Lawsuit challenges Tampa's LBGTQ youth "conversion therapy" ban

The two therapists cite the First Amendment, among other things, in an effort to reverse a partial ban on the controversial and largely debunked practice.

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click to enlarge Shock treatment was among the methods "therapists" used to "convert" LGBTQ patients. - Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine/Creative Commons
Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine/Creative Commons
Shock treatment was among the methods "therapists" used to "convert" LGBTQ patients.

It's been more than eight months since the Tampa City Council passed an ordinance banning the practice of attempting to "convert" lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other gender non-conforming youth to straight, cisgendered individuals. The ordinance, which Councilman Guido Maniscalco proposed, applied only to practitioners who sought to "counsel" or in other ways treat young people. Adults were not included as a matter of respecting self-determination. 

Well, a couple of guys who engage of the practice of allegedly changing individuals' sexual orientation and gender identity (which, again, has largely been debunked) are suing the city for the right to also practice on kids.

According to the suit, plaintiffs Robert L. Vazzo and David H. Pickup — both licensed therapists, though the latter is not currently licensed in Florida — cite religious freedom among their reasons for the suit, which anti-LGBT group Liberty Counsel filed on their behalf. The Southern Poverty Lawsuit, which monitors hate groups, has called Liberty Counsel "an extremist evangelical group that advocates for policy change under the guise of protecting religious freedom."

“The Tampa law is a gross intrusion into the fundamental rights of counselors and minors, and represents government intrusion into the sacrosanct relationship between a counselor and the client,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel in a media release posted on the group's website. “The City of Tampa has no authority to prohibit a form of counseling simply because it does not like the religious beliefs of a particular client."

From the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida:

Plaintiffs engage in licensed, ethical, and professional counseling that honors their clients’ autonomy and right to self-determination, that permits clients to prioritize their religious and moral values above unwanted same-sex sexual attractions, behaviors, or identities, and that enables clients to align their values with a licensed counselor who can address these values.


Plaintiffs have First Amendment and state constitutional rights as licensed counselors to engage in and provide counseling consistent with their and their clients’ sincerely held religious beliefs, and their clients have First Amendment and state constitutional rights to receive such counseling free from the viewpoint-based intrusion of the City into the sacrosanct therapeutic alliance.

While the ban's advocates argue that conversion therapy is an abusive tool ultra-religious parents use on their children that can cause long-term psychological damage and even suicide, the plaintiffs argue the ban "harms licensed counselors and their clients by prohibiting minors and their parents from obtaining the counseling services they choose, after receiving full disclosure and providing informed consent, to resolve, reduce, or eliminate unwanted same-sex sexual attractions, behaviors, or identity and harms counselors by placing them in a Catch-22 in which they will be forced to choose between violating ethical codes by complying with the Ordinance or violating the law by failing to comply."

The plaintiffs argue that while some methods of conversion therapy have been found to be ineffective, some methods have yet to be debunked, and that the scientific community has yet to conclude whether or not homosexuality and other traits are determined solely by genetics (sigh).

Efforts to change sexual orientation and gender identity used to include physically harmful practices like "institutionalization, castration, and electroconvulsive shock therapy," according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, but even as those practices have gone by the wayside, "counselors still use physical treatments like aversive conditioning."

Anyone who watched the public hearings in which Tampa City Council weighed the ordinance — which Councilman Guido Maniscalco proposed — saw the impacts parents who don't accept their children's sexual orientation or gender identity can have on their children. There were stories of physical and mental abuse, and of the LGBTQ youth who long suffered from the trauma exacted upon them at the hands of intolerant parents and others.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Bob Buckhorn's office declined comment on the lawsuit, given that it's ongoing, and Maniscalco did not respond to a message asking for comment.

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