Last week, Reverend Charley Garrison of the Central Texas Metropolitan Community Church saw something on Facebook that disturbed him: a billboard erected at an intersection in his hometown of Waco, TX, in support of the idea that LGBTQ people can "change" their sexual orientation or gender identity at will.
The billboard, which reads "Ex-gays prove change is possible," was erected by a group called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX).
“Ex-gays implies there’s something wrong with gay, lesbian, and transgendered people,” Garrison, who is an openly gay pastor at his LGBTQ-inclusive church, told local station KTRE. "Ex-gay therapy does not do any good and in fact, can do harm in increasing the suicide rate in the LGBTQ community."
In response, Garrison was inspired to organize the town's first LGBTQ pride event for 2017 in response to the billboard.
"Quite simply, self-hatred is not therapy. But it is dangerous! Join others in opposing the message of this billboard, by contributing to an LGBT Pride event in 2017," a Facebook post on the church's website reads.
The group that put up the billboard draws a distinction between what they're propagating–"reparative therapy" for people who believe their LGBTQ identity stems from trauma and can be "overcome"–and "conversion therapy", which is slightly different in that it doesn't stem from the idea that being LGBTQ is a result of trauma, but still maintains that LGBTQ people can be made cisgender and heterosexual through therapy. The group's website reads:
Founded in May 1998, PFOX was created specifically to be an alternative to the misinformed gay family groups which insist that parents can only prove their love for their gay child if they support gay rights and affirm their child’s self-proclaimed gay identity. PFOX teaches parents that it’s ok to love their children without placing any conditions on that love.
Through public awareness campaigns, PFOX has a long and proud history of educating society on the facts about sexual orientation in order to eliminate negative perceptions and discrimination against ex-gays and those trying to overcome same-sex attraction.
"The people who are criticizing [the billboard], they are automatically assuming for everyone homosexuality is genetic or inborn. Because they are assuming this about everyone they are hurting a lot of people who have traumatic causes for their homoerotic feelings. So that's why we need billboards like the one in Waco that tell the truth,” David Pickup, a member of PFOX, told KTRE.
Both "reparative" and "conversion" therapy have been rejected by the American Psychiatric Association and other leading mental health organizations, which warn that these kinds of therapy have no basis in science and can only do harm to people subjected to them.
"The potential risks of reparative therapy are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient," the American Pyschiatric Association wrote in a 1998 position statement. "Many patients who have undergone reparative therapy relate that they were inaccurately told that homosexuals are lonely, unhappy individuals who never achieve acceptance or satisfaction. The possibility that the person might achieve happiness and satisfying interpersonal relationships as a gay man or lesbian is not presented, nor are alternative approaches to dealing with the effects of societal stigmatization discussed."
Over the past couple of years, Illinois, Oregon, California, New Jersey, Vermont and D.C. have banned "conversion therapy" for minors, according to the Movement Advancement Project. A similar law is on the books in New York.
Garrison told KTRE that he wanted the Pride parade he was organizing to be a positive, unifying event.
"I believe there are a lot of people who share my opinion that there is nothing to be fixed," he said. "So what I was hoping for was a response that could celebrate the LGBTQ community instead of trying to fix it."