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Max Hirsh, Gay Oregon Man, Claims 'Conversion' Psychiatrist Tried To Change His Sexual Orientation

Max Hirsh

By STEVEN DuBOIS   05/23/12 04:54 PM ET  AP

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.

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  • Bachmann's Alleged Involvement

    In July,gay advocacy group Truth Wins Out released video footage allegedly shot undercover at the Christian-affiliated Minnesota clinic owned by Michele Bachmann and her husband, and claimed to find evidence of conversion therapy being performed on the premises. "Michele Bachmann wants to be in the Oval Office and wants to be the president of the United States," Wayne Besen, "It's important to know what her true beliefs are and what goes on in this clinic."

  • 'Gay Barbarian Horde' Invades Bachmann's Clinic

    Last July activists dressed as "gay barbarians" traveled to Bachmann's clinic to protest its alleged "pray the gay away" practices. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/21/michele-bachmanns-glitter-prank_n_906165.html" target="_hplink">A press release issued by the group reads:</a> <blockquote>Today a horde of gay barbarians descended upon Michele and Marcus Bachmann's "pray away the gay" clinic and demanded that Marcus come out and discipline them for their "deviant" behavior. Marcus Bachmann, who conducts "reparative therapy" at the clinic intended to convert homosexuals, has said that gays are "barbarians who need to be disciplined." The horde requested to speak directly with Bachmann and experience some "discipline" for themselves. When Marcus was no where to be found, the barbarians glittered the empty waiting room and reception area while chanting, "You can't pray away the gay -- baby, I was born this way!" The action was organized by the same young man who threw glitter on Newt Gingrich, starting a national trend in political protest of anti-LGBT sentiments from political candidates and campaigns. "Michele and Marcus Bachmann think gay people are barbarians?" asked LGBT activist Nick Espinosa. "I think its clear to everyone who the real barbarians are, based on the Bachmanns' archaic views on LGBT equality."</blockquote>

  • Gay Conversion Therapy Victim Comes Forward

    Earlier this month, "I'm From Driftwood" featured a video interview with Samuel Brinton, who was raised in rural Iowa and subjected to forced Christian conversion therapy. "We then went into the 'Month of Hell,'" Brinton explained. "The 'Month of Hell' consisted of tiny needles being stuck into my fingers and then pictures of explicit acts between men would be shown and I'd be electrocuted."

  • Prominent 'Ex-Gay' Doctor Retracts Claims Made In Key Gay Conversion Therapy Study

    This week the psychiatrist who published a controversial 2001 study proclaiming that "highly motivated" gay and lesbian people could change their sexual orientation <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/11/robert-spitzer-ex-gay-psychiatrist-retraction_n_1417679.html?ref=gay-voices" target="_hplink">retracted his initial claims.</a> Psychiatrist Bob Spitzer, who had ironically led the effort to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973, told American Prospect that he now wants to retract his study, while addressing several of the ample criticisms against its findings. "In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct," said the 80-year-old Spitzer, who is now retired and suffering from Parkinson's disease. "The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more."

  • John Smid Discusses 'Praying The Gay Away' With Chris Matthews

    The former director of the ex-gay Christian ministry Love in Action <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/20/john-smid-former-ex-gay-minister-sexual-orientation-_n_1022417.html#s423190&title=Gay_Conversion_Therapy" target="_hplink">came forward last October</a> to say that not only that he is gay, but that he believes it is impossible to change one's sexual orientation. Though Smid admitted he did "experience homosexuality" on the show, he arguably stopped short of embracing his sexual orientation. "I would say predominately, I am attracted to men," he said. "At the same time, I've chosen to be married [to a woman] and a lot of people make that choice."

  • Not Born This Way?

    Richard Cohen, director of the International Healing Foundation and author of "Coming Out Straight" and "Gay Children, Straight Parents," believes that people can change. "There is no credible scientific evidence to suggest either a genetic or biologic basis for homosexual desires in men or women," he said. "So people are not born this way...it's always a confounding of many different factors that lead people to experience these desires...people don't choose this, the choice is: do they want to lead that life, or do they want to change?"

  • Gay To Straight With Prayer?

    In an appearance on "Dr. Drew" earlier this year, psychologist Joseph Nicolosi -- a founding member of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) -- said he continues to support conversion therapy: "People can change, people have a choice, people should be given a choice," he said. "If a person chooses to exercise his heterosexual potential...we provide that therapy...it doesn't work for all people, but it works for some."

  • Pat Robertson Advises Father To Seek Conversion Therapy For His Gay Son

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Filed by Curtis M. Wong  |