PORTLAND, Ore. -- Max Hirsh says he sensed something wasn't quite right when the psychiatrist focused on his failures with sports and teenage girls, as well as his deficient relationships with older men, particularly his father.
Hirsh became convinced of the psychiatrist's rationale for those questions by the fourth session, when he essentially told the openly gay Hirsh that his true sexuality was in the closet.
"But you're heterosexual," Hirsh recalls the psychiatrist telling him.
Hirsh insisted he was gay; the psychiatrist wasn't buying it.
"He said `No,' like he had some extra information about my sexuality that I didn't," Hirsh said.
Hirsh, 22, contends the Oregon psychiatrist was practicing "conversion therapy" to change his sexual orientation. His experience is the subject of an ethics complaint filed this month by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which plans to take the same action in other states as part of a national campaign to stop therapists from trying to make gay people straight.
The complaint sent to the American Psychological Association and the Oregon Psychiatric Association arrived in what has become something of a watershed month for opponents of the form of psychotherapy. California legislators advanced a bill to the state senate that would ban children younger than 18 from receiving conversion therapy. And Dr. Robert Spitzer, a prominent retired psychiatrist, apologized to the gay community last week for a "fatal flaw" in his influential 2001 study that found conversion therapy to be a successful option for some people.
Hirsh's experience with the psychiatrist, who he was seeing because he was depressed, could not be independently verified. The Southern Poverty Law Center blacked out the doctor's name in a copy of the complaint supplied to journalists, and Hirsh and his lawyer would not identify the doctor. Christine Sun, the law center's deputy legal director, said the psychological associations require confidentiality when investigating complaints.
The American Psychological Association, in a 2009 resolution, said mental health professionals should not tell gay clients they can become straight because there is no solid proof that such a change is likely. The law center wants its anti-conversion effort to spur tougher restrictions and, down the road, more legislative action, such as what's occurring in California.
"Our immediate goal is for the APA to take these allegations seriously and ultimately ban conversion therapy by its members," Sun said.
Supporters of what is called reparative therapy contend the overwhelming majority of gay people are not born that way, and those who want to change should not be denied access to qualified professionals.
David Pickup, a Los Angeles-area counselor who specializes in reparative therapy, said he has helped many clients "maximize their heterosexual potential," when they have come to him because they believe there is a cause-and-effect reason, such as sexual abuse, for their same-sex attraction.
"It's a very tough, very emotional journey," he said.
Hirsh, in an interview from Eugene, where he studies physics and psychology at the University of Oregon, said he started seeing the psychiatrist while living in Portland in February 2011. He suffered from depression and wanted to improve his romantic relationships with men. Instead, the psychiatrist focused on potential reasons for the young man's same-sex attractions, and suggested Hirsh improve his relationship with his father, seek platonic friendships with male mentors and engage in team sports and other masculine pursuits.
The complaint specifies four alleged violations of medical ethics, including failing to provide treatment with informed consent.
Hirsh, who came out as gay at age 19, said he did not request a cure for his same-sex attraction and the psychiatrist did not advertise his use of conversion therapy.
In this aspect of the complaint, the law center has an unlikely ally in the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, which supports reparative therapy.
David Pruden of Salt Lake City, the group's vice president of operations, said in an e-mail exchange that the therapy is ineffective if the patient does not want to change and it's "always unethical" for a mental health professional to attempt it without consent.
Frustrated with the psychiatrist's approach, Hirsh stopped his weekly sessions after six visits. He returned, however, because he was under pressure from his parents to see a therapist and the doctor called to reassure him he was OK with Hirsh being gay.
Hirsh said the psychiatrist abandoned the conversion-type talk for a string of sessions, but gradually reintroduced the same themes.
"It was clear that he wasn't actually, in any way, helping with my depression. I was feeling worse," he said.
Hirsh said he asked the psychiatrist for his thoughts on conversion therapy in August, during what proved to be their final session. The psychiatrist, according to Hirsh, acknowledged studying under a gay-conversion psychoanalyst during his residency. He explained that he didn't think he could personally change someone's sexuality, but felt concerns about the therapy were overblown.
"He said he expected conversion to become more popular in the future as the country becomes more conservative," Hirsh said.