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The Queer-Affirmative Therapists are In

When Foundation for Reconciliation, a group of straight Mormons and their friends of all sexual orientations, delivered a petition to LDS Church headquarters earlier this month that asked the church to seek forgiveness and dialogue with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, they were joined by a group of mental health practitioners.

Known as the LGBTQ-Affirmative Therapist Guild of Utah, these individuals read a statement criticizing Elder Bruce C. Hafen for statements he made during this year’s Evergreen International conference — a conference where gay Mormons are encouraged to attempt to change their sexual orientation. In his remarks, Hafen criticized professional psychological associations for stating that sexual orientation is unchangeable and told attendees to “[f]ind a therapist who can help you identify the unmet emotional needs that you are tempted to satisfy in false sexual ways.”

“We regularly work with clients who struggle with suicidal feelings, many times because of an inability to resolve their distress about the conflicts between sexual orientation and religious beliefs,” read the guild’s statement in response. “They state they have attempted to change using the interventions and strategies offered by their LDS sources. They blame themselves for failing to change their sexual orientation. … They are sincere in their desires to comply with teachings from their authorities and please God and thus try to change and experience heterosexual attractions. Given the binds they are in, they describe lying to others, and even themselves, about the realities of their situation.”

While this statement was among the guild’s most public appearances to date, this is not the first time members have spoken out against reparative therapy. In fact, the impetus for its founding in 2004, said therapist Jim Struve, one of the guild’s creators, was widespread concern about how Utah mental health professionals were responding to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Reparative therapy is controversial issue in the gay and transgender community, in part because many members — particularly those from Christian backgrounds that believe homosexuality and transgenderism can be cured — have suffered from it. Currently, all reputable psychiatric and psychological organizations in the United States reject the practice as harmful because it frequently causes depression and leads to suicide attempts when they find their orientation is not changing.

To counteract reparative therapy and other biases against gay and transgender mental health consumers, the guild put up a Web site with a mission statement saying that they were available for referrals and supportive of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning clients. To date, the group has over 100 members of all sexual orientations and gender identities who work as therapists, social workers, psychiatrists and other professionals and students working in the area of mental health. Members also hail from all parts of the state, though a majority work in the Salt Lake Valley.

Along with an active mailing list, members can also take part in monthly meetings (held September through May) for networking opportunities and presentations by other group members on a number of subjects relevant to gay and transgender issues in mental health services. In October, for example, Struve said the presentation focused on bisexuality and adolescence. Frequently, the topics are not only interdisciplinary, but also sensitive to intersectional issues, such as an upcoming seminars about queer parents and about working with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender queer and questioning clients who also have physical disabilities. Sometimes, presentations are also run in collaboration with organizations that are not involved in mental health services but which work with gay and transgender people regularly, such as the ACLU of Utah.

In the future, Struve said the guild hopes to collaborate with groups like PFFLAG and further with the Foundation for Reconciliation.

“We meet together partly so we can do networking with other groups and partly so we can address an issue that crosses multiple lines,” Struve explained. “What we try to do is foster collaborative relationships with colleagues so we begin to realize that clients have more issues in their lives than just [issues relating to sexuality and gender identity].”

“But we still don’t have as much as we’d like to be doing around transgender issues,” he added.

Despite its youth, the group has been getting a lot of notice from the media, including Utah’s daily newspapers and news stations. Struve noted this interest was helped along by therapist and guild member Lee Beckstead’s involvement in drafting the American Psychiatric Association’s statement in July that reparative therapy was not “clinically sound.” The papers called the guild immediately, said Struve, and have called on them since.

“They have identified us and called several times wanting our statement or input,” said Struve. It is input the group is happy to provide: “As therapists, we have a certain responsibility to address certain issues coming up in the community.”

And it seems the community the guild is trying to serve is paying attention. In years past, the guild has participated in the Utah Pride Parade and Festival only to get “amazing feedback from people saying thank you for being around,” said Struve.

“In Utah we’re finding so many people are afraid of therapy because their assumption is they’re not going to be accepted and that the therapist is going to try and convert them,” he said. “When people learn that’s not the case, it’s hard to measure what that leads to, [but] I assume it means some people event find their way into therapy.”

For more information, or to find an affirmative therapist, visit lgbtqtherapists.com.

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