Anchorage Assembly to consider ordinance banning conversion therapy

An Alaska Pride flag. The image is based on a double-faced eagle design from Alaska before Russian contact. (Creative Commons photo by Mel Green)

The Anchorage Assembly will hear an ordinance Tuesday that would ban a controversial practice of conversion therapy for minors. 

The ordinance would prohibit licensed medical professionals from therapy designed to change minors’ sexual orientation or gender identity. 

One of the sponsors, assemblyman Chris Constant, says that what are called “reparative” or “conversion” therapies have been shown to be ineffective. They can also cause increases in suicide rates and mental health problems.  

“All of the professional counseling disciplines, including psychiatrists,  psychologists, social workers, professional counselors all say ‘don’t do this practice, it is harmful,’” he said. 

Constant says he has heard of conversion therapies happening in Anchorage but until the assembly received a letter from a local practitioner, he wasn’t sure who was doing it. That person was Dr. Art Mathias who is the founder of Wellspring Ministries. Mathias, who is not licensed by the state of Alaska because he says it would prevent him from doing his type of Biblical-based counseling, says that the ordinance is written too broadly. 

“It talks about licensed people, but it also talks about anybody that’s been professionally trained. It’s extremely poorly written — very vague, and probably purposely so,” he said. 

The ordinance does define the providers as anybody licensed for a variety of mental health services, though it doesn’t specify who provides that license. It also defines providers as “a person who performs counseling as part of the person’s professional training.” Constant said that he believes unlicensed practitioners are not regulated under the ordinance.

Mathias says that he believes that being gay is connected to childhood sexual abuse and epigenetic factors. He says that many clients he has seen have had their same-sex attractions stop once they learn to forgive their abusers. 

“‘Even Freud thought that it was always an abuse situation in their childhood that led people into these lifestyles,” he said. 

That view is rejected by major mental health authorities in the United States. The American Psychiatric Association, for example, took homosexuality off its list of disorders in the 70s, and says that conversion therapy is “unscientific” and can lead to increased suicidality, depression and anxiety.

Mathias is joined by other conservative Christian groups like the Anchorage Baptist Temple and Alaska Family Action in his opposition to the ordinance. 

Still, the ordinance as written allows for such therapies for individuals over 18 to seek out conversion therapists. Constant said that protecting children from psychological harm is the focus. 

“What you do when you’re 18 that’s your choice, you know. We don’t allow parents to abuse children. We certainly don’t allow parents to opt for unnecessary surgeries that will permanently change the life of a person,” he said. 

The Anchorage Assembly meets at 5 p.m. Tuesday to consider the ordinance. 

A previous version of this story misstated the time of the Assembly meeting.