Conversion therapy in PA: Providers could now lose licenses

Five PA boards have made it so providers could lose their licenses if they offer conversion therapy.

The Pennsylvania state flag
The Pennsylvania state flag. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Five state boards have officially adopted new policies that oppose the use of conversion therapy — the pseudoscientific practice of attempting to change a person’s sexuality or gender identity to comply with cisnormative and heteronormative standards.

Two state boards — the Pennsylvania state boards of psychology and osteopathic medicine — adopted policies that oppose conversation therapy in April 2024, becoming catalysts for the most recent progress. The state professional and credentialing boards that have taken this stance as of May 2 oversee various nursing professionals, medical providers, mental health providers and osteopathic professionals. 

“This was a team effort,” said Ann Marie Frakes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Psychological Association — the professional association for psychologists in the state. She underlined that professionals from each of these fields worked together to make these changes possible.

Their formal efforts began over a year ago with community meetings across the state to hear from LGBTQ+ people and allies about their own experiences with conversion therapy practices. Advocates used that information and research collected by the Trevor Project about the impact of conversion therapy in Pennsylvania to convince licensing boards to update policies related to ethical conduct and other codes.

Former Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order in 2022 urging Pennsylvania professional boards to formally adopt these kinds of bans at the professional level. Some media sources misreported that information — leading many to believe that conversion therapy had been outlawed in the state, but that executive order did not officially ban conversion therapy and the practice remains legal in Pennsylvania. Some municipalities have passed local ordinances banning conversion therapy, but no statewide laws exist.

22 states — including neighboring New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Maryland — have instituted laws that ban the practice of conversion therapy, making it unnecessary for state boards to create individual policies.

According to the Trevor Project, Pennsylvania is the state with the largest number of identified conversion therapy practitioners by a strong margin. Second to Pennsylvania’s 251 practitioners is Texas with 104.

Who is at risk?
These state boards specifically call out the use of conversion therapy on minors because the practice typically targets youth and young adults. Modalities can vary depending on institutions and practitioners, but those on the receiving end of conversion therapy abuses are often required to take medications, subjected to aversion techniques — such as induced illness or pain, manipulated via talk therapies, and undergo training to modify behaviors. Faith-based tactics are often used.

A 2022 report by the Trevor Project notes that 16% of LGBTQ+ youth in Pennsylvania have been threatened with conversion therapy or have experienced conversion therapy. According to additional research, LGBTQ+ youth who underwent conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide and more than 2.5 times as likely to report multiple suicide attempts in the past year. 

PGN’s own Victoria Brownworth experienced the trauma of conversion therapy as a teen after she was expelled from high school for being a lesbian. While there are some safeguards in public schools now to protect LGBTQ+ youth, private institutions may still punish LGBTQ+ students or subject them to these traumatic.

Additional data gathered by the Trevor Project noted that only 46% of conversion therapy practitioners hold licensing credentials. These recent stances by state professional boards won’t prevent those unlicensed practitioners from offering or inflicting traumatic treatments.

There has been a rise in non-licensed parenting and relationship coaches, faith-based counselors and spiritual advisors, social media influencers, and other pseudoscientific guides who have no accountability for promoting or implementing conversion therapy tactics.

Of the 251 conversion therapy practitioners in PA documented by the Trevor Project in December 2023, 88 had active and unrestricted licenses, 35 were in training for licensure, and 125 were operating as faith-based practitioners (and therefore were not required to be licensed).

Frakes said the only way to hold unlicensed practitioners accountable is to consider the severity of the impact and potentially file lawsuits or report abuse to local police and other welfare agencies.

Monitoring sneaky language and reporting harm
Those who practice conversion therapy don’t often use the term — likely because they know it’s so controversial and want to evade detection. Their practices tend to refer to conversion therapy as reparative therapy, sexuality counseling, or sexual orientation/gender identity change efforts, or use vague language to describe services. They might refer to LGBTQ+ topics as gender confusion, unwanted same-sex attraction, or use broad terms like gender and sexuality issues, sexual addiction or sexual integrity.

“There are code words that [the Trevor Project and other watchdogs] are looking for in people’s descriptions of the services that they provide, in the words that they use when they make presentations to the public, and when they begin communicating with their patients and their families,” said Frakes, underlining that the public can keep an eye out for these signals too.

Some providers might make communication about conversion therapy practices more private, making it difficult for concerned community members to recognize or report potential violations. But it’s still important to stay vigilant. 

Those seeking care should err on the side of caution when researching services and providers. It’s a good idea to vet professionals by asking trusted sources — such as local LGBTQ+ nonprofits and organizations or queer community members.

Frakes said that it’s easy to flag potential harm by reporting concerns to the state. Anyone can file a complaint by phone, email, or on the Department of State website under the Professional Licensing tab. The report will be directed to the Professional Compliance Office.

Licensed professional counselors, licensed marriage and family counselors, licensed social workers, licensed mental health counselors, and psychologists make up the majority of licensed conversion therapy practitioners — but professionals and non-professionals in other fields might still be perpetuating harm and licensed professionals in other fields can be reported.

“If you are found to be doing this, you will be brought up on charges before the licensing board,” Frakes said, noting that for those governed by the state Board of Psychology, violations could result in formal reprimanding — such as the temporary or permanent removal of licenses, which means they’d no longer be able to practice as professionals in their field.

“It’s going to have to take a network of people and organizations working together to make sure that a light is shined on the individuals that are perpetrating this,” she said. “We all need to work together to make sure that it stops.”

“We have eyes on you,” she emphasized.

Newsletter Sign-up