also concluded that same-gender[1] sexual orientation and gender identity variation are a part of the normal spectrum of child and adolescent development and do not constitute a mental disorder.

According to Fisher, the foundational principles guiding the panel’s deliberations included a respect for the human rights of sexual and gender minority (SGM) youth to explore, define and determine their own identity and their right to behavioral treatments that promote their health and wellbeing.

Fisher explained that there is no evidence supporting the claim that children are distressed about their current or future sexual orientation, although some transgender youth may experience dysphoria – psychological distress resulting from the incongruence between one’s body and gender identity.

As a consequence, mental health treatments designed to push children into a fixed sexual or gender category are not appropriate. Rather, the report finds that appropriate therapeutic approaches should include a comprehensive evaluation and focus on sexual and identity development and exploration that allows the child or adolescent the freedom of self-discovery within a context of acceptance and support. Furthermore, the report notes that practitioners should have the skills to help children and families deal with distress caused by fears of and actual experiences with social prejudices.

“The issues included in this report are intended to enhance the lives and well-being of SGM youth by helping to ensure they receive informed, evidence-based, and biased free services. The systematic elimination of conversion type therapies is critical to the goal of reducing the health disparities facing this vulnerable population,” Fisher concluded.

Fisher is an internationally recognized expert in bioethics, who chaired the APA’s Ethics Code Task Force, was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Human Research Protection in 2010, and named a 2012 Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is also co-Principal Investigator of a federal grant on ethics in HIV prevention involving LGBT youth. It is the first grant on LGBT issues funded by the National Institute on Minority Health Disparities (NIMHD).

A press release containing some of Dr. Fisher’s comments on the report can be downloaded here.

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[1] To be inclusive of transgender populations, the term “same-gender” (as opposed to “same-sex”) is used throughout this report in order to clearly distinguish between the constructs of gender and assigned sex and to recognize that individuals generally label their sexual orientation with regard to their gender identity as opposed to assigned sex at birth.


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