Christopher Doyle says he doesn't think there is anything wrong with being gay, but he also believes he can help children and others rid themselves of "unwanted same-sex attractions" through therapy sessions in a tidy suburban home in Bowie.
That has made the licensed psychotherapist the target of intense criticism over the years — so much so, he says, that he closely protects the address of the International Healing Foundation, the nearly 25-year-old nonprofit he runs.
"Unfortunately, we get targeted by activists," Doyle said in the home on a recent morning.
In the latest salvo aimed at Doyle and his practice, gay rights activists in Maryland say they hope to ban clinical therapy for children that is based on the notion that their sexual orientation can change. They hope to build on success banning the practice in other states, and success here in securing same-sex marriage and protections for transgender residents.
While Doyle defends his practice and conservative Christian groups cast the issue as a matter of religious freedom, most recognized psychological, psychiatric and pediatric medical associations say such therapy has the potential to cause serious damage, especially for young people.
The debate played out in Annapolis in the recently concluded General Assembly session and is likely to become a top legislative priority for gay rights activists.
"I will fight vociferously for their right to say what they want to say, their First Amendment right to free speech, but I will not stand idle if I feel people, especially vulnerable populations, are being treated in a way that could have detrimental effects for a lifetime," said Del. Jon S. Cardin.
The Baltimore County Democrat introduced a bill this year that would have banned licensed clinicians from providing such therapy to minors. The bill was withdrawn as gay advocates focused attention on passage of a long-awaited bill adding gender identity to a list of classes, including sexual orientation, to be protected from housing and employment discrimination. Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected to sign that bill.
Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, the state's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization, said she wants to hear from anyone in Maryland who believes they have been harmed by "ex-gay" therapy, at the International Healing Foundation or otherwise, as her organization works to build a stronger case to ban such therapies for minors.
"Our position is that this will likely be an issue that we will address legislatively at some point in the future, but we want to make sure that we're doing that with a bill that is very narrowly tailored so it doesn't get into therapists who are doing good therapy with LGBT teens," Evans said.
In the meantime, Cardin and Evans say they will work with existing state medical licensing boards to ensure any complaints by patients about Doyle or other ex-gay therapists are vigorously pursued.
Doyle says he has never received a complaint from a patient, and has obtained legal representation from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization focused on defending religious liberties, to look into whether Doyle's foundation has grounds to file a defamation case against Cardin, who is running for state attorney general.
Cardin said he welcomes the investigation, writing in an "open letter" on his campaign website that Doyle and the foundation "do not have a right to inflict a lifetime of serious psychological damage on children by preaching false science disguised as medicine."
Many prominent medical associations have warned against ex-gay therapies.
The American Academy of Pediatrics tells youth confused about their sexuality that it may be helpful for them to seek therapy, but that they should avoid "any treatments that claim to be able to change a person's sexual orientation."
The American Counseling Association opposes therapies that are promoted as offering a "cure" to homosexuality, and the American Psychiatric Association has said 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."
While such therapies have long been used — as much in churches as in the medical field — they have experienced an "upsurge" in recent years as promoters have demanded the practice be given equal consideration in school health programs, according to the Just the Facts Coalition, a group of 13 health and education organizations that work together to shape sexual education and warn against ex-gay programs.
The International Healing Foundation has a high profile in part because of its efforts to introduce its message in schools in Maryland and around the country.
Doyle and the foundation produced a video titled "Acception" in fall 2012 and sent it to school systems nationally for consideration. It was aired in Prince George's County Public Schools as part of an anti-bullying campaign.
Richard Cohen, the foundation's founder, who now travels around the world promoting ex-gay therapy, had introduced county officials to the video, Doyle said.
When gay-rights activists determined the "Acception" video contained the message that sexual orientation could be changed through therapy — along with other depictions of youth accepting their homosexuality — they complained and the video was removed from schools.
Doyle said the outcome was devastating to the "Acception" program, which he had been "so confident" in that he had ordered thousands of copies of the curriculum. Those copies now sit unused and unsalable in a storage shed, he said.
Doyle said the episode was another example of the way gay-rights activists have "bullied" his organization without understanding what it does.
The organization recently filed a public records request for documents and emails from Cardin's office that mentioned the foundation or the legislation targeting it, but Doyle said Cardin's office refused to hand over documents, citing a legislative privilege.
In addition to training church leaders and clinicians to become "coaches" certified to "help men and women struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction experience freedom and transformation," according to its website, the foundation offers retreats for parents where love and compassion — not rejection of a gay child — are key themes.
Doyle said he has clients who are "LGBT identified and don't want to change," and that he is affirming of their identities. He said he never offers therapies aimed at changing a client's sexual orientation unless doing so is the client's personal goal, and that the International Healing Foundation does not believe "coercing" people is ethical.
With young teen clients whose parents are footing the therapy bill — at times with the desire to see their child's sexual orientation change — Doyle says, he makes it clear that the patient will set the therapeutic agenda.
"If you come to therapy, we're going to work on what you want to work on," he said he tells the young people. "If the parents try to push or intervene in that, I make it very clear to them that this is about your son or daughter's goals, and we're not going to have that happen."
At the same time, Doyle said people should have the freedom to leave same-sex attraction behind in favor of heterosexual relationships if they want to, just as he says he did years ago, before marrying his wife.
Though Doyle's organization claims that "science has determined that homosexual feelings are not inborn," the Just the Facts Coalition — which includes the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics — says what makes a person gay remains unknown.
Nathan Gniewek, a 26-year-old Northern Virginia resident and a client of Doyle's, said he'd eventually like to marry a woman and start a family, but believes he has a lot more work to do in therapy before that's possible.
"This has given me some glimmer of hope that wasn't there before," Gniewek said.
Cardin and Evans said they are more concerned with protecting children from clinical professionals who tell them they can change their sexual orientation, not with preventing adults from receiving religious or clinical therapy they seek out. And they said they would work to extend those protections.
"That is my job and that is what I want to do," Cardin said.
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